Inside Story

The return of the -isms

How resilient are Western democracies? Two new books have different answers

Paul ’t Hart 3 April 2019 3015 words

Scary dandy: Thierry Baudet, leader of the Dutch Forum for Democracy party, voting in Amsterdam on 20 March. Robin van Lonkhuijsen/EPA

How Democracy Ends
By David Runciman | Profile Books | $32.99 | 256 pages

How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them
By Jason Stanley | Random House | $45 | 240 pages

When New Zealand was still reeling from a bewildering white supremacist massacre, an Australian senator — the same one who had denounced “cultural Marxists” as having corrupted the Australian spirit and called for a “final solution” for (Muslim) immigration — essentially said that this is what you should expect when you allow Muslims into your country. He accomplished an important feat twice over, uniting virtually every other Australian politician and commentator in their indignation. The line at which democratic discourse goes beyond the pale was drawn. Gone — momentarily — was its drip-drip erosion. Anning was not written off as just another Queensland redneck going on a rant, he was considered an enemy of liberal democratic values.

Meanwhile, as Europe is transfixed by the Brexit conundrum, political cataclysms roll on among its member states. The latest one came just last week in the Netherlands, when Thierry Baudet, a political dandy with a PhD, and his self-styled Forum for Democracy emerged out of nowhere to seize 20 per cent of Senate seats and deprive the ruling four-party centre-right coalition of its upper house majority. Baudet is no run-of-the-mill Dutch politician. Here’s a fragment of his victory speech:

Here we are, this evening, literally at the eleventh hour, amidst the ruins of what was once the greatest civilisation the world has ever known. A civilisation that extended to the ends of the earth. A civilisation full of self-confidence… Our nation is part of the family tree of the civilisation. But just like all those other countries of our Borean world we are being destroyed by the very people who are supposed to protect us. We are being undermined by our universities, our journalists, by the people who receive our arts funding and who design our buildings. Most of all, we are being undermined by those who govern. A clique of air-headed networkers, professional talkfesters, people who have never read a book in their entire life, and who have no idea of what the important long-term issues facing us really are. They unfortunately dominate the decision-making bodies of this country and in a bizarre mix of incompetence and cynical self-interest, again and again they make the wrong choices. But not for long.

Pompous stuff, certainly. Somewhat scary, too, especially for those who grasped the speech’s dog-whistle signposts, such as the reference to the “Borean” world, a term used by racial ideologues to refer to Aryan Nordic race purity. But what happened next was at least as disturbing.

To set some context: Holland has had flamboyant anti-establishment politicians before. When the last one, Pim Fortuyn, another PhD-holder (a one-time professor even), questioned certain elements of Islam, he was, in his own words, “demonised” by much of the left and by the mainstream media. He was assassinated in 2002, just before he was slated to win the Dutch election by a landslide and probably become prime minister, by a radicalised environmental activist who considered him a danger to society. Two years later, one of his key sympathisers, filmmaker, columnist and harsh political satirist Theo van Gogh, was assassinated too, stabbed by a radicalised young lone-wolf Muslim. And then there was Geert Wilders, who took the anti-Islam stance to the next level, became a powerful player in Dutch politics, and has lived under heavy police protection for fifteen years.

One would hope that some national democratic self-examination would have taken place during those fifteen years — that ways would have been found to reset the tone of the national conversation about these deeply contentious issues and dispense with the violence that had blackened it. Not quite: Baudet finds it useful to explore the rhetorical registers of fascism. At least, as we shall see, that’s how Jason Stanley, author of How Fascism Works, would classify what he’s doing. And just days after Baudet’s post-election speech, ultra-left activists marched the streets and, captured live on TV, called for his assassination. And so the cycle of mutual vilification and polarisation was fed.

In neither Australia nor Holland was there a Jacinda Ardern to exert the kind of authentic and authoritative leadership that brings everyone to their senses and appeals to the better angels of their nature. Instead, we had choruses of shrill voices talking past each other on talk shows, in the papers and online. And this was happening in two of the most prosperous countries and stable democracies on earth.

What the hell is going on?

Well, one thing going on is that “-isms” are back in the political fabric of democracies. Three in particular are on many lips: nationalism, populism and fascism. Illustrations of their return can be found in the exploits and political style of Viktor Orbán’s regime in Hungary, Jarosław Kaczyński’s in Hungary, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s in Turkey, Narendra Modi’s in India, Jair Bolsonaro’s in Brazil, and Rodrigo Duterte’s in the Philippines. Never mind the mass appeal and political endurance of the Le Pens’ Front National, and of Nigel Farage’s and now Gerard Batten’s UKIP, or the Sweden Democrats’ successes, or the Danish People’s Party’s hold on successive Danish governments.

The list is growing. Debate about their significance is heated. Questions and controversies abound. Are these -isms — each of which has inflicted tragedy and trauma across twentieth-century Europe — really on the march again? How different in agenda and style are they from their previous incarnations? How do they map onto the left–right and progressive–conservative continuums that have long formed the basis of party landscapes? What fuels their new momentum? And most of all: do they pose a threat to democratic values, institutions and practices?

