Animation by Slate. Photos by Getty Images, Reuters.
There are years, decades even, in which history slows to a crawl. Then there are weeks that are so eventful that they seem to mark the dissolution of a world order that had once seemed solid and to foretell the rise of one as yet unknowable.
The week of July 11, 2016, has every chance of being remembered as one of those rare flurries of jumbled, inchoate, concentrated significance. The centrifugal forces that are threatening to break political systems across the world may have started to register a decade ago; they may have picked up speed over the last 12 months; but never since the fall of the Berlin Wall have they wreaked havoc in so many places in so short a span of time—showcasing the failures of technocratic rule, the terrifying rise of populist strongmen, and the existential threat posed by Islamist terrorism, all in the span of seven short days.
At first glance, a political crisis in London; a terrorist attack in Nice, France; a failed putsch in Ankara, Turkey; and a bloviating orator on his way to becoming the Republican nominee for the presidency of the United States look like the dramatic apex of very different, barely connected screenplays. To my eye, they are garish panes of glass that add up to one unified, striking mosaic. Looked at from the right distance, they tell the story of a political system, liberal democracy, that has long dominated the world—and is now in the midst of an epic struggle for its own survival.
A Week Full of Omens
The week started with all eyes on the United Kingdom. Brits had recently voted to leave the European Union in a referendum whose unexpected results sent shock waves across the continent. But when David Cameron resigned as prime minister, when the promises of leading members of the “Leave” campaign went up in smoke, when the pound tanked and the first companies announced layoffs and many voters reportedly began to regret their choice, it seemed as though the country’s elites might engineer some subtle subterfuge. And the woman to engineer that subterfuge was Theresa May, a cautious supporter of the “Remain” campaign who had quickly emerged as one of two candidates to succeed Cameron as the country’s next prime minister.
Those hopes were dashed when May set out her political program in a hastily arranged campaign appearance in the city of Birmingham early on Monday morning. “Brexit,” she vowed in the most significant piece of political tautology of recent times, “means Brexit.” If May became prime minister, she would lead the country out of the EU—throwing the defining political project of Europe’s postwar era into an existential crisis.
By the time Big Ben had struck noon, Andrea Leadsom, May’s last remaining rival for the leadership of Britain’s Conservative Party, and the country, had dropped out of the race. Within 48 hours, May kneeled before the Queen, and was named the second female Prime Minister in the country’s history. The cabinet picks she announced on Wednesday evening confirmed that she meant business. With Euroskeptics like Boris Johnson and David Davis in key positions, the last shreds of doubt about her commitment vanished. Britain will leave the European Union. Europe’s postwar order is one step closer to unraveling.
* * *
Thursday, July 14, was Bastille Day. After a brutal 18 months in which France was hit by two major terrorist attacks, the nation took the opportunity to reaffirm its commitment to liberty, equality, and fraternity. In his annual Bastille Day press conference at the Élysée Palace, President François Hollande announced that he would end the state of emergency that had held sway since the bloody attack on the Bataclan last November. On the beaches of Nice, just beyond the storied Promenade des Anglais, a second home to Europe’s rich and famous for the better part of two centuries, tens of thousands gathered to watch a fireworks display resplendent in red, white, and blue.
When the fireworks were over, when the city was teeming with humanity—young and old, rich and poor, French and foreign, Christian, Muslim, and Jew—a truck of death barreled down the Promenade, zigzagging, firing shots, killing indiscriminately, killing avariciously. By the time the truck had come to a standstill, 84 people were dead or dying.
Eighteen months earlier, when terrorists had stormed the offices of Charlie Hebdo and gone on to kill shoppers at a kosher supermarket in the east of Paris, solidarity among the French political class had held for about a week. This time, the jockeying for position started almost immediately.
Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right populist National Front, mocked Hollande for his ill-timed revocation of the state of emergency and accused the government of total failure in its fight again Islamist terrorism. Her broadside resonated. Every attack pushes frightened citizens “a little closer to surrendering to the impulse to embrace an authoritarian response,” warned Art Goldhammer, one of the most astute American observers of France. While it had once seemed unimaginable that Le Pen might become president of France in elections next spring, “it is becoming thinkable” that it will be she who holds the traditional Bastille Day press conference from the Élysée Palace on July 14, 2017.
