Principally in “Western” liberal democracies, we hear phrases like “the Internet has made the world a smaller place” and “no two countries with a McDonald’s have ever gone to war” (note: this was true up until the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008). We’ll use the term “liberal democracies” loosely to encompass the post-Cold War era European and American landscapes as well as the transitioning states in the Balkans and parts of South America. This is a departure from other articles and thought pieces that have used the term to discuss the transition away from the Imperial Age and the tumult of the World War Period.
The reason we should focus on the post-Cold War era in defining our “liberal democracy” term is that the reality of international affairs went from being multi-polar in the 1930s to bipolar from 1945 to the late 1980s to unipolar since. It’s impossible to make the argument that, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and certainly since the advent of modern terrorism (while the First World Trade Center attacks might be a good “cutoff point” for a “start date,” a better one may be either the bombing of the Khobar Towers in 1996 or the attack on the USS Cole in 2000. The reason for this distinction is that the go-to American response to international terrorism began to change in the late-1990s. Over the next two decades, the policies related to interventionism, colloquially the Bush Doctrine, became the forefront of America’s foreign relations. Certainly the doctrine has persisted into the Obama Administration), that the world is unipolar. Under the nominal advice of supranational organizations like the United Nations and NATO, the United States has driven world affairs for the better part of three decades.
The Pax Americana
Given the fighting and wars around the world that flood national and international news, it may sound remarkably cynical to call this multi-generational thirty-year period Pax Americana (modeled, obviously, off of the “Pax Romana” from 27BC to 180AD where Rome had, in almost every sense, abandoned the Republic, transitioned to an Imperial system, and defeated all existential threats, both internally and externally). However, the rationale is this: following the demise of the Soviet Union, the threat of a multinational, intercontinental war has diminished. The United States, while not expanding its borders, has expanded its influence across the globe (an influence that has been growing since the first decade of the 20th Century). In effect, “peace” has been maintained across the world. Again, this may sound cynical given the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as conflicts across Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, between Israel and Palestine, in Syria, and between Russia and Ukraine. However, with the notable exception of Russian expansionism complicating issues in Ukraine and Syria, the risk of a global conflagration with any of these conflicts in minimal. For example, the War in Iraq had very little chance of opening up a front on the American-Mexico border or an Asian theater. The First and Second World Wars, along with the Cold War (and its “skirmish” proxy wars), either had, or had the potential of having, battles on every continent.
“Peace” thus established, the 1990s were a period of rampant economic growth in the United States. We also saw that, given the collapse of the Soviet sphere of influence, countries formerly under external pressure turned their focus internal. The dissolution of both Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia in the early 1990s, reflected this transition. Certainly the Balkan states became a flashpoint for ethnic and political conflict for the better part of the next decade.
Following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the United States, either by necessity or by design, made a transition towards preemptive interventionism. The target of intervention was, nominally, state sponsors of terrorism, or, more succinctly: the Axis of Evil. While a decade-and-a-half of hindsight can highlight certain missteps in this American pivot towards an strict interventionist model (effectuated both by Republican and Democrat administrations), its existence is not in doubt.
This transition took place during a period of unprecedented technological advancement through the growth and development of Internet resources, digital commerce, social networking, and citizen journalism. Both America, and her detractors, had a growing platform to reach people who were, otherwise, insulated behind traditional media sources. This should not be taken as a condemnation of traditional media sources, but if the decline of print journalism is any indication, there is a significant backlash by consumers against the “status quo ante” in favor of direct-from-the-source reporting.
The Arab Spring and its Detractors
The “Arab Spring,” a period roughly from December of 2010 through the better part of 2011, showed the influence of internet resources on otherwise underserved individuals. It’s inappropriate to generalize about the internal political factors across the Middle East and Islamic Maghreb that led to the protests, demonstrations, and regime changes in certain nations, but the constant in each of these conflicts was a reliance on the interconnectedness of people to spread news and information outside of traditional sources.
Authoritarian governments, or governments that have an interest in remaining in power, have moved over the past decade to limit, control, and monitor internet resources. Interestingly, this has led to some of the best internet infrastructure being developed (that is, in order to stay ahead of hackers and revolutionaries, one has to be constantly innovating). China and Russia are two of the preeminent examples of online censorship cultures (the proof being that I doubt, after that statement, that this article will be able to be accessed in either nation). China and Russia notwithstanding, the unprecedented steps taken by Recep Erdoğan in Turkey to secure and maintain his power should actually be more concerning. The reason for this is that Turkey was, at least for the first decade of the 21st century, on a path to becoming the world’s preeminent Islamic democracy. The hope was that Turkey would be instructive to nations across the Middle East as a path towards secular, self-government with Islamic characteristics. Instead of moving in the direction of increased liberalization, Turkey has taken significant steps backwards in recent years.