For those whose political consciousness was formed after the fall of communism, this must seem a curious turn of events. For those who lived through or experienced the impact of political regimes rooted in the twentieth century’s big -isms it may well be outright alarming. But we would not be talking about it so much if there were not many, many people for whom these “new,” out of the box, anti-establishment parties, movements and leaders offer an appealing alternative to what they consider the “unrepresentative swill” (to borrow a Keatingism) that monopolises the liberal democratic institutions that triumphed, we were told, in 1989.

There is much political space today for figures who seek to persuade people that those same liberal institutions have allowed globalisation and market forces to wreak havoc on what are the very foundations of democratic sensibilities: a striving for economic equality, political moderation and respect for minorities; a willingness to accept that compromise is part and parcel of collective decision-making; and a system of government that is felt to be tangible and proximate and is widely experienced as operating fairly and accountably.

Deregulation, marketisation and the internationalisation of public policy and service delivery have not, by and large, delivered on their promise. While they may have contributed to economic growth, they have also brought about the biggest economic collapse since the 1930s. They have allowed new ideologies of flexibility and innovation to strip employees of taken-for-granted social rights and economic certainties, and have led them into a world full of job insecurity and existential fear. They have turned citizens into customers without paying much heed to the reality that many citizens are both ill-equipped and unwilling to follow the script of “competition” and “choice.” They have helped catalyse deep and rapid technological change in all walks of life without buffering the impact of this “creative destruction.” And they have made the business of governing seem more rather than less opaque and disempowering.

These are inconvenient realities that the ruling classes have not wished to contemplate — at least until the sometimes rough-and-tumble new clusters of “-ist” political activists started to leverage the internet to make inroads into public consciousness and, eventually, into political institutions themselves. This is where committed democrats stand today, not knowing what to think or how to act. Confusion, shock, fear, outrage, vilification: seldom in the last half century were the public emotions in democratic societies so strongly, and mostly negatively, aroused.

Against this backdrop, how much change — and how much of the sense of loss that inevitably accompanies it — can the liberal democratic system of government absorb while retaining its fundamental authenticity and viability? Cambridge political theorist and commentator David Runciman, author of How Democracy Ends, is sanguine: he argues that democracy is so firmly established in many of our societies that it is hard to shake. He likens what is happening to a “midlife crisis” rather than the beginning of the end. It is a refreshing diagnosis amid a plethora of doom-laden books, articles and op-eds.

Runciman doesn’t go along the usual route of showing how voters are adrift, how money has taken over politics, how the internet is creating echo chambers, or how globalisation has created new proletarians who hate its casual cosmopolitanism. He particularly takes issue with what he sees as our tendency to use misplaced historical analogies: “Our political imaginations are stuck with outdated images of what democratic failure looks like. We are trapped in the landscape of the twentieth century.”

For Runciman, the real question for stable democracies is this: “how long we can persist with institutional arrangements we have grown so used to trusting, that we no longer notice when they have ceased to work.” With his usual flair for coining powerful phrases, he says that “democracy could fail while remaining intact.” He doesn’t want to diminish the present sense of crisis, but he suggests it pulls us in opposite directions: we wish for something better than the hollowed-out party and parliamentary politics of the twentieth century, but are pulled back by our reluctance to let go of something that has got us this far.

The bulk of How Democracy Ends is devoted to examining what makes the current crisis of democracy different from its predecessors. The most obvious place to look is at our technologies and the new power structures and manipulative possibilities they bring. Dave Eggers’s dystopian novel about social media, The Circle, gets an elaborate mention, but the Cambridge Analytica saga is breezily dismissed as a sideshow. We learn that killer robots won’t be here anytime soon and so we shouldn’t obsess about them. The digital revolution may have overpromised and underdelivered, yet it retains “practically limitless” transformative potential. But it is not about to kill our democracies.

Runciman also finds that political violence and (the threat of) coups play nowhere near the wrecking roles they played in Europe before the second world war. When Trump got elected, we may have all rushed to our bookshelves to re-read Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, but the Trump we’ve seen since then is not as insidious and purposeful a putschist as the main character in that dark and gripping novel (which Runciman confesses to admiring greatly). He characterises Trump instead as “both ludicrous and threatening, familiar and peculiar, inside and outside the bounds of what democracy can tolerate… He is incomprehensible and he is as open as a child. He is a reason to panic and he is a reason to keep calm and carry on.”

In strong democracies like the United States the real danger doesn’t come from a frontal assault, it emanates from the sidelines — namely from the pernicious effects of conspiracy theories, which Runciman sees as forming the heart of the logic of populism. “Our” values have been stolen and compromised by “them” — the manipulative, weak, degenerate elites who pay lip service to democracy while secretly undermining it. He takes us on a grand tour of populist conspiracy politics in Poland, Turkey and India, where it has nestled itself into the philosophy of the governing powers and thus become self-reinforcing.