* * *
Just as tensions began to rise among the French political class, the first explosions pierced a quiet Friday night in sleepy Ankara. Yet another terrorist attack, the good people of Twitter quickly concluded. But what played out in front of the world’s eyes over the next hours was something else entirely: an old-fashioned coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, updated for the age of social media by his desperate FaceTime pleas for Turks to take to the street and come to his rescue.
Plotters, even ones imminently doomed to be deemed incompetent by CNN’s self-proclaimed coup experts, tend to have the benefit of surprise on their side. In those first hours, tanks secured Atatürk Airport and the offices of the state broadcasting station. Erdogan, infamously vain, was reduced to addressing his nation through the speakers of a TV presenter’s iPhone; rumors already located him en route to political exile in Germany or perhaps the United Kingdom. The country’s secular elite, it seemed, had retained more of its power than observers had thought possible. With the might of the army’s F-16s on their side, they were mounting a last-ditch attempt to resist Erdogan’s creeping Islamicization of the country. The coup looked likely to succeed.
Then the tide began to turn. When Erdogan next spoke to the nation, he stood in front of real cameras, looking more self-assured. At his behest, Turks came out in tens of thousands to defend democracy, or to pay allegiance to their tribune, or to claim the right to impose their religion on others, or perhaps all three at once. Most of the army fought the plotters, opposition parties condemned the coup, and—once they could be reasonably confident that Erdogan would stay in power—so did Angela Merkel and Barack Obama.
By daybreak, a military dictatorship had been averted. But liberal democracy seemed to be in no less trouble. Safely returned to Istanbul, Erdogan called the coup “a gift from God” and set about the task of purging the state of anybody whom he suspected of disloyalty. Among the scores of arrests he made, and the thousands of judges he fired, some might plausibly have had a hand in the plot; but for most, their crime was one of thought, not action. And so Turkey had witnessed two coups in 48 hours: first, the failed rebellion of factions of the military against Erdogan’s proto-authoritarian rule, and second, Erdogan’s successful purge of all who might one day challenge his position, whether through the barrel of a gun or the power of the ballot box.
* * *
Never one to allow harrowing events to upstage him or to let propriety stand in the way of his sales pitch, Donald J. Trump cheered every twist and turn in London, Nice, and Ankara from the sidelines. When Brits voted to Brexit, Trump congratulated them on taking “their country back,” promising “to do the exact same thing on Election Day 2016 here in the United States.” When he heard of the terror attack in Nice, he saw, first and foremost, an opportunity to drive home his opposition to Muslim immigration. “When will we learn?” he tweeted that Thursday night. “It’s only getting worse.” Even the coup in Turkey became “further demonstration of the failures of Obama-Clinton. You just have to look,” he said at a Saturday press conference announcing Mike Pence as his running mate, “every single thing they’ve touched has turned to horrible, horrible death-defying problems.”
Trump’s case is straightforward: The challenges facing America are momentous. But they were brought about by incompetence, corruption, or false loyalties. And so they can easily be solved once a strong, incorruptible, patriotic leader—a leader just like Trump—takes power. He, and only he, is the solution to the “death-defying problems” that shaped this terrible week.
It is this providential fusion of the people and their leader—the belief that collective deliverance from a dark world can only come from a pure, unadulterated conduit for the people’s voice—that defines the core of his appeal. And it is his closely related inability to contemplate that he may at times be mistaken, or that there may be legitimate conflicts of interest in a democracy, or that the power of the presidency needs to be checked by other institutions, that makes him so dangerous.
Never has the egotism at the heart of his appeal been more apparent than during the media blitz to introduce his running mate. During the Saturday press conference at which they first appeared in public together, Trump was barely able to say a few consecutive sentences about Pence. Instead, he passionately spoke about his own views, interlaced with a few perfunctory talking points about his would-be vice president read from a conspicuous cue card.
