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The upside of Donald Trump

As the American presidential election descends into an ever-more sordid debacle, we need to keep in mind its deeper, positive potential.

Donald Trump may be all the things his critics say he is: fascist, racist, sexist, misogynist, populist, unfit for office. But he has also rocked the political elite to its core, and exposed its failure to act in the interests of the people.

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Almost all the mainstream political commentary on Trump has come from the political establishment, an analysis steeped in orthodoxy, whether conservative or progressive. Its hostility is inevitable.

While the commentaries acknowledge the anger of the electorate over things like job losses, stagnant, even declining, real wages and immigration, they have not identified the deeper causes of Trump's rise, and other political developments in Western nations, including Australia, Britain (Brexit) and Europe.

Seemingly blind to the deep currents of social and cultural change, politicians and political commentators watch the surface political swirls and eddies, puzzled and confused. Nothing shows this more clearly than the Trump phenomenon.

Beyond the specifics lies the growing failure of modernisation – especially modern Western culture, with its focus on the material and the individual, and material progress, with its emphasis on economic growth – to further improve quality of life. It is the political denial of this reality that sits at the heart of the political turmoil we are seeing.

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This argument is highly unorthodox. The United Nations Development Program claims that past decades have seen substantial progress in many aspects of human development. Most people today are healthier, live longer, are more educated and have more access to goods and services, it says; they also have more power to select leaders, influence public decisions and share knowledge.

Indicators of progress and development, including measures of happiness and life satisfaction, focus on, or reflect, those qualities that characterise modernisation and which we celebrate as success or improvement.

In an essay published this year in a leading development studies journal, I argue that, however valuable these gains are, they do not represent everything that constitutes optimal wellbeing and quality of life. Nor do they integrate or reconcile the requirements of environmental sustainability.

Indicators reports note that there is an "undeniable tension" between wellbeing and sustainability measures, or that they are on a "collision course".

Modernisation's benefits are counted, but its costs to wellbeing are underestimated and downplayed. At best, the qualities being measured under orthodox approaches may be desirable and even necessary, but are not sufficient. At worst, the measures are promoting a declining quality of life and leading us to towards a highly uncertain, problematic, even calamitous, future.

There are several streams of evidence that expose the flaws in equating progress with modernisation.

A study that I co-authored with Melanie Randle at the University of Wollongong, investigated the perceived probability of threats to humanity in four Western nations: the US, Britain, Canada and Australia. Overall, across the four countries, 54 per cent of people rated the risk of "our way of life ending" within the next 100 years at 50 per cent or greater, while 24 per cent rated the risk of "humans being wiped out" at 50 per cent or greater. Three-quarters (78 per cent) agreed "we need to transform our world view and way of life if we are to create a better future for the world".

In a 2015 study of "societal unease", Netherlands researcher Eefje Steenvoorden argues that this unease is "a latent concern among citizens in contemporary western countries about the precarious state of society". This concern arises from the "perceived unmanageable deterioration" of five fundamental aspects of society: distrust in human capability to make improvements and overcome problems, loss of ideology, decline of political power, decline of community, and socio-economic vulnerability.

Societal unease is only weakly related to happiness, proving, the author says, that personal happiness is clearly distinct from societal unease, and that "high levels of private contentment are not to be mistaken for public contentment".

Australia ranks near the top of many progress measures, including the Human Development Index.

Yet when asked in a late 2015 survey, conducted by Omnipoll , about quality of life in Australia, taking into account social, economic and environmental conditions and trends, only 16 per cent thought life was getting better; 35 per cent thought it was staying about the same; and 49 per cent thought it was getting worse.

We need to change our world-view: the stories, beliefs and values by which we define ourselves, our lives, and our goals. The necessary transformation can be compared to that in Europe from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment: from the medieval mind, dominated by religion and the afterlife, to the modern mind, focused on material life here on earth. Models and measures of human development and progress need to allow, even encourage, the conceptual space for a cultural transformation as profound as that which gave rise to modernity.

This challenge goes well beyond politics to involve all areas of society. But it must inform our politics far more than it currently does (which is almost not at all), especially through a greater focus in political debate on an ideological contest that determines policy options and choices.

Politics and the media define quite arbitrarily what warrants debate and discussion. Much that is important is excluded. American communication theorist Daniel Hallin, in a book on the Vietnam War, distinguished between three spheres of political debate: the sphere of consensus, the sphere of legitimate controversy, and the sphere of deviance. Only matters falling within the second sphere gain attention.

Debate needs to expand the sphere of legitimate controversy to encompass more of the sphere of consensus – what is understood to be broadly agreed and accepted — and the sphere of deviance – what is judged to be unworthy, ridiculous or dangerous. This larger agenda includes the assumptions, beliefs and values that underpin modernisation, including Western culturalisation and material progress.

If it achieved this redefinition, then Trump's emergence as a political force could give us reasons to be grateful.

Richard Eckersley is an independent researcher and writer on progress and wellbeing.