Runciman is most concerned about democracy’s capacity to absorb the disasters of our age, those emanating from the life-threatening technologies we have created and the interconnectedness of the world we have made. Networks can collapse without warning and without human intent. We can sleepwalk into danger, unduly complacent in the face of such mortal dangers. Or politicians can be hyper-attentive to risks and yet incapable of taking effective action, thus walking a tightrope into disaster. He puts it beautifully:

In the middle of the twentieth century, the death of democracy as a form of politics was the precursor for the possible death of civilisation [as a result of nuclear war]. But in the twenty-first century, it is the other way around. Democracy survives because very little can kill it as a form of politics. The death of civilisation might have to come first.

Jason Stanley would most likely disagree vehemently. The look and feel of How Fascism Works is entirely different. A Yale philosopher whose parents fled Nazism, Stanley has none of Runciman’s calculated Oxbridge-style playfulness. The tone is grave; this is a matter of life and death for democracy — that much is clear from the outset. His main concern is with one cluster of our age’s resurgent -isms: nationalism/fascism. In fact he defines fascism as a label for (ethnic, religious, cultural) “ultra-nationalism with the nation represented in the person of an authoritarian leader who speaks on its behalf.”

Stanley’s book is a study of what he calls the fascist style of politics, in particular how it is used as a mechanism for achieving power. Fascism works by separating a population into an “us” and a “them,” dehumanising whoever happens to be included in the “them” category in order to limit “our” capacity for empathy, which ultimately opens the floodgates to barbarism. If ever a twentieth-century mindset has been brought — self-consciously and purposefully — to the study of early twenty-first-century leaders and systems, it is here. In this, the book resembles Timothy Snyder’s widely read and compelling On Tyranny (2017). But where Snyder formulates what-you-should-do lessons for democrats, Stanley presents a how-they-do-it diagnosis of fascists.

In brisk succession, he sets out eight such tactics. They come, I would argue, in two clusters. The first focuses on distorting a community’s capacity to think critically and realistically. This is achieved cumulatively, by creating a mythical past to support a vision for the present; by twisting the language of ideals using propaganda; by promoting anti-intellectualism with attacks on universities and educational systems that foster critical thinking; and by creating a state of unreality in which conspiracy theories and fake news replace reasoned debate.

This lays the groundwork for the second group of tactics, which move towards active oppression and repression: naturalising group differences in support of a hierarchy of human worth; cultivating a sense of victimhood among the in-group or dominant population; reifying us-versus-them through a cult of law and order directed at exposing and persecuting the “them”; and distorting male anxieties into fears that they and/or their families are under existential threat from those who reject their structures and traditions.

Leaders loom large in this book. Stanley draws his examples from some of the same countries that figure in Runciman’s book, but their interpretations differ markedly. Stanley finds nothing ludicrous and a lot of fascism in Trump — and in the likes of Steve Bannon or broadcaster Rush Limbaugh, for that matter. Among others, he dissects the rhetoric and tactics of Orbán, Vladimir Putin, Erdoğan and Myanmar’s leaders to illustrate his points. He highlights Hungary and Poland as hitherto thriving liberal democracies (perhaps a somewhat generous characterisation of their anything-but-easy post-1989 trajectories) that such leaders are turning into “vivid examples of the rapid normalisation of fascism.”

I’ve seen some of that up close. In 2017, I was in Warsaw with a group of senior public servants for a two-day visit. On day one, we were received at the Institute of Public Administration, a national training school for public service elites. The director of the school, an amiable former ambassador with a Solidarity past, gave us a polite and guarded assessment of the political changes taking place in his country since the victory of Kaczyński’s national-conservative PiS party. As he talked, I saw his assistant, a young woman who had helped us greatly in arranging our visit, become visibly upset. As we walked towards where we would have lunch she almost fainted. We took her aside and asked her what was the matter. In tears she told us that she had received a text message announcing that this very director would be fired the next day and replaced by a regime-friendly successor.

On the second day, we visited the Polish supreme court. The entire court turned up. Sitting in a stately room speaking gravely in Polish, they told us how the regime’s attack on judicial independence was unfolding. Thinking back on those events after having read Stanley’s book, it now seems like someone had seen an early draft and decided to use it as a script.

In the end, both these books are enlightening in their different ways. They helped me understand what is going on in the two countries with which this essay began, both of which I am a proud and yet more alert and alarmed citizen of. I learned to look differently at people like Anning and Baudet, and at the responses they elicit, and to put into a larger perspective the latest action–reaction response to the controversies they create.

That these two astute political observers, Runciman and Stanley, characterise the times in which we live in such starkly different terms doesn’t mean that one of them must be right and the other utterly wrong. That is precisely the temptation that both authors want us to resist. If democracy is to not just persist but thrive, all of us must remain curious about the political spectacle and comfortable with opposing assessments of what is happening, why it is happening and what might happen next. The juxtaposition of these two gripping accounts of what is eating away at democracy as we know it is a good place to begin exercising that essential muscle. •