Sunday brought yet another display of Trump’s egotism. When Pence was asked what kind of vice president he hoped to be during a joint interview on 60 Minutes, Trump answered the question for him. When Pence lauded Trump for speaking from his heart, Trump interrupted again: “Well, I speak from my heart and my brain. Just so we understand.” But the best line of the interview, and the most telling, came when the interviewer suggested that Trump is “not known to be a humble man.”
“I think I am actually a humble man,” Trump responded. “I think I’m much more humble than you would understand.”
Liberal Democracy Under Attack
The truly scary thing about Donald Trump is not that he is unique. It is, rather, that he is far from exceptional. In a rich, raucous republic of 300 million, there will always be a glamorous bully with a taste for the gutter. What is new is not the existence of a populist willing to voice nasty sentiments; it’s that a lot of voters have become so disgusted by the political class, and so disillusioned with the current state of the country’s institutions, that they are willing to vote for someone quite so nasty.
In the long run, Trump’s particular views and quirks matter less than we would like to think. He is ultimately no more than an extra in an unfolding horror show—the most prominent beneficiary of an epochal shift whose roots predate Trump’s entry into politics and whose effects will continue to shape our societies long after he has retired to one of his many estates.
Across the affluent, established democracies of North America and Western Europe, the last years have witnessed a meteoric rise of figures who may not be quite so brash or garish as Trump and yet bear a striking resemblance to him: Marine Le Pen in France, Frauke Petry in Germany, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, and many of the leading Brexiteers in the United Kingdom. They too harness a new level of anger that is quite unlike anything liberal democracies have witnessed in a half-century. They too promise to stand up for ordinary people, to do away with a corrupt political elite, and to put the ethnic and religious minorities who are now (supposedly) being favored in their rightful (subordinate) place. They, too, are willing to do away with liberal political institutions like an independent judiciary or a free, robust press so long as those stand in the way of the people’s will. Together, they are building a new type of political regime that is slowly coming into its own: illiberal democracy.
Critics often attack Trump, Le Pen, and their cohort for being undemocratic. But that is to misunderstand both their priorities and the reasons for their appeal. For the most part, their belief in the will of the people is real. Their primary objection to the status quo is, quite simply, that institutional roadblocks like independent courts or norms like a “politically correct” concern for the rights of minorities stop the system from channeling the people’s righteous anger into public policy. What they promise, then, is not to move away from popular rule but rather to strip it of its artificial, liberal guise—all the while embodying the only true version of the people’s will.
Places like Hungary and Poland show what this might mean in practice. Once celebrated as examples of successful democratic transition, these countries are now at the forefront of the movement toward illiberal democracy. After Viktor Orbán took power in Budapest six years ago, his Fidesz party undermined the country’s constitutional court, stacked government institutions like the electoral commission with party loyalists, and turned the most important media outlets into uncritical propaganda machines. Over the course of the past year, Poland’s Law and Justice party has accomplished much the same feat in a fraction of the time. In both places, key liberal rights are honored more in the breach than the observance.
Political elites are understandably terrified by the speed with which illiberal democracy is coming into its own. But if the populists are pushing for a political system that does away with one half of liberal democracy, the truth is that a large number of establishment politicians are increasingly tempted to embrace a system that does away with the other half. Where Trump and Le Pen seek to establish an illiberal democracy, a lot of sensible centrists are quietly seeking their salvation in what I call “undemocratic liberalism.” If the people want to violate the rights of unloved minorities, setting up the prospect of democracy without rights, the political establishment is increasingly insulating itself from the people’s demands, opting for a form of rights without democracy.
To be sure, undemocratic liberalism usually retains a democratic sheen. The standard rigmarole of political life in a supposed democracy is jealously observed: There are regular elections and hard-fought campaigns, grand speeches and parliamentary votes. The institutional apparatus that supposedly serves to translate the will of the people into public policy remains in place. And yet, the actual purpose of these institutions—to let the people rule—is increasingly forgotten. To anyone who cares to take a skeptical look, it is obvious how ineffectual representative institutions have become at delivering on the noble task they supposedly serve.
