The Enlightenment has Won

Pinker reflects on his book Enlightenment Now, addressing criticism and controversy.

He writes:

Nor has Enlightenment thinking ever carried the day. It has enjoyed spells of influence which have increased in length since 1945, but always has been opposed by Romantic, nationalist, militarist, and other Counter-Enlightenment ideologies. The authoritarian populism of the 2010s falls smack into that undertow—not just the emotional currents, but a line of intellectual influence. As I noted in EN, “the intellectual roots of Trumpism” is not an oxymoron, and many members of his brain trust and alt-right base proudly credit Counter-Enlightenment theoreticians. These themes can be appealing during periods of economic, cultural, and demographic change, particularly to factions that feel disrespected and left behind.


For believers in Enlightenment and progress, the second year Donald Trump’s presidency felt like being strapped to a table and getting a series of unpredictable electric shocks. They include his kissing up to autocratic thugs, undermining a free press and judiciary, demonizing foreigners, gutting environmental protections, blowing off climate science, renouncing international cooperation, and threatening to renew a nuclear arms race.


But before we imagine the future as a boot stamping on a human face forever, we need to put authoritarian populism in perspective. Despite its recent swelling, populism appears to have plateaued. A majority of Americans consistently disapprove of Trump, and in Europe, nationalist parties won a median of just 13 percent of votes in 2018 elections. The demographic sectors that are the hottest hotbeds of populism are all in decline: rural, less educated, older, and ethnic majorities. The travails of Trump and Brexit in 2018 are a reminder to supporters that populism works better in theory than in practice. Lined up against it are democratic checks and balances within a country and pressures toward global cooperation outside it, the only effective means to deal with trade, migration, pollution, pandemics, cybercrime, terrorism, piracy, rogue states, and war.

In spite of Trump’s supposed anti-enlightenment values, I think Pinker can sleep easy knowing “The Enlightenment” is winning.

There is a widespread narrative that Trump represents major shift to the status quo and that people voted for him because of this. However, the vast majority of people who voted for Trump voted for him because simply he’s not a Democrat, not because of anti-establishment policies and sentiment per say. This explains how Romney, who is the opposite of Trump in terms of sentiment, got a higher percentage of popular vote than Trump. Also, Trump’s policies have not deviated that much from the right-wing establishment, such as tax cuts , deregulation, and defense spending, climate change, etc.

The social-justice left is a bigger threat to ‘enlightenment values’ than the Trump-right. The former are much more effective at making society conform to their beliefs. In terms of enacting counter-enlightenment, anti-establishment policy, ‘Trumpism’ has been ineffective.

Obama had far more substantive legislative accomplishments in his first two years than Trump.

The biggest piece of legislation signed by Trump during his first two years is the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. A highly regressive tax cut, the law cut the corporate tax rate by 15 percent, slashed the income tax rate for top earners by 2.6 percent primarily, and implemented several other changes that, in totality, primarily benefited the wealthiest Americans.


That’s the only bill Trump has signed that, in terms of scope and consequence, could reasonably be compared to the Affordable Care Act or Dodd-Frank. However, he has signed a few smaller laws that are worth noting.


In August 2017, Congress passed a bill that both imposed new sanctions on Russia and restricted Trump’s ability to ease existing sanctions. When it landed on his desk, the White House called it “clearly unconstitutional” and said that it “purport[s] to displace the President’s exclusive constitutional authority to recognize foreign governments, including their territorial bounds.” However, Trump signed it into law anyway.

In terms of signing legislation, however, Trump is not a force to be reckoned with — and any honest account of his first two years would conclude that, in terms of legislation, he’s had a far smaller influence so far than Obama did at the same point in his presidency.

Trump has been in permanent campaign mode since 2015. He says the same stuff in every speech, and now it has been over two years no wall. All these right-wing populist leaders are good for is stirring up sentiment but they cannot deliver meaningful change and policy, as the Brexit failure showed.

Second, and this is overlooked by virtually all pundits, and that is Trump has actually been very hard on authoritarian/autocratic governments, such as by imposing or threatening sanctions.

Bush in 2006 actually supported a border fence (Secure Fence Act of 2006), which many House democrats voted for, so its not like opposition to illegal immigration is exclusively of the domain of anti-enlightenment populists.

One can argue that the inability of Trump to do that much besides make threats on Twitter and speeches, is a win for ‘enlightenment values’. The election of Trump and the rise of the alt-right tested classical liberalism–and classical liberalism, with its checks and balances, passed with flying colors.

Jordan Peterson-brand centrism and pragmatism has seen immense gains in popularity following the election of Trump, not far-right or far-left ideology.

Brexit is very far from being finalized and is not inconsistent with enlightenment. For example, the colonies broke from Great Britain.

Part of the reason why it may seem like there is such a strong backlash to Enlightenment-Now is not because of increased counter-enlightenment sentiment, but because people who are opposed to something are more inclined to push back, similar to dissatisfied customers being more inclined to leave zero-star negative reviews on Amazon and Yelp than happy customers. Also is everything is getting better in society, an implication is that if you’re not succeeding, then it’s your fault, not society’s.