Anti-intellectualism is clearing a path for the spread of populist demagogues across Western democracies.
When I was in Poland this year, I asked everyone how a nation that exemplified the commitment to liberal democracy had elected a party, called Law and Justice, which openly appealed to nationalism, xenophobia, and religious traditionalism. Quite a few people responded with a question of their own: “What about Donald Trump?” Wasn’t the United States, that is, heading in the same direction? Yes, I came back, but since liberal principles are more deeply embedded in American voters and institutions, Trump won’t win. Now I find myself wondering: Isn’t that more or less what David Cameron and other advocates of staying in the European Union told themselves about British voters?
I wonder if the West is sleep-walking toward “illiberal democracy,” the ideology championed by Hungary’s Viktor Orban, emulated by Poland’s Law and Justice, and implicitly endorsed by Trump and many of the Brexiteers. Turkey’s increasingly autocratic Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has gone further down this road than anyone. These populists win elections by rallying citizens against what they describe as “liberalism” — secular hostility to majority religious values, a cult of individualism that undermines the collective good, a concern with immigrants rather than citizens, and a celebration of the free market that weakens state control. (See Orban’s 2014 speech on the subject.) It would be a mistake to think that those cynical tactics can’t work in the more evolved democracies of Western Europe. Austria, to take one more example, may elect Norbert Hofer, a frank Islamophobe who advocates widespread gun ownership to counter an alleged immigrant threat, in a presidential election to be restaged later this year.
These are the stakes I was thinking of when I wrote last week that elites had a moral obligation to stand up to the politics of resentment rather than exploit them. I now understand, from the torrent of abuse I received, that a great many readers thought I was saying that people who take issue with the forces of globalization, whether from the left or the right, should defer to elites, the high priests of the globalized world. That’s a repellent thought. I regret the use of the word “elites,” which conjures up the Trilateral Commission or a Masonic temple. I won’t use it again. Now I will try to explain myself.
Illiberal democracy is a highly effective political strategy because many of the constituent principles of liberalism, especially the ones seized on by the populists, are intended to serve as bulwarks against majoritarianism. Perhaps the first liberal was James Madison, who in the Federalist Papers made the case that democracies, by their nature, endanger the rights of political minorities and must design institutions to protect those rights. Over the course of the 19th century, liberalism evolved to include advocacy of civil liberties, free markets, and activist government. The high-water mark of liberalism was the mid-20th century, when the world was threatened by the totalitarian nightmares of communism and Nazism. For its great exponents, like George Orwell, liberalism meant anti-totalitarianism.
That moment has long since run its course, and liberalism has taken on different meanings that are less urgent, less binding, and more deeply contested. Liberalism (as tolerance of others) isn’t working for the French or Belgians who look at the North African immigrants in their midst and fear another terrorist attack or for Germans who worry that refugees will upend their culture. Liberalism (as free trade) isn’t working for American industrial workers whose factories left town and reopened in Mexico. Other contemporary elements of liberalism, such as the cosmopolitan welcoming of diversity and difference, go deeply against the grain of the way most people live and will always be subject to charges of elitism. The New York Times’s Ross Douthat has pointedly argued that cosmopolitanism is an elite taste masquerading as a universal principle.
In short, there are good reasons why liberalism is in crisis and illiberalism in the ascendant. Political leaders must find a way of dealing with the breakdown of the liberal order if they are to protect and preserve its basic principles. As I’ve written in previous columns, even Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has bravely opened Germany’s doors to hundreds of thousands of Syrian and Afghan refugees, now understands that she has left her public too far behind and has instead struck a deal with Turkey to stanch the flow of migrants. And free trade has become politically toxic and will continue to be unless more is done to buffer the effects on factory workers and others who see themselves as getting the short end of the globalization stick. Policy must change both to cushion globalization’s effects and to create the political space so that liberal-minded leaders can pursue sound policies.
But there is no policy change that will mollify people who can’t stand the way the world is going and want to return to a mythical golden age where women and Mexicans and refugees and gays and atheists didn’t disturb the public with their demands. Populist leaders have a message for them: Liberalism is a plot to keep you down. Social tolerance threatens traditional culture, an independent media tells self-interested lies, and extending rights to accused terrorists undermines public safety. (See this very bizarre 2006 speech by Polish politician Jaroslaw Kaczynski.) Above all, as Turkey’s Erdogan tirelessly repeats, those who don’t share the majority’s views — ethnic minorities, secular elites, journalists — are enemies of the state and must be marginalized or crushed.
This is why I argued that rationalism itself is at stake and that the cynical fellow travelers of the illiberal democrats are feeding an anti-intellectual narrative. Michael Gove, until recently a contender to be England’s next prime minister, answered predictions — correct ones, as it turned out — that Brexit would lead to disaster by saying, “People in this country have had enough of experts.” The word “expert” is, of course, the pejorative term for someone who knows what he or she is talking about — like Gove, I imagine, who graduated from Oxford and spent years as a minister in Conservative Party governments. What Gove was actually saying was that people should be free to build gratifying fantasies free from unpleasant facts.
Similarly, the Republican Party has spent years carving the path down that Donald Trump is now careening by telling voters that America’s borders are being overrun, a national default would bring no lasting harm, global warming is a hoax, and so on and so on. It wasn’t only Trump, but Ted Cruz and others, who campaigned on the need for massive increases in border security. Republican primary voters ate up this rhetoric — even though net immigration from Mexico is now flat. America has had enough of experts.
In The Open Society and Its Enemies, Karl Popper argues that the most powerful bulwark against totalitarianism is a shared belief in the neutral principles of science and inquiry. Reason, as Popper notes, is a language accessible to all. Absent a collective faith in reason, very little stands in the way of the gratifying fantasy, or the dreadful nightmare, that populists’ forge from voters’ hopes and fears.
Of course, I don’t believe that deference to expertise, to technocratic knowledge, or even to science will defeat the scourge of illiberal democracy. Only good politics drives out bad politics. Perhaps only good populism can drive out bad populism. An obviously irate President Barack Obama recently argued that he, not Trump, was the real populist in American politics — since he cared about working people and Trump doesn’t. In fact, Obama’s remote, cerebral manner has, if anything, whetted the public’s appetite for a snake-oil salesman like Trump.
We will always have charming scoundrels among us, but reckless populism is more pernicious than it was a decade or a generation ago. That’s not because Donald Trump and Viktor Orban are worse than their predecessors, but because so many people in the West feel cheated or betrayed by the impersonal forces of globalization and are seeking an alternate reality to occupy, whether Little England or Industrial Age America. The cynics who provide comfort for those delusions are as dangerous as the extremists.
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