Lately, there has been much trepidation over the apparent lack of enthusiasm for traditional liberal democracy – in the United States and around the world. While it’s clear that potential autocrats are trying to exploit this lack of enthusiasm for their own benefit, it’s not so clear why they should find their project easier now than, say, twenty or thirty years ago.
What has changed in the world? Is it increasing tensions between different elements of the population? Is it more appearance than reality, due to the global reach of Internet influencers? Is it exacerbated class conflict where have-not working classes see the advocates of liberal democracy as merely elites protecting their status?
It may be all these things. And throw in anxiety about climate change and pandemics while you’re at it! Taken together, the lure of the strongman, of the extra-constitutional action, may prove irresistible in many countries. Not least, here in the U.S. (January 6 insurrection).
Liberal democracy around the world, as it has been practiced for some 200 years, is defined by respect for common human rights, free and fair elections, and, ultimately, the rule of law – contrasted with rule by fiat, for the aggrandizement of one leader, or his small clique. But the latter condition, the authoritarian regime, often appeals to those who are frustrated by their powerlessness in the constitutional, democratic order. Why have those liberal values not protected them from declining standards of living due to inflation or limited job prospects? Why can’t they live peacefully in the community they choose, surrounded by people with whom they can communicate? Maybe they just don’t like being told by elites what they’re allowed to say, what’s “politically correct?”
Revolutions come from groups who see themselves as exploited outsiders. They do not come from insiders. They seldom result in democracy. Coups come from insiders, and clever insiders know how to manipulate their population’s emotions. Today, that manipulation seems easier than ever, thanks to the power of telecommunications and social media.
Adroit messaging can convince insiders that they are outsiders, and vice versa. Insiders can feel threatened by new groups encroaching on their space, thanks to targeted messaging. Outsiders, likewise, can be convinced that they do, in fact, have influence over the workings of government. They can even be convinced that they are better off than they used to be, or better off than others around them. Statistics, facts, can lie because of messaging. Little wonder that science itself becomes suspect. In this environment, existing throughout the world, not just in America, unscrupulous would-be tyrants can easily become important social influencers. Donald Trump did become President, and Victor Orban, and Recep Erdogan, and Xi Jinping. Vladimir Putin established himself in a position of virtually unchallenged supremacy in a chaotic post-Soviet Russia where most people were living in continuous anxiety about their future well-being. These are all strongmen offering their citizens relief from uncertainty. Relief often obtained through nostalgia for a more secure past or promise for a grander future. Strongmen’s appeal is never to make things just a little better for most. Optimizing the system this way is the forte of liberal democracy. Rules and institutions, and regular electoral feedback, have dominated our history in the United States and much of Europe. They have even been tried in the developing world (if less successfully) but are now becoming more difficult everywhere.
Climate change promises greater migration from the global South to the rich North, anticipates shortages of many resources, and endangers much physical geography. Any hope for technological breakthroughs is pitted against a ticking clock. Growing awareness of the structure of global capitalism – its tendency to reward the few, at the expense of the many – is inescapable. And that awareness spreads with digital ease throughout the global South, where many countries are seeking assistance in their own development paths from the source that does NOT represent the oppressive global power structure – namely China! Playing by China’s rules does not lead to liberal democracy.
Conspiracy theories also spread with digital ease. These can be placeholders for more generalized anxiety about the future, even among people who should “know better.” All it takes for a demagogic politician to ride a wave of conspiracy theories is to say the right words to the right members of a “base.” We saw this in Nazi Germany, and the anti-communist crusade of the Cold War. And with Q-Anon today?
What weapons does liberal democracy have in its arsenal to fight the apparent trend toward authoritarianism? One, perhaps the greatest, is a universal desire for peace. Much anxiety over the future reflects insecurity about prospects for peace. Childbearing and child-rearing also depend on faith in your children having a better life – or, at least, as good as the present. Our species would soon become extinct if too many of us felt only gloom about the future. Liberal democracy promises peace through cooperation. International cooperation. Societal cooperation. It prizes cooperation above competition. Capitalism prizes competition. And liberal democracy’s dedication to the rule of law brings the authority of the state, constitutional authority, to advancing the cause of fairness. This project, while never complete, is codified into law for the purpose of outlasting any single leader – demagogue though he may be. Indeed, the supremacy of the constitution over any leader (or elite) is intended to be permanent. However, elites themselves in liberal democracies, if they can maintain the trust of the population, using whatever emotional or aspirational tools available, do possess the ability to steer the social system forward in difficult times. Even in America, Institutionalism should mean survival. That has always been the crux of the liberal dream.
It all comes down to authority. Is the most unimpeachable authority that of knowledge? Of law? Of a certain class consciousness? Or is authority too fragmented, found in too many different places among different groups? Is Q-Anon, by contrast, about nihilism — the absence of any credible authority? It seems to this observer that we Americans must search for that unimpeachable authority – the one that can unite a critical mass of our electorate, rather than fragment it. Solidarity wins, factionalism loses. In my book, at least.
— William Sundwick