Take the U.S. Congress. Legislators are supposed to represent the people, but the views of ordinary voters now have precious little influence on Capitol Hill. More wealthy, more white, and much more likely to have gone to elite schools than the average American, congressmen and senators don’t resemble the people they are supposed to represent. But the main problem is not who they are but rather what incentives the systems gives them. To get elected, politicians need to prevail in a primary system that emphasizes the voice of a small number of radical ideologues. To bankroll their campaigns, they need to raise contributions at a constant clip, making them dependent on the good will of major funders. And to enjoy a plush retirement, they need to cultivate the corporations and lobbyists that are likely to throw easy money their way once they leave office. Given those conditions, it is hardly surprising that political scientists who study to what degree legislation reflects the preferences of average voters have concluded that there is a deep democratic disconnect, in the United States and in many other supposed democracies across the West as well.
Legislation thus reflects the will of the people less and less. As important, many areas of public policy have been taken out of the legislative process altogether. Congress is not only constrained by traditional balances like the Supreme Court. Increasingly, it is also hamstrung by the expanding influence of experts, an increase in bureaucratic autonomy, and the rise of new international organizations. Economic policy is a case in point: Some of the most essential economic decisions are now made by independent bureaucratic agencies like the Federal Reserve or the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, set in stone by far-reaching trade agreements like NAFTA, or adjudicated by international institutions like the World Trade Organization.
Ordinary people are angry at the political system in part because they recognize to what extent they have been shut out of key decisions. But, by the same token, the process is becoming so unresponsive in part because the rise of illiberal populists has given the political establishment a good reason to insulate itself from the people’s anger. A pendulum is swinging from illiberal democracy to undemocratic liberalism, then back again. And its swings are getting wider and wider.
* * *
Britain’s vote to leave the European Union is a perfect illustration of the tension between illiberal democracy and undemocratic liberalism.
Even the most passionate defenders of the EU find it difficult to deny that it suffers from a serious democratic deficit. Most of the power in the institution rests with the European Commission, which is run by career bureaucrats, and the European Council, which represents the governments of member states. While the European Parliament is meant to provide a democratic counterweight to this elite-driven process, it is toothless in practice: elected with a tiny turnout by voters who barely register what it does day to day, the body has few formal powers. For all of its many achievements, the EU is a key exhibit for the existence of undemocratic liberalism.
Resistance to the European Union has long been especially strong among Brits, who have traditionally prided themselves in the unchecked sovereignty enjoyed by their parliament. Under increasing pressure from right-wingers in his own party, David Cameron thus agreed to a referendum on membership in the EU. Giving the people a one-time simulacrum of plebiscitary democracy, he hoped, would “lance the boil” of Euroskepticism once and for all.
There was only one problem with this plan: When the British people were offered the little finger of plebiscitary democracy, they decided to grab hold of the whole hand. Expected to follow the lead of their betters, they took great pleasure in shocking them with their disobedience. And while there are some perfectly reasonable grounds on which to dislike the EU, opinion polls leave little doubt as to the real reasons why most Brits wound up favoring Brexit. While the hard-line Euroskeptics who forced the referendum may have been concerned with questions of sovereignty, most voters cherished an opportunity to express their illiberal resentments. For all intents and purposes, the referendum turned into a plebiscite against immigration.
In the manner of a parent who tells Little Timmy he can have anything he wants for dinner, then tries to back out of the deal when Little Timmy announces he would like a dozen grasshoppers with a side of vanilla ice cream, a lot of political leaders were tempted to backtrack on Brexit once the results were in. Couldn’t they negotiate a deal that would end formal membership in the European Union while keeping all the important things the way they are now? Or call a second referendum in the hope that it might produce a different result? Faced with a blatant expression of how illiberal the preferences of most people are, the temptation to subvert the democratic procedures that were meant to translate those views into actual public policy was—understandably—strong.
Theresa May ultimately quashed the hope that Brexit might mean something less than Brexit. The people had been allowed the rare luxury of speaking their mind, and she recognized it would have been too embarrassing to renege on so prominent a promise. If Little Timmy insisted, he would be allowed to eat grasshoppers with vanilla ice cream this one time. But just as any prudent parent would learn from the experience and grow much more wary of letting an unruly child make untutored decisions in the future, so too the political class has mostly interpreted Brexit as a warning about the irrationality of popular referenda. By and large, it will serve as a reminder of the importance of holding the illiberal preferences of the average voter at bay.
