Democracy in Danger: Confusing the Symptoms of Disorder with Its Cause

Speaking to the National Assembly of France a month before the French Revolution of 1848, Alexis de Tocqueville declared; “Beware, the wind of revolutions is arising; don’t you feel it?”  Those gathered that day did not feel it. 

Today, the winds of political revolt are sweeping through the West: in the United States, Italy, Britain, the Netherlands, Austria, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Denmark, Sweden―and in even France, where Emmanuel Macron, the gifted child of the elite has ridden the anti-establishment wave and won what could be just a reprieve.

Notwithstanding these developments, the political elite seems deaf to the roaring of the rebellious winds, which are gaining strength.  In 1848, Tocqueville discerned the growing gap between the people and the governing class, and the growing blindness of those at the top to the visible needs of those at the bottom. Speaking about the cause a few months after the Revolution had indeed occurred, he would say, “It was not about such or such man in power,” but about a self-congratulatory and “narrow governing class, which gathered all the influence, all the honors, all the political life [to itself]… and [for those left] below, nothing.” His prescience lay, not in grasping which leaders would emerge, but in understanding the fundamental reasons why France had been battered in the first place.

One of the most striking facts about the current moment is that as we strain to discern the meaning of the shadow hanging over our Western democracies, we seem to be making the same mistakes that Tocqueville had called on his contemporaries to avoid. We look at the symptoms, but not the cause of our predicament.

Indeed, ever since Donald J. Trump was elected the 45th president of the United States, bewildered American elites have done nothing but talk about him―his personal flaws, his tweets, his supposed racism and hatred of women, his mental health, and his alleged “fascist” tendencies. 

In a recent New York Times piece intended to convey the worldwide danger the president supposedly poses to democracy, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright wondered: “Will We Stop Trump Before It’s Too Late?”   She doesn’t hesitate to gather together without distinction Trump’s America, Benito Mussolini’s Italy, Adolf Hitler’s Germany, Victor Orbán’s Hungary, Kim Jong-un’s North Korea, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey, and Vladimir Putin’s Russia; for each represents a similar danger to the “liberal world order.” Can it really be, as Albright seems to assume, that Americans whose real income has fallen for decades as a consequence of the implementation of the “liberal world order” have nothing about which to complain?

Albright’s piece, which attracted considerable attention within Western political circles, does not ask how the “liberal world order,” in which she played an important role during Bill Clinton’s presidency, has in any way contributed to the pothole in which we find now ourselves.

The attack against the likes of Trump and Orbán is viewed as a mere common-sense response to the dangerous irrationalism that their new nationalism and protectionism seem to entail. Yet for those who have become the collateral damage of globalism, these attacks simply confirm what they have intimated for some time now: any democratically elected challenger daring to question or to attenuate the global ordering of the world these elites have in mind has to be destroyed. And so, we are faced with a worrying vicious circle: the abysmal distrust of the people for the political elites brings insurgent leaders to power; global elites then respond by attacking both these newly elected leaders and voters instead of formulating a political response to their anguish―which further increases distrust. As the French political scientist Pierre Manent has remarked in his recent book, we are squeezed between “contempt of the elites and anger of the people.”

Contempt of the elites, because Trump can only be an accident. His ideas—about the importance of the nation, about “stupid” trade (the rules of which he wants to redefine), his rejection of political correctness and of identity politics—are clearly on the “wrong side” of history. They have been labeled ethno-nationalist, racist, misogynist. But elites have not considered them as potential additions or alternatives, however inchoately articulated, to the current status quo. 

It will be interesting to see if the strategy of destroying Trump, embraced in a nearly obsessive manner by the Democratic Party since his election in 2016, bears fruit in the midterm elections of 2018, and beyond, in 2020. Our instinct is that success is hardly guaranteed, and that it could well be a catastrophic failure. In any case, the issues that Trump’s election have revealed will not be easily brushed aside.

On the other shore of the Atlantic, the parallel approach to “populists” is striking. As in the United States, European elites too are focusing on the personalities of the “villains”―Geert Wilders, Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farage, Orbán, and Matteo Salvini (among others).  There has been almost no serious self-reflection, however, about how a very restrictive definition of the “liberal world order” has contributed to the current crisis.    This denial has unfortunately enabled “populist” and far-right parties to hijack for themselves the hot and complex issues of immigration and Islam.  While the rising difficulties these issues have created raise questions about their most optimistic universalist assumptions, our elites ignore the dissonance.  As Manent has written in his important book, Situation of France, “we are unwilling to see what we see.”   For decades, we have presented immigration and multiculturalism as a “win-win” package, to be embraced and adopted without further discussion, in the name of diversity and individual rights. Nations were said to be outdated. All doubts about the consequences of economic globalization and unfettered migration on the stability of our societies were dismissed out of hand, even deemed racist and xenophobic in principle.  While many ordinary citizens continued to think for themselves, only the daring pointed to the need for borders and to the traps of hasty multiculturalism.  Regarding the biggest question of all―the potential difficulties of integrating growing Muslim communities into the still national cultures of Europe―only the extreme voices have spoken up. A defining characteristic of the modern West is the separation of politics and religion, yet this separation exists in smaller measure or not at all in the Muslim world. When elites abdicate their responsibility and seek to silence needed, legitimate discussion about such issues, only the extreme voices will appear. This is a very dangerous situation.   This refusal to take seriously developments that the commitment to the “liberal world order” set in motion or justified has created a global paralysis of thinking, and, therefore, of action from which we will have to escape if we are to save our Western democracies.

