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In an interview with the Financial Times last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin glibly proclaimed Western liberalism to be “obsolete.” Self-serving as his remark may have been, Putin was tapping into a global sentiment. Illiberal populism is on the rise on virtually every continent, even in places that not long ago seemed headed the opposite way. The Hindu nationalist agenda of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has fanned anti-Muslim sentiment in the world’s most populous democracy. In Brazil, murders of LGBTQ people have risen sharply under far-right President Jair Bolsonaro. In Europe, far-right parties long confined to the fringes of the political spectrum have recently entered ruling coalitions in Austria, Estonia, and Italy. Anti-Semitism is growing in many societies, and anti-immigrant attacks have shaken democratic communities from Christchurch, New Zealand, to Halle, Germany.
Three trends are fueling the rise of illiberalism in modern democracies. Social media networks are gradually displacing civil society networks, democratic societies have grown more politically polarized, and the middle classes have been hollowed out by growing socioeconomic insecurity. Taken together, these developments have generated a form of identity politics that undermines liberal institutions even in supposedly “consolidated” democracies.
For decades, scholars of democracy believed that liberal political institutions were the end product of a process of “modernization,” loosely defined as industrialization, economic development, technological innovation, and the accompanying breakdown of traditional social structures. When these forces gave rise to a middle class powerful enough to demand democratic inclusion and civil rights, modernization theorists suggested, the institutions of liberal democracy would follow.
That theory turned out to be flawed. For starters, it could not explain why some middle-class societies fail to open up politically. Russia is a case in point. Successive U.S. administrations supported Russian economic development, always in the hope of gradually turning the country into a liberal democracy. The administration of President Barack Obama worked to spur investment in Russia’s energy sector and even helped build a small version of Silicon Valley in a Moscow suburb. The Putin regime returned the favor by pilfering sensitive U.S. technologies, using its energy resources as a political weapon against its neighbors, and doubling down on political repression at home.
Nor is a strong middle class by necessity a guardrail against democratic backsliding once liberal institutions have taken root. In fact, as the British historian David Motadel has argued, middle classes have often sided with antidemocratic forces when they considered their wealth and status under threat. In interwar Germany, and later in Latin America, strongmen turned middle-class democracies into highly illiberal dictatorships by playing on fears of economic collapse or communist revolution. Over time, these countries all reverted to liberal democratic governance—but not before “modernization” spawned some of history’s most ruthless dictatorships.
Liberal societies stand out for their citizens’ capacity for mutual tolerance.
These exceptions do not suggest that economic progress is irrelevant, but it is not a panacea. In many cases, the decisive factor is not material progress but the politics of identity—how citizens affiliate with and relate to other members of their political community. Liberal societies stand out for their citizens’ capacity for mutual tolerance. Questions of religion, race, ethnicity, and political ideology may still inform people’s sense of personal identity, sometimes powerfully so, but because citizens are free to develop multiple, overlapping identities and affiliations, no single difference rises to the level of an existential conflict. Disagreements and divisions persist, but even on issues that speak to core aspects of identity, citizens learn to set aside their differences.
That peaceable arrangement is far from the norm. In most societies throughout history, the politics of identity was one of conflict: Protestants against Catholics, Serbs against Croats, peasants against noblemen. Even in liberal societies, persistent antagonism can cause tolerance to break down and devolve into outright hostility or even violent conflict. Citizens who for decades lived amicably in ethnically mixed communities are suddenly overcome by hatred toward their neighbors. It matters little whether they live in a developing country (Rwanda, East Timor) or a more affluent one (Cyprus, Northern Ireland).
The key to liberalism’s success is not whether citizens cling to supposedly “atavistic” ethnic and religious identities or embrace cosmopolitanism and humanism. The real question is how they order and reconcile their differing ethnic, racial, religious, or partisan identities—and on this front, many democratic systems are failing today.
Alexis de Tocqueville’s famous analysis of nineteenth-century American civil society holds true today: citizens who engage in overlapping civil society networks—nongovernmental organizations, volunteer associations, interest groups, and the like—tend to develop identities that cut across social cleavages, which in turn fosters tolerance, civility, and trust. People who lack access to such networks, including those who live in remote, rural areas, are more likely to embrace illiberalism. The political scientist Jonathan Rodden has shown that the single most powerful predictor of support for illiberal populism in the United States and Europe today is low population density.