* * *
Liberal democracy is decomposing into its constitutive parts: Over the next decades, much of the world will face a tragic choice between illiberal democracy, or democracy without rights, and undemocratic liberalism, or rights without democracy.
But if that comes to pass, it is unlikely to be the end point. For when illiberal democrats fall out of favor, they tend not to give up power. What starts as a genuine attempt to channel the voice of the people all too often degenerates into a straightforward dictatorship. A strikingly similar development might well befall undemocratic liberalism: Forced to defend itself against an onslaught of illiberal populists, it may have to resort to increasingly illiberal means to subdue its opponents. In the long run, both illiberal democracy and undemocratic liberalism may thus be headed for a remarkably similar fate: a gradual descent into an unvarnished form of dictatorship.
There could hardly be a more striking illustration of this prediction than recent developments in Turkey. For decades, Turkey was a relatively clear-cut case of undemocratic liberalism: In a deeply religious country, a small, secular elite protected ethnic and religious minorities, resisting any attempt to pass laws inspired by Islam. Whenever a popularly elected government made small steps toward putting religion at the center of public life, the army was waiting in the wings to depose it. Then Erdogan managed to lead a seemingly moderate Islamic movement to political victory and to break the power of the secular elite. For some years, outside observers hoped that he would turn Turkey into a true democracy, allowing pious Muslims fuller participation in social and political life without violating the rights of secularists or religious minorities. But that hope gradually faded. Before long, Erdogan pushed illiberal legislation, from new restrictions on the sale of alcohol to increasingly extreme measures against critical journalists and academics.
The failed coup was no more than a final showdown between the two ugly sides of this coin. If the coup had succeeded, the victorious factions of the army would likely have reestablished some liberal freedoms, in part by reverting to a more secular vision of Turkey. At the same time, they would have done away with any pretense of democracy: The freedom to drink alcohol in the streets of Istanbul would have been purchased by an inability to speak one’s mind about the new military government.
When the coup failed, the outcome was not all that different. Long desperate to consolidate his rule, Erdogan seized the moment. In the first three days after the coup, he suspended close to 30,000 members of the civil service, revoked the licenses of 21,000 teachers, took over 6,000 soldiers into custody, and commanded all 1,577 deans of Turkish universities to submit their resignations. The purge is continuing apace: All in all, over 26,000 people have been arrested in the weeks since the coup. Elected as a people’s tribune, Erdogan has now amassed so much power that he can well afford to ignore the views of his electorate. The form of illiberal democracy he has instituted for the past decade has finally taken off its mask and revealed the ugly face of dictatorship.
The Roots of the Crisis
By historical standards, liberal democracies have been extraordinarily stable. Poor countries have trouble sustaining democratic rule. Some rich countries, especially those with vast oil wealth, have always been controlled by autocrats. But once a wealthy country has successfully transitioned to democracy, its form of government is locked in. This is about as remarkable a fact as political science has on offer. Never in history has a wealthy, consolidated democracy collapsed. Not once.
That remarkable fact has made it easy to ascribe the stability of the West’s political institutions to its fundamental attributes: universal suffrage, rule of law, checks and balances, individual rights. Each country gives its own spin on the genealogy of its particular political settlement. Americans tend to thank the genius of their founders, the French the principled visionaries on the barricades, Brits the fortuitous rise of pluralistic institutions owed to the blood-soaked compromises struck between lord and liege. But for all of the specificities of national myth and memory, the triumphalist upshot is remarkably similar in every democratic country. The question of the best regime form, which had animated the writings of thinkers from Socrates to Rousseau, has supposedly been solved. The end of history has arrived.
This happy story overlooks a number of facts that have been so formative of our political world that it is easy to forget just how extraordinary they, too, are by historical standards. All through the history of democratic stability, the incomes of ordinary citizens grew rapidly. All through the history of democratic stability, a democracy has been the most powerful country in the world. And all through the history of democratic stability, democracies have been highly homogeneous.