“Illiberalism” Around the World?
Numerous articles following the British departure from the European Union have been written that provide a synthetic narrative relating to the decline of liberal institutions worldwide. These articles point to the rise of nationalism in the United States, France, and Germany as well as votes in nations as diverse as the Philippines and Austria, and draw the conclusion that liberal institutions are declining.
While the conclusion is probably correct that certain institutions are declining, the labeling of this decline as the end of a liberal worldview is misplaced. Unfortunately, it comes down to definitions. If you are of the mind that supranational organizations are the logical outgrowth of the liberalization following the end of the Cold War, you will disagree with the position being taken in this article.
Here’s the way the argument goes in favor of equating “liberalism” with the embracing of an international superstructure or global framework. First, it increases market opportunities for the free-flow of commerce and business. Second, it breaks down barriers for the movement of peoples and the exchange of cultures. Third, because of the interdependent nature of people generated by this “global community,” the odds of war diminish because the economic impact would undermine its utility. Fourth, the growth of technology provides a baseline for people to increase in education and, consequently, their labor becomes more valuable. Fifth, with figurative swords now beaten into plowshares, peacetime economics becomes the norm, and the standard of living across the globe increases. Finally, because the standard of living has increased for people, it will necessarily lead to people wanting to preserve their economic independence and, consequently, maintain a liberal order. (It’s important to point out that “liberal” in this context is not synonymous with the progressive movement in the United States or the social democrat ideology abroad).
This progression has been embraced strongly in the post-Cold War European Union and, in a modified way, by the United States.
One of the most interesting statistics in the British referendum to withdraw from the European Union was the vote in Wales to leave. The Welsh, per capita, were receiving more from the European Union than they were putting out. Yet, they voted, apparently against their economic interest, to move away from the supranational governmental framework of the “European community.”
Invective and Outsiders
Let’s not spend too much time on the invective being thrown around on both sides of the post-vote British debate or, for that matter, against the Presidential campaign of Donald Trump. It’s important to note, however, a few important charges being leveled against both (and, for that matter FN in France, AfD in Germany, etc.): racism and xenophobia. Racism, without diving too deeply into hotly contested waters, generally assumes the flawed principle, that one’s race is superior (or, the corollary that another’s race is inferior) because of racial characteristics (often in the form of stereotyping). The outgrowth of this charge is xenophobia. Basically, this revolves around the contention that foreigners (“the other” or the “outsider”) are intrinsically either dangerous, inferior, or both.
In Western society, the label of “racist” more than “xenophobe” carries an appropriate stigma. In the United States, a nation with a very troubled racial past, the label can be used to effectively discard or discredit opinions that stray outside of acceptable political norms. In most cases, the underlying prejudice of racism is a lack of education that leads to a lack of economic opportunity. The prejudice, then, arises, at its core, from self-interest. Now, it’s again important to note the definition of terms. “Self-interest” is not the same thing as “selfish.” “Self-interest” can extend to family or even community. It’s a prospective term (“I want to succeed”) rather than an introspective term (“I want this”).
Now, the important note here is that “self-interest” does not always manifest in prejudice (prejudice, again, being the likely root of racism). Self-interest can also manifest in what is colloquially referred to as the “American Dream.” That is to say, the ability for one to succeed and reach the highest levels of a field despite a starting point at or below that of one’s peers.
With these terms established, we move into the explanation of the confluence of events that more aptly explains the “decline of liberal institutions” than simply “growing illiberalism” or, more crudely “xenophobia.”
The Confluence of Factors
We start, first, with the growing accessibility of technology to persons who outside of traditional “cutting edge” demographics. The lament of millennials in the late-2000s was something like “oh gosh, Grandma is on Facebook.” While usually played for humor (Grandma sharing too many cat videos or awkwardly commenting on pictures of college students drinking), the anecdote belied a serious change. According to 2014 Pew research, 79% of persons 30-49 and 64% of persons 50-64 (and 48% of persons over 65) use Facebook. Of those users, 91% are on the platform either daily (70%) or weekly (an additional 21%). Twitter has a smaller overall marketshare, holding sway over about 23% of all adults online (29% of 30-49).
If we go by the progression of “liberalism,” above, the increase of users on social media, and of the internet, generally, should have a liberalizing effect on the overall population. If the supranational structure argument (that is, the EU/UN, etc. is better for everyone), is to be believed, the growing interconnectedness of people should result in higher favorability for such institutions. However, empirically, we are seeing that the rise of this technological interconnectedness has had, while not the “opposite” effect, certainly not the intended effect.
