Christian Caryl

The Age of Disillusionment

Both the world’s liberal democracies and their authoritarian competitors are facing an uncertain year. Who will rise to the challenge?

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Western democracies are going through a strange moment. In the United States, right-wing populist Donald Trump is channeling a deep (and often ugly) strain of disaffection with Washington. In the United Kingdom, a hitherto marginal left-wing populist named Jeremy Corbyn surprised everyone by ascending to the leadership of the Labor Party last year; a recent poll found that a majority of Britons support withdrawing from the European Union.

Marine Le Pen, leader of the once-marginal National Front, looks increasingly like a French president-in-waiting. Upstart parties in Spain and Greece rail against the established order. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban urges intensified border controls “to keep Europe Christian,” and he seems to have found a sympathetic ear in the newly-elected right-wing Polish government, which has decided to remove European Union flags from public events. (When protesters accused the new Polish government of undermining democratic institutions, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of the ruling party, called them “Poles of the worst kind,” and accused them of treason.) Meanwhile, young democracies in Brazil and South Africa are experiencing their own crises of confidence, fueled by corruption and widespread social discontent.

I don’t think we can dismiss all of this as just another anti-establishment moment. Voter disaffection in the liberal democracies has its roots in perceptions of a deepening gap between elites and non-elites. (Yes, to be sure, the anger is often directed at immigrants or other marginal groups — but voters are also taking that anger out on the political establishment, precisely because they regard them as complicit in these presumed ills.) The sense of disconnect has a lot to do with economics; rising income inequality is a big part of the problem. But I think it’s more complicated than that.

A variety of factors are conspiring to produce frustration. Widening access to information offers remedies but also raises expectations; social media allow grievances to be aired and spread far more rapidly than even well-meaning politicians can respond. Technology is radically transforming labor patterns, and certain groups are benefiting more than others. The increasing complexity of government raises huge barriers to understanding. Poland’s ex-President Aleksander Kwasniewski, asked to comment on the political turmoil in his home country, saw it as part of a broader trend. “This is not the problem in Poland only,” he said. “This is happening in countries across Europe. This is the problem of democracy in general. Traditional democracy is in crisis.” Perhaps he was thinking of Orban’s notorious vow to transform Hungary’s hard-won democracy into an “illiberal state.”

You’d think this would be great news for the Putins, Xis, and Sisis of the world. After all, commentators have recently taken to speaking of an “authoritarian resurgence,” buoyed by the disappointments of the Arab Spring and the apparent successes of state capitalism. The current discontents of liberal democracies would appear to offer additional evidence that strongmen are in the ascendance.

Yet the autocrats have their own problems to worry about. The extraordinary financial turbulence in China suggests that Beijing hasn’t discovered the secret key to benign despotism after all. The manifest corruption and dysfunction at the heart of the Russian political establishment are becoming harder and harder for the Kremlin to explain away. And the Egyptian president may have succeeded in re-re-establishing authoritarian rule, but he’s struggling to reboot the economy.

I would argue, indeed, that both democracies and authoritarian regimes alike are entering a new age of disillusionment, a period when citizens in all political systems feel increasingly let down and left behind. The general dissatisfaction focuses above all on how well governments are holding up their end of the social contract. Expect to hear lots of anguished discussions in 2016 about the divide between what we expect governments to do for us and what they actually end up delivering — the so-called “governance gap.” (And pay particular attention to countries that have long relied on high oil prices to keep the favors flowing. The fundamental incompetence of those in charge will suddenly be on vivid display.)

Needless to say, there were will be far less venting in the autocracies, where rulers are already on the alert for any sign of dissent. Russia recently passed a law allowing security forces to open fire on crowds, which tells you a lot about government expectations for the future. China has been cracking down on labor activists as well as dissident intellectuals. The Egyptian government’s campaign against its critics is now spreading to cultural institutions, including theaters, art galleries, and publishing houses.

That shouldn’t deceive anyone into thinking that leaders in these countries are immune to the trend. Just see the Economist’s recent interview with Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, who spends most of it explaining his far-reaching plans to reform the economy. As the article notes, we shouldn’t necessarily take everything the prince says at face value; plenty of past Saudi leaders have hinted at change before without following through. But the fact that the prince feels he needs to be talking about such things publicly is itself indicative.

In the liberal democracies, we should brace ourselves for a new era of volatile and unpredictable politics. I suspect it will include a new phase of grassroots protest, the decline and death of some traditional political parties, and an increasingly urgent discussion about much-needed policy innovation. Mechanisms for fighting income inequality, such as the basic universal income or the negative income tax, will get fresh airings. Technologists will pose new ways to increase government’s responsiveness to citizen demands.

Even so, though, I doubt that meaningful change will come fast enough to satisfy everyone out there who feels shut out. The current sense of crisis isn’t just going to go away. New social movements will spring up, channeling popular disaffection on a massive scale, along a spectrum ranging from Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street to the anti-migration activists in Europe and the right-wing militias of the United States.

At the same time, the collapse of old ideological distinctions between left and right will accelerate. National Front voters in France oppose migration and the EU but support an expansion of the welfare state. (And many of Trump’s supporters, it should be noted, are disaffected Democrats.) It’s hard to escape the sense that we’re heading toward some sort of fundamental rethinking of what government owes its citizens.

It is just possible that liberal democracy could emerge from the coming crucible strengthened and refreshed. But that will only happen if elites acknowledge the depth of the current crisis and start to take corresponding steps toward genuinely democratic reform. (Yeah, I’m looking at you, Brussels and Washington.) As for the autocracies, they’ll be hard-pressed to avoid a downward spiral of repression as they seek solutions to their problems.

My bet: It’s not going to be pretty.

In the photo, Donald Trump supporters listen to him speak at the Mississippi Coast Coliseum on January 2, 2016 in Biloxi, Mississippi.

Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

 Twitter: @ccaryl

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