Over the last decades, each of these factors stopped being the case. Living standards stagnated. The rise of China is threatening American hegemony. Democracies in North America and Western Europe are more diverse than they have ever been before.
History cannot tell us how liberal democracies perform under those circumstances, so we are only just starting to gather the first shreds of evidence for what the effects of those transformations might be. What little we know suggests that the answer is not going to be pretty.
* * *
Since the founding of the American republic, the median citizen in every generation could pride himself on being much wealthier than his parents and had strong reason to believe that his children would be even better off. Indeed, ever since the ink dried on the Declaration of Independence, a clear majority of American citizens ended their lives with comforts they could barely have imagined when they were growing up. From 1935 to 1960, the standard of living of the median voter just about doubled. From 1960 to 1985, it just about doubled again. From 1985 to 2010, it flatlined.
In the years since then, America’s gross domestic product, the Dow Jones, and the incomes of the rich have all recovered from the depths of the Great Recession. But the incomes of most Americans have barely improved. Most citizens have not experienced real economic gains since George H.W. Bush was elected.
If statistics lie, it’s often because averages hide. The stagnation of living standards conceals the phenomenal increase in income and wealth for the richest Americans. It also conceals the remarkable decline in income and wealth for the poorest Americans. That is true for many Latino and black Americans, who are more likely than other demographic groups to be doing the kinds of blue-collar jobs that have seen wages decrease in real terms. But it is felt especially keenly among white Americans with high expectations, limited qualifications, and declining hourly wages—that is to say, among some of Donald Trump’s most passionate supporters.
The appeal of illiberal democracy cannot be understood in abstraction from this economic story. The fortunes of the populists do not necessarily rise and fall in step with the business cycle or even the unemployment rate. Nor need it always be the very poorest, or those who stand to suffer the most immediate losses because of globalization, who flock toward them in the greatest numbers. The story that matters is broader than that: The basic deal offered by political elites since the inception of democracy was to provide ordinary people with large increases in their standard of living from one generation to the next. So long as that deal held, the people were willing to defer to the political class. Now that the deal has been broken—broken spectacularly—they no longer feel bound by their side of the bargain. And so many of them are willing to entertain the hope that the illiberal demagogues who are courting them so assiduously will serve them better than the unfaithful lot that is now in power.
* * *
In most parts of Europe, democracy took firm root only after the killings and expulsions of World War II turned countries that had once been home to a large number of minorities deeply homogeneous. Democracy in those places is a creation of the nation state, and for outsiders, membership in those nations has always remained difficult and incomplete. A German or an Italian or a Swede was thought to look a particular way and to descend from a particular ethnic stock. Though not every German is blond, and not every Italian has olive skin, it went without saying that somebody who is black or Asian or Middle Eastern could be neither German nor Italian.
The story was a little more complicated in the United States and in Canada, where membership in the nation had always been based on mutual aspirations for the future rather than descent from common ancestors. But even in the U.S., the lip service to diversity was secretly—and not so secretly—predicated on two important facts: The social and economic superiority of whites was not to be called into question. And particular ethnic or religious groups could not be associated with physical threats to the safety of American citizens. What happened in the brief intervals when these background conditions did not obtain speaks for itself. During World War I, some descendants of German immigrants were suspected of disloyalty; a flourishing German American associational life quickly disappeared. World War II was much worse: In the wake of Pearl Harbor, Japanese Americans were classified as enemy aliens and promptly interned.
The brittle foundations of ethnic inclusion explain why tensions over immigration and racial identity have been running especially high over the last two decades. In Europe, places like Germany and Italy had to admit to themselves during that period that they were indeed “countries of immigration” and that they would not be able to go on forever denying immigrants of Turkish or Middle Eastern descent full membership in the nation. Meanwhile, in North America, many members of ethnic and religious minorities ascended to unprecedented positions of power and prestige, threatening the majority’s comfortable assumption of perennial dominance.