We have seen, whether in the Arab Spring or in the Brexit vote, the ability to express discontent and circumvent the filter (and argued bias) of institutional sources. Cue a discussion of Donald Trump.
It’s a Politics Article in 2016, so of Course we will Talk About Trump
Opinions of Mr. Trump wholly notwithstanding, Trump’s social media presence is dominant. Trump has shown that, especially on Twitter, he can (to the chagrin of institutional sources), reach millions of people with a tweet he, personally composes. While this has drawn scorn and ridicule from a wide spectrum of media and “establishment” sources for occasionally poor spelling and diction (Sad!), it is also an honest and direct source for both supporters and detractors to engage with an already-larger-than-life political figure. While other politicians use Twitter and Facebook to pump out saccharine political fluff written by campaign staff and consultants, there is something refreshing in the wholly “Trumpian” posts that break through the monotony of typical political discourse. Is this a good or bad thing? In substance, that’s certainly debatable given one’s political leanings. In style? It’s a brilliant, populist, strategy.
Clickbait and the Press
This accessible technological baseline established with an ever-growing online population, we then confront the issues that people care about. It only takes you a few moments searching through the Twitter accounts of traditional media sources and their reporters to see a symptom of the next step: clickbait. Roughly defined, clickbait is a link that presents a lurid, questionable, or sensationalist headline designed to get a user to access the article or website. The underlying article, video, or media is usually fairly bland and not in keeping with the title’s promises. The purpose of clickbait is to generate “clicks.” In essence, digital media and the monetization of online resources comes down to an analysis of how many users access a site. The (overly reductive) formula is: the more clicks, the more profits.
So, what does clickbait have to do with the decline of “liberal” institutions worldwide? The early years of clickbait headlines were usually advertisements or fringe blogs. However, any cursory search of even the most traditional news and information outlets will reveal clickbait-ing. What does this mean? First, that traditional media sources are declining. We all know that. We’ve seen the fall of print journalism for the past decades. However, the second point is that traditional news sources are losing market share, or being drowned out, by available coverage.
For example: would you rather read an article on a news website or simply read the Twitter feed of a reporter covering the event? Moreover, straight “news” presented without analysis is simply not as lucrative as opinion-shaping narratives. This isn’t meant as a cynical critique of journalism, just as a presentation of the reality of “new media.”
It is in this context that our “new technologists” find themselves. Having grown up on traditional media, they are now actively experiencing the rapid development of the monetization of news (this is the reason Grandma shares so many cat videos—the ad executives are counting on it, actually). Given the glut of online sources, it becomes a “buyers’ market” for content. Consequently, otherwise niche sources quickly become hubs for discourse as they attract a strong following. Especially when individuals can “follow” or “like” their preferred news sources, the stream of information that they receive is tailored to fit their narrative. (This is the echo chamber theory, by the way).
Immediately, an event becomes filtered through a lens. We see this on display when there are “mass shootings” in the United States. Even before details are released, proverbial battle lines are drawn between “blame guns” and “terrorism” and “no more gun free zones” and the like. Control of the narrative becomes almost more important than the facts. (c.f. the complaint on the right that Obama refuses to use the term “radical Islamic terrorism” and the complaint on the left that Republicans have blood on their hands for not having votes on “common sense” gun control).
This, naturally, has led to conspiracy (and some factual) theories that social media and internet companies, like Facebook, Twitter, Google, and the like, have the ability to shape popular opinion and create a narrative by limiting or over-exposing “sides” in a debate. It’s an interesting contention that belies a deeper skepticism about institutional bias.
We return, in the end, to the definition of “liberalism.” What we have before us, as exemplified in the Brexit vote most recently, is the charge of “illiberalism” for opposition to the perceived “openness” of the supranational institution of the European Union. Given the predicate that self-interested persons are self-selecting their information in a means that breaks down traditional power structures, media narratives, and political formulations, we have the case where “liberalism” is, converse to the assertion, actually prominently displayed. In defiance of economic pressure, political pressure, and rhetorical invective, a majority in Britain chose the option that was presented as national self-determinism. In effect, the call was for being ruled “closer to home.”
There is no end to the number of “think pieces” about the Brexit vote, sociology, and the politics of Britain moving forward. However, if we consider the “populist” message of the Arab Spring, Brexit, and within the American discourse, we see a combative, but self-deterministic strain of thought emerging. In effect, the message we may be able to take away from the whole dialogue isn’t really about liberalism or illiberalism at all. Rather, perhaps the message simply comes down to people actively attempting to restore trust in institutions. “A government that exists closer to home is a government I can keep my eye on.”
Maybe it would be better to abandon the clickbait and the scolding and move in the direction of restoring institutional trust? But, how would we sell that to advertisers?