Disentangling cause and effect is notoriously hard in social and human sciences, and the current crisis of the West is no exception. Is Donald Trump to blame for the erosion of the “liberal international order”? Is Vladimir Putin undermining our democracies? Has the proliferation of fake news and cognitive bubbles on social media amplified the appeal of authoritarian populists?
There are decent reasons to answer such questions in the affirmative. Trump’s behavior is indeed raising questions about the future of existing international norms and platforms for cooperation, from the World Trade Organization to the Paris Accord. There is no question that the Kremlin is actively exploiting the West’s weaknesses to reassert itself. And the abundance of disinformation and propaganda on social media has clearly changed some hearts and minds.
However, the thrust of causality might well run in the opposite direction. Trump’s attacks on international rules and institutions, Russian interference, and the continuing appeal of fake news can be seen as manifestations of the West’s political and intellectual crisis, rather than its primary drivers. It follows that much of the common response within Western democracies—from attempts by some European leaders to turn Trump into a pariah, through attempts to shut down Russian troll accounts and propaganda websites, to devising a new regulatory regime for social media—are at best Band-Aid solutions to much deeper problems.
For one, the so-called “liberal international order” has not been in great shape as of late. For at least the past decade, the West has chosen to ignore persistent violations of its rules. China’s accession to the World Trade Organization, for example, did not facilitate its transition towards a full-fledged market economy but instead gave market access to a regime determined to continue its protectionist practices at home. It was not Trump who watched over protracted conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, nor was it he who conducted a half-hearted intervention in Libya guided by little if any strategy, and then decided in 2013 to ignore Bashir al-Asad’s mass slaughter of his own citizens in Syria.
None of this is meant to downplay the real achievements of the postwar era, especially the decline in conflict and economic protectionism. But as of late, that progress has stalled and the institutions underpinning it have started fraying around the edges. Today’s calls by populists to discard such institutions altogether are dangerous, but they also reflect the genuine, and not entirely unjustified, dissatisfaction of those in the West who have come to believe that the international system is no longer working in their interest.
In a recent column, David Brooks urged us not to underestimate Putin, “a brilliant and reckless figure.” But Russia’s economy is the size of Spain’s, dependent on oil and mineral exports. Putin is indeed aggressive and willing to undermine the West in pursuit of his political aims. But the Kremlin is neither omnipotent nor extraordinarily sophisticated in what it does. Propaganda, bribery of current or former Western officials, energy contracts, airspace incursions, and deployments of “little green men” have been happening in plain sight for years. When Russia annexed Crimea in defiance of international law, it was met only with the feeblest of responses from the United States and the European Union. That we now congratulate ourselves on a coordinated expulsion of a few dozen Russian spies after an act of state terrorism on British soil is a sign of just how weak Western democracies’ commitment to the “liberal international order” has really been.
The fact that Putin has gone this far and will likely only double down on his belligerence in his current term reflects not his strategic genius but rather the West’s decisions to do nothing. And those decisions are the direct results of an underlying crisis of politics in Europe and the United States—as is the fact that Putin “has become,” as Brooks puts it, “a cultural hero to populist conservatives everywhere—in France, Italy, the Philippines and the Oval Office.”
How about fake news and social media? In the United States at least, political polarization has been most pronounced among those who spend the least amount of time on the internet, and there is even some evidence of social media reducing polarization. As for fake news, its consumption ahead of the 2016 election was concentrated among a narrow group of voters who already leaned overwhelmingly pro-Trump. It requires heroic assumptions to argue that fake news or targeted ads have somehow set in motion large electoral swings, especially considering that Trump’s support was drawn from the Republican Party’s traditional base.
Clearly, new technologies are having an impact on the way we consume news and engage in political debate. But that challenge does not have an obvious policy fix. Even if implemented, how exactly would the progressive idea du jour—namely to break up tech giants using tools of anti-trust policy—prevent people from surrounding themselves with content that reinforces their prior beliefs or helps sustain journalism’s existing business models?
The West’s key problem lies in the erosion of faith in principles that bind Western societies together and impose structure on policy choices. For years, the center-right and the center-left were in basic agreement on a number of subjects—the importance of democracy and the rule of law, the market economy, a social safety net, the delegation of some policymaking authority to bureaucratic agencies and experts, and a rules-based international system—which reduced the scope for possible policy changes regardless of who was in power. Today’s center-right and center-left might still agree, but that consensus is out of sync with increasingly jaded Western electorates.
For decades preceding Trump’s election, the United States has seen a decline of trust in politics. A similar decline in trust can be seen in most organizations of social life—from universities, through churches, to television news. More and more people, as Yascha Mounk has documented, seem to be falling out of love with a democratic, representative form of government. In the first round of France’s presidential election, 40 percent of all votes went to extremists and in Italy’s parliamentary election in March, over half of all votes were cast in favor of parties that were until recently confined to the fringes of democratic politics.
A crisis of such proportions cannot be reduced to Donald Trump’s antics, Russian propaganda, or social media bubbles and disinformation. Instead, it reflects the failure of existing arrangements to deliver on their promises in a changing technological, economic, and geopolitical environment. But an equally important part of the problem is an intellectual one, namely the inability of elites to propose policy agendas that could simultaneously address the resulting problems—economic stagnation, perceived double standards for elites and everyone else, the opaqueness of “global governance”—and also command popular support.
The problem goes beyond politics. In order to succeed, centrist, pro-democracy and pro-open-society candidates need shelf-ready ideas that ring truer to the public than the mix of nostalgia, anger, and bigotry peddled by authoritarian populists. For whatever reason, such ideas are in short supply in both the social sciences and the humanities. Whatever their merits, technical arguments from economics and political science do not seem to resonate—and nor do humanities departments, dominated by identity politics, seem like hubs of novel thinking that could reinvigorate the case for democratic politics, free trade, and a Western-led international order.
True, Western societies have a decent track record at leveraging similar crises for their intellectual and political regeneration. The disruption and unrest of the mid-19th century gave us the universal franchise and social safety nets. The rebirth of Europe from the ashes of the worst conflict in human history, or the ability of the United States to emerge stronger from its internal struggles, including the Civil War and the Great Depression, might perhaps give reasons for cautious optimism. But perhaps the West has only been lucky thus far and the current crisis is a manifestation of a darker side of human nature breaking through a thin veneer of civilization, which we have mistakenly taken for granted.
In his new book, my AEI colleague Jonah Goldberg, like Friedrich Hayek before him, argues that our moral compasses developed to manage social relationships with around 150 people of our own tribe, dominated by an “alpha,” and not to sustain abstract rules of conduct guiding a globalized market economy, liberal democracy, and open society. From that perspective, the rise of the West, which dates back only a little over 200 years, might well be a one-off historical aberration. It has been a glorious time in many respects, but perhaps it was never meant to last. Today’s hyperpolarized politics, tribalism, wholesale rejection of expertise, resurgent bigotry and anti-Semitism, and the intolerance of the Left, could be features of a broader “mean reversion”: a return to the long-term average defining the human condition.
If true, that carries uncomfortable implications. It is impossible to sustain policies that have made us rich, free, and secure if Western electorates fail to appreciate that those arrangements are preferable to their alternatives. Furthermore, if there is a real demand for charismatic authoritarian leadership that discards the niceties of rule of law in favor of personal rule that was long the historical norm, then authoritarianism is what Western democracies will get. One hopes that Goldberg—and Hayek—are wrong and that the current crisis of ideas is indeed an opportunity for renewal and not the beginning of a long downward slide. The first step towards such a renewal is to stop confusing the disease’s symptoms with its causes.