On both sides of the Atlantic, these transformations—which are cultural as much as they are economic or political—made the ethnic majority deeply resentful. The fuse was now in place, and it was connected to a ton of TNT. The terrorists just had to light it.
This is the most important political effect of the series of spectacular Islamist terror attacks on liberal democracies in the West that began on 9/11 and has continued to wreak havoc since: The constant terror threat gradually transformed a division of “us” versus “them” that had once been one of many important facts of politics into the primary line of political division and mobilization.
In every country and epoch, political life is defined by the key questions that determine which side you are on. In some countries these questions are socio-economic: Are you for the industrialists or the landowners, for the proletariat or the bourgeoisie? In other countries, the key questions are religious or ethnic: Are you for the Protestants or the Catholics, for the Luo or the Kikuyu?
These political “cleavages” can be a productive element of democratic life, a way of balancing the interests of different groups who mobilize to defend their own. But they always run the risk of turning so deep that people on both sides of the divide can no longer recognize each other as fellow citizens with legitimate interests. That is when victory at the polls starts to provide an excuse for subjugating a minority; when different groups might formally retain citizenship of the same country but the state becomes no more than a committee for advancing the interests of the ascendant faction. This is what the fallout from Islamist terrorism is now threatening to do across North America and Western Europe: A cleavage that was already fraught in most liberal democracies is becoming an instrument of tyranny.
Despite their hatred for each other, the populists and the terrorists thus live in a strange kind of symbiosis. The more marginalized Muslims feel in Western societies, the easier ISIS finds it to recruit converts to its bloody cause. And the more homegrown terrorists kill innocents in the name of Islam, the easier it becomes for populists to incite voters against liberal democracy’s protections for ethnic and religious minorities. Seen in this light, the terror attack in Nice is yet another weapon in the armory that might allow Marine Le Pen to subvert liberté, egalité, and fraternité: It is yet another cause of fear in the population; yet another excuse to see politics from the vantage point of an ethnic in-group; and yet another example Le Pen can point to in claiming that Muslim immigrants simply do not fit into France.
The terrorists, the pious sentiment goes, will never have enough power to vanquish the principles of liberal democracy. That is true, so far as it goes. But it doesn’t go very far. As the political fallout from the attack in Nice—and the attacks in Orlando and Brussels and Würzburg, Germany—demonstrate, it’s looking increasingly likely that we will let them win by doing their bidding for them.
The most pressing political question of our age is how we can stop that from happening. What reforms are needed to re-establish the social end economic foundations of liberal democracy? And how can we express liberal democratic values convincingly enough to win the battle of ideas against the likes of Donald Trump?
Regaining Our Conviction
Habituation breeds indifference. A turn of phrase that expressed a point with the help of a striking image no longer packs the same punch because we have grown inured to its literal meaning; linguists call this a dead metaphor. Driving to work in the sweet ride we bought a few months ago no longer gives us the same pleasure; economists call this hedonic adaptation. The person who once sent our heart racing enters the room and we barely notice it; grown-ups call this being married.
Something akin to this form of habituation has happened to our most fundamental political values. The ideals of liberal democracy are all around us. We know that the people are supposed to rule and that all citizens have a right to the same basic freedoms irrespective of their race, creed, or religion. But precisely because these ideas have surrounded us in a diffuse way for so long, we have begun to forget their meaning and their grandeur. “The fatal tendency of mankind to leave off thinking about a thing when it is no longer doubtful,” John Stuart Mill presciently warned in On Liberty, “is the cause of half their errors.”
So, while civics teachers dutifully recite the ideals of the Founding Fathers and while the political instincts of mainstream publications from Time to the Huffington Post are in some vague sense “liberal,” the intellectual energy is now on the side of liberalism’s opponents.
A few decades ago, right-wing critics of liberal democracy were mostly confined to the oddballs and nostalgics who stubbornly harkened back to some imagined golden age, whether it be the era of fascism in Europe or the era of Jim Crow in the United States. Their ideas were terrifying and their influence, at times, real. And yet it was clear to all that they were ultimately defunct, bound to become more and more ridiculous with every passing year.
