This Is the Year Democracies Fight Back

Liberal states have been on the defensive for too long.

By Azeem Ibrahim, a director at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington DC.
Flags of different countries hang from a house  in Aylesbury, United Kingdom, on May 8, 2020.
Flags of different countries hang from a house in Aylesbury, United Kingdom, on May 8, 2020. Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

2021 must be the year when liberal democratic states start fighting back against authoritarians within and without. Over the last few years, powerful rival states as well as domestic elements have waged a vicious cultural, economic, and political war against liberalism as the incumbent political culture of Western democracies, as well as the democratic notion that all citizens, irrespective of race, ethnicity, or religion, should have equal voice in choosing their political representatives.

After the West won the Cold War, Western liberal democrats stopped vigorously defending this way of governing because they reckoned the superiority of their model had become self-evident. The challenge posed by the communist model was gone, the era of liberal consensus seemed to have arrived, and overeager observers declared the “end of history.” America could invade countries to topple authoritarian regimes and assume out of hand that the supposedly liberated citizens would obviously all want to build a Western-style democracy and they would do so spontaneously, with no further work needed—see Iraq.

But as it turns out, liberal values are not self-evident to everyone, nor are liberal assumptions about how the world works. Indeed, some liberal assumptions about how the world works turned out to be patently false: for example, the assumption that more free speech would automatically lead to the end of bad ideas and the triumph of good ones. The problem that Jews had in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s was not that they lacked enough free speech. It was that German culture turned nativist and tribal and Jews were designated by powerful political forces as the “enemy within.” No amount of free speech for anyone would have made much of a difference; in fact, the Weimar Republic’s willingness to let its own enemies dominate the public sphere was a key cause of its own downfall.

And just as the Nazis won power in the Weimar environment of political free speech, so is the reactionary far-right in our own time fighting and winning its own political battles and for the exact same reason: Liberals are not fighting back adequately. Latter-day American fascists have used mainstream platforms to organize and coordinate up to an insurrection on Capitol Hill in Washington, and liberals are still having a debate about how to approach free speech online. For anyone with a stake in having equal human dignity and rights under the law in the country where they live, and anyone who recognizes the value and benefit of living in a pluralistic democracy, this is the time to stop surrendering preemptively.

Much needs to be done, but some of the initial ideas are already pretty evident. Domestically, Western states must begin rethinking the rules of political conversation, particularly on social media, where so much of this conversation is currently taking place. A cultural environment where the same social media platforms allow different groups of people to inhabit entirely different planets while also allowing for increasingly violent rhetoric is simply not compatible with democracy.

Democracy depends on mutual communication. We cannot communicate with each other if one side looks at a natural disaster like the almost complete melting of the North Pole ice caps and sees a human-made calamity that urgently needs intervention while another side sees a conspiracy by hundreds of thousands of scientists over four decades to get funding for their so-called elitist research projects. We cannot communicate if one side imagines vast conspiracies about voting machines and calls for insurrection. And if we cannot communicate with each other, we cannot do democracy—and ultimately mere voting will be reduced to nothing more than a civil war at the ballot box.

Nor can you have a democracy where a politician can show one voter a targeted political ad saying one thing and show another voter a targeted political ad saying the exact opposite. Yet this insanity is baked into the media landscape. That has destroyed accountability—and once accountability goes, so does democracy. Political dialogue is meaningless if I can shout empty slogans at my political opponent on a debate floor and then tell voters whatever Facebook profiling tells me they want to hear from me.

At the very least, broadcasting rules in the United States under the Federal Communications Commission need to apply to all kinds of electronic communications, and even those would need to be beefed up and brought up to date. Indeed, granular targeting of political messaging should be illegal. All political ads should be public, traceable to individuals and campaigns in a way that allows no obfuscation of ownership and responsibility for the messages politicians and activists put out, and consistent across platforms. Democracy requires transparency, accountability, and meaningful communication among the plurality of political forces active in a country.

And while the West is absorbed by its domestic culture wars, it does not have the spare capacity to defend its security and interests abroad. It’s only natural that foreign adversaries should seek to infiltrate covertly the domestic political discourse, sow division, amplify every difference of opinion, and feed the kind of tribalism where some Trump supporters, for example, are more hostile to Democrats and liberals than they are to Russia. Russia’s intelligence services are getting fantastic bang for their buck thanks to the West’s own divisions.

Among all this, the West is doing nothing but playing defense and poorly at that. All that happens is the West occasionally pointing out that some Facebook page or other was maintained by Russia’s troll farms—giving no incentive to them and other enemies to stop. To end assaults on democracy from outside—and to give the space to concentrate on attacks from within—Western governments must impose proportional costs on foreign actors.

The goal need not be the overthrow of the political order in Moscow and Beijing. All the West needs to do is to deploy these same tactics in a deliberately tit-for-tat manner, where one campaign by them can be responded by one campaign by the West—obviously, with the necessary tactical adjustments relevant to their respective cultural, political, and media environment. As a recurrent game-theoretical scenario, this should incentivize the West’s opponents to de-escalate or face internal political strife and, eventually, collapse. Then it would be for Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping to decide how far he wants to go with this kind of warfare. And that is a level playing field that inherently benefits the West. The democratic political order has much more depth and institutional resilience than the precarious regimes fostered by these centralized, authoritarian regimes, so these regimes are much more vulnerable to these tactics.

The Kremlin calls this kind of conflict “asymmetric warfare.” It is incumbent on Western countries to make this kind of war symmetric, both for the sake of fairness and for their own self-preservation. And the upside: They cannot lose such a war if they actually fight back proportionally.

Azeem Ibrahim is a research professor at the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College and a director at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington DC. He is the author of Radical Origins: Why We Are Losing the Battle Against Islamic Extremism and The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide.
 Twitter: @azeemibrahim