British author David Goodhart has shown in his book, The Road to Somewhere, that Brexit became thinkable only when the British government started reframing and repudiating long-standing conventional understandings of any number of issues. The idea of maintaining a preference in the labor market for nationals over immigrants, for example, long a banal slogan endorsed by the whole political class, suddenly came to be understood by the global elites as a sin against humanity—even likened in the media to the treatment of Jews at the hands of the Nazis. Importantly, notes Goodhart, those who have engineered this transformation in the meaning of things represent no more than 25 percent of the population. “Populism,” writes Goodhart, “has arisen as a counter power to the dominance” of governing elites, which think mostly in terms of “mobility, autonomy, and novelty” in a borderless, global world.  These, Goodhart calls “the Anywhere group.” Set against them is “the Somewhere group,” a majority still longing for “identity and stability”—searching, that is, for a home.  “The majority wants some of the same things that the Anywhere group does, but they want them with moderation and more slowly,” he adds rightly, noting that behind the populist surge lies a legitimate demand for “reasonable conservatism” and secure borders.

In other words, populism is not generated ex nihilo.  It is the result of the powerlessness and passivity of the existing political system, which brings despair, and with it, a feverish search for disruption or for a strong man, or for both.

It is not our purpose to defend at all costs Trump and other abrasive leaders who have recently emerged in Europe. There is much to criticize and perhaps to fear from them. Nor is it to claim that globalization is always wrong, which would be both ridiculous and dangerous.  Nor to say that no danger of ethnic nationalism exists, or that we must return to the 19th century world “order”―or rather its disorder.

Quite the contrary. Our purpose is to reset the conversation and to suggest that the current challenges to Western democracies can be met only if the governing elites begin to understand the magnitude of the popular discontent, and respond constructively to the legitimate longing for a vibrant and durable home that is at its root.  The longing for home should not be understood in Manichean terms—as a battle involving “good” globalists and “evil” nationalists or vice versa.  Our condescension towards the visceral attachment of Central Europe to its sovereignty, and its distrust of the not-so-convincing multicultural model of Western Europe appears counterproductive; yet at the same time we must worry aloud about attacks against checks and balances in Warsaw and Budapest.  In short, the resolution of our crisis requires a more nuanced approach.  Albright is surely right to remind us of the traps of nationalism, but nations will always be with us. 

So, too, will be the recognition that as important as our national home is, we are constituted also to hope for more, to imagine a universal fraternity that history may confound, but never put to rest.  Therein lies the irresolvable tension in the heart of Western man—a tension recognized long ago through the Hebrew prophets, in Greek philosophy, in Christian thought during its first centuries, in the best of the Renaissance humanists, and in the highest understandings of the Enlightenment. 

This tension, we repeat, cannot be resolved, but rather must be lived with.  That is the fate and the legacy of the West.  Politically, that means we cannot forget the needs of the nation nor forget the larger world, which through treaties, alliances, and transnational organizations, aim to guide nations toward some grander design.  But the task of the moment, whose burden rests with the elites, is to somehow reset the bounds of their imagination, towards the nation.  Globalization must be tempered.  Nations must be protected, because they are indispensable to reinvent a community of citizens fit for the challenges of the 21st century.  Otherwise, the gap will only grow between the “top” and the “bottom.”  That will fan the wind of revolutions. 

Who dares ponder where that wind could blow?  Tocqueville had seen the problem.  In front of the French National Assembly in September 1848, he declared, “The people, being, in a way, out of all official movement, have created a life of their own. Detaching themselves more and more by the spirit and the heart from those who were supposed to lead them, they have given their spirit and heart to those who were naturally connected with them, and many among those are the vain utopists and dangerous demagogues.”  There, he foresaw the emergence of “two classes, one small, the other numerous, both parting with one another. One full of jealousy, defiance and anger, and the other full of lightheadedness.”  And farther on, “Because I saw them marching in isolation, in opposite direction, I told myself that the wind of revolutions would arise soon.” 

Today, we stand in the very circumstance Tocqueville anticipated. As he noted then in his speech, “we are on a volcano.”

Laure Mandeville is senior reporter at Le Figaro and a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Future Europe Initiative. Follow her on Twitter @lauremandeville.

Joshua Mitchell is professor of political theory at Georgetown University.

A French version of this article was originally published in Le Figaro on June 6.

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Image: Policemen stood guard during a protest against the government of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in Budapest on May 8. (Reuters/Lisi Niesner)