Since the turn of the millennium, this has changed fundamentally. The assumption that far-right alternatives to liberal democracy are invariably a remnant from the past is, itself, a relic of a bygone era. Illiberal democracy, the form of rule the far right now advocates in most places from the United States to the United Kingdom and from France to Turkey, is in many ways a new invention—and its ambition is nothing less than to claim the future for itself. Its broad appeal and rapid spread, encapsulated so painfully in the week of July 11, 2016, demonstrates that this aspiration is not to be dismissed lightly. To ensure that the future does not belong to illiberal democracy, its opponents will have to do the hard work of political resistance—and be willing to overcome their own deep divisions to cooperate against a common enemy.
As in the 1920s, when liberal democracy first came under deadly fire across the world, this willingness to work together in the face of a grave far-right threat is far from assured. Nobody should be more scared of the rise of illiberal populists than the left. And yet, in both Europe and North America, much of the left increasingly thinks of “liberal” as a term of abuse. Indeed, a growing share of left-wing activists has gone from understandable anger at the many shortcomings of the status quo to an outright rejection of the foundational political values of our age. Assuming that ideals that are flagrantly contradicted in practice can’t be worth very much in theory either, they too are giving up on the core tenets of liberal democracy.
If Donald Trump rails against Muslims in his speeches then, they believe, it is time to accept that freedom of speech is an outmoded concept. And if the police kill innocent black Americans then, they believe, the ideal of state neutrality between different ethnic groups is no more than a tool for white domination. The society they envisage is not one in which liberal democratic ideals are more perfectly realized than they are now—but rather one in which these ideals are sacrificed in the name of social justice.
The most foolhardy parts of the left even go so far as to see the rise of their enemies as a strategic opportunity. Believing that things will have to get worse before they can get better, their most urgent desire is to smash up the status quo. Unwilling to recognize any real difference between the policies favored by the likes of Trump and the policies favored by the likes of Clinton, they prefer the agent of chaos, however violent, to the defender of the current political order, however decent.
And so it is centrist politicians who have now become the last explicit defenders of liberalism. But, squeezed between a blatantly authoritarian right and an increasingly illiberal left, they have begun to seek refuge in new forms of technocratic rule. In the short run, the undemocratic bulwarks they are building against illiberal sentiments are protecting the rights of minorities. But their lack of urgency and the dearth of their vision mean that they do not even attempt to tackle the root causes of the populist rise, like the stagnation in living standards. In the long run, this is very dangerous: The exclusion of the people from the political process—especially when coupled with an unwillingness (or an inability) to pass real economic reform—will only serve to inflame illiberal passions, turning even more citizens against liberal democracy.
Among the many worrying signs of our time, perhaps the most concerning is that those who believe both in liberalism and in democracy, both in popular rule and in individual rights, have increasingly taken on a defensive crouch. They seek to rescue what they know to be valuable, and yet they have lost their ability to articulate what part of contemporary reality is worth fighting for and why. And so many of them wind up focusing their energies on shoring up the bad as well as the good parts of our crumbling political order: Rather than imagining what social and economic policies might help to diffuse popular anger and fulfill the promises of liberal democracy, they seek their salvation in immobility.
To fight the terrorists and the populists, to prevail both against the plotters of undemocratic coups and the illiberal tribunes propelled into office by the intense anger of a volatile age, will require liberal democrats to stand tall for their values—and to develop the radical imagination that is desperately needed if we are to recreate the conditions that once allowed for the system’s stability. New economic policies are needed to ensure that ordinary people capture much more of the world’s economic gains than they have in the past decades. Meanwhile, democratic institutions designed for the 18th century need to restore the promise of popular rule by incorporating the technologies of the 21st century.
By the cruel standards of human history, the last few decades have been uncommonly serene. It is looking less and less likely that we will one day be able to say the same thing of the next few decades. Radical change seems to lurk just around the corner. The question is no longer whether we can preserve our political order in its current form. (We probably can’t.) It is what reforms are needed to ensure that the precious, fragile combination of liberalism and democracy does not entirely vanish from the face of the earth. If the center is to hold—if we are to rescue what is best about our imperfect political order—a lot will have to change.