Social media has much the same isolating effect. The design of many social media platforms isolates users into peer-group bubbles, where they affiliate only with the like-minded and those who share their core identities, creating a powerful feedback loop that undermines the diffraction of identities through civil society. Many surveys have linked social media use to feelings of withdrawal and loneliness. And when social media users come across different opinions or identities online, they often react with hostility. (As one expert put it, “trolling” has now become “the mainstream form of political discourse.”) The point is not that citizens today are less civically engaged than in the past but that their activism, especially through social media, is creating an “uncivil society” that is cruder, more partisan, and more antagonistic. Identities become stacked and rigid, rather than diffuse and overlapping, leaving people more receptive to illiberal ideas.
The consolidation of the like-minded online mirrors a broader trend among democratic publics: growing polarization, or the fact that communities are increasingly segregated into antagonistic camps with almost no common ground. Regardless of whether polarization is based on racial, partisan, ethnic, religious, or some other type of identity, its net effect is to segregate diverse identities into a handful of opposing camps and to encourage fierce tribalism among them. As the journalist Ezra Klein has written in his analysis of polarization in the United States, this “merging of the identities means when you activate one you often activate all, and each time they’re activated, they strengthen.”
Consider the case of Poland, where the right-wing news media demonize members of the LGBTQ community as “pedophiles,” a “rainbow plague,” a “threat to the nation,” practitioners of “bestiality,” and “vampires.” Once a group is demonized in this way, its rights are much more easily denied. But the rhetoric works in more subtle ways, too: the Polish LGBTQ community constitutes only a small percentage of the population, but since Polish society is polarized into two blocs—a more secular, liberal, urban population in the north and western parts of the country and a more traditional, religious, and rural population in the south and east—the vilification of the LGBTQ community is a convenient way to portray any and all progressives as a threat to the Polish way of life.
Where economic despair takes root, voters become receptive to illiberal rhetoric.
Illiberal demagogues all over the world exploit such divisions with great success. For this reason, they have fared best in societies that are highly polarized, such as the United States, Brazil, Poland, Hungary, Turkey, Georgia, and the Philippines, to name only a few. And when autocracies weaponize social media against liberal democracies, as Russia has done in the United States, they often promote seemingly contradictory messages—some in favor of LGBTQ rights and others against, for example. The goal is not to denigrate a particular minority but rather to accelerate polarization and the growth of uncivil society. Analyses of Russian propaganda in Georgia have revealed that the Kremlin uses a similarly polarizing strategy there.
Socioeconomic insecurity, too, can help prepare the ground for illiberalism. The despair and resentment that the loss of economic status can breed run deep—in fact, as Francis Fukuyama has written, people often perceive economic distress “more as a loss of identity than as a loss of resources.” Those who identify as part of the middle class, but fear that they may be falling out of it as a result of unemployment, home foreclosure, bankruptcy, addiction, or illness, are particularly susceptible to such feelings. Even in countries with healthy macroeconomic indicators, that sense of insecurity can be widespread: one need only consider Anne Case and Angus Deaton’s work on the “epidemic of despair” in the United States.
Where such despair takes root, voters become receptive to illiberal rhetoric. The rise of right-wing populism in Greece during the height of the debt crisis and the strength of far-right parties in economically depressed regions of Germany, Slovakia, and France offer clear evidence of that correlation.
Putin’s claim that Western liberalism is obsolete is aspirational. Like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, he wants others to believe that “illiberal democracy” is the way of the future. Both leaders are working hard to make that vision a reality. As I have written elsewhere, Russia’s intelligence services support far-right movements across Europe, from Slovakia to Sweden. Orban is investing in a media network that extends beyond Hungary into neighboring countries, especially in the Balkans.
These efforts would probably not amount to much if Western democracies were not already vulnerable to illiberal ideas. Countering them will require addressing the root causes of that vulnerability: rampant polarization, the toxic effects of social media and the decline of civil society, and profound socioeconomic despair. To invoke the spirit of Mill, Montesquieu, and Hamilton, in the hope that voters in the United States will come around, is not enough. Neither is narrowly focusing on protecting voting machines from hacking and insulating the campaign finance system from dark money.
Instead, fighting back will require strong leadership capable of mending social divisions and reforming broken political and economic institutions. In the United States, that includes ending the practice of gerrymandering, which contributes to political polarization, standing up for bipartisanship, supporting a more expansive social safety net for citizens at risk, and funding research into the radicalizing effects of social media. Above all, leaders should try to foster an ethos of service to the nation rather than to partisan interests: as an official at the Department of Defense, I experienced firsthand the common sense of mission that brought together civilians and uniformed service members, conservatives and progressives, and people of all races and creeds who came to work every day to defend U.S. national security. That spirit is needed now more than ever, in Washington and beyond.
The Fight Over Identity Politics