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The New Demo-pessimism

eye on the news

The New Demo-pessimism

A European conference is gloomy on the future of liberal democracy. June 27, 2018
Politics and law

Normandy—cold, green, and charming—should be the scene of celebration for liberal democracy. The northern region of France produced seminal writings from its aristocratic native son, Alexis de Tocqueville, and was the setting for the landings on D-Day, which reestablished liberalism on a continent locked in the grip of fascism. Yet at the Tocqueville Foundation’s recent conference, “Democracy in the West: Towards a Vision for the 21st Century,” held in the sixteenth-century chateau that remains the property of Tocqueville descendants, the prevailing sentiment was pessimism about democracy’s future and even fear that the Tocquevillian model is headed toward extinction. New forces, notably from Russia and China, noted former French prime minister Bernard Cazeneuve, “are trying to undermine democracy and offer an alternative model.”

Cazeneuve drew parallels between the current European crisis and the period just before the 1848 revolution, when, as de Tocqueville warned, the continent was “sleeping on a volcano. . . . A wind of revolution blows, the storm is on the horizon.” That wind today includes rising authoritarianism and an internal cultural collapse, a haunting sense that the bourgeois order that has brought the continent—and much of the world—a period of unprecedented prosperity and relative peace is staggering to an inglorious end.

Europe after the fall of Nazism was nursed, even coddled, by the United States. The U.S. kept the Russian bear at bay and supported a trade regime that allowed mercantilist nations, such as France, to enjoy prosperity, with money left over to pay for a generous welfare state. Exhausted by two calamitous world wars, Europe clung to an order of imposed harmony, increasingly directed from Berlin and Brussels, a kind of democracy imposed from above.

That order is now unraveling. Americans in the Donald Trump era have grown weary of carrying the defense burden, particularly for wealthy Germany (a complaint, incidentally, also voiced by President Obama). More important still has been President Trump’s critique of Europe’s cozy trade and monetary arrangements, which keep German products artificially cheap and allow for mass subsidization of industries and agriculture. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross points out that our leading trading partners have long imposed higher tariffs on incoming U.S. goods than what we levy on their exports.

With its ties to America fraying, Europeans, including those on the right, expressed frustration over a world where the big deals are now struck not with Europeans, but between America, China, and Russia. “We thought we were at the vanguard of the world,” conceded former French foreign minister Hubert Vedrine, “but we have become fragile on the inside.” The picture that emerged in Normandy was of a continent that has lost the will to do anything more than theorize and make broad statements. Americans, Chinese, and Russians, noted philosopher Pierre Manent, know how “to use their power.” Europeans, he added, “only wish for things.”

Most conference participants were from the center-right, but they did not regard President Trump highly. Figaro senior reporter Laure Mandeville noted that Europeans were not sure whether Trump was “the cause of evil or just the reflection of it.” Yet, as she and others acknowledged, Trump is not the cause of European demographic (one-third of the EU’s leaders are childless) and economic torpor. Few made a direct connection between the weakness of the European economy and the rise of nationalist and populist movements across the continent. Half of Europeans think that future generations will live worse than today’s, while only one-quarter believe that things will improve, which does much to  explain why Europe’s center-right and center-left parties are contracting, while populist-right governments predominate in Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and Italy. Nationalist movements are also ascendant in once reliably progressive strongholds of Germany, Holland, Sweden, and Finland. Some of these factions openly embrace the notion of “illiberal democracy,” which contradicts Tocquevillian notions of ordered liberty.

But the trend toward extremism is not just a phenomenon on the right. The far Left also flourishes in an atmosphere where popular support for the “European project” has diminished. Hostility to the EU is actually stronger in many key European countries, including France, than in Britain. “Populism,” notes Vedrine, “is necessarily the failure of elites.” In France’s election last year, the former Trotskyite Jean-Luc Melenchon won the under-24 vote, beating the “youthful” and now increasingly unpopular Emmanuel Macron by almost two-to-one. Similarly, in the United Kingdom, the birthplace of modern capitalism, Labour, under neo-Marxist Jeremy Corbyn, won over 60 percent of the vote among voters under 40, compared with just 23 percent for the Conservatives.

The shift to harder-left politics extends to the United States. In the 2016 primaries, among voters under 30, Bernie Sanders easily outpolled Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump combined. Recently, Clinton mused that one reason she failed with younger voters was her identification as a “capitalist.” The future could be uncomfortably Red, even among traditionally grasping Americans; a 2016 poll by the Communism Memorial Foundation found that 44 percent of American millennials favored socialism, while another 14 percent preferred fascism or Communism. By 2024, these millennials will be the biggest voting bloc.

European intellectuals at Normandy focused mostly on the cultural roots of continental decline. There was much discussion about the erosion of affiliations that long bound the citizen of European nations to one another. This erosion is most notable among those whom British author David Goodhart calls the “anywheres”—cosmopolitan and largely post-national elites—who generally look down on ordinary, more rooted Europeans, or “somewheres.” The “anywhere” tendency is prominent in European media, which downplays coverage of Islamist agitation, as well as rapes and crime associated with refugees, since these disturb its preferred narrative of a multicultural,  post-national world. Other “everywhere” prejudices can be seen in the progressive political elites of both parties and academia. “Liberalism is stupid about culture,” Goodhart suggests.

Many conference speakers tied these “anywhere” values to a weakening of European identity. “The European ‘we’ does not exist,” suggested Manent. “We don’t know any more what we are.” The EU, that great construct of progressive centralism, he added, “is devoid of any character. European culture is in hiding, disappearing, without a soul.” Critical here is the precipitous decline of Christianity, the ideal that forged Europe’s premodern identity. Well over 50 percent of Europeans under 30 don’t identify with a religion; in the UK, the Muslim population could exceed Anglican Church membership within a decade.

Christianity’s decline, observed Tocqueville scholar Joshua Mitchell, represents a direct threat to European democracy. The great French writer, he reminded us, was Christian, and his descendants today remain committed to the Catholic faith. Christian values tempered the transition from aristocracy to democracy; Tocqueville saw Christianity as a constraint on the rampant individualism and materialism characteristic of democratic societies, which he had observed in the United States. Tocqueville, Mitchell suggested, “believed people have to have a culture, a place and a religion.”

Perhaps the most heated expression of demo-pessimism comes as a reaction to mass migration, notably from Islamic countries. The decision of German Chancellor Angela Merkel to open her borders to refugees from places like Syria and Afghanistan and the African continent has destabilized European sensibilities in a way not seen since the Second World War. Few speakers defended Merkel’s actions, reflecting almost three-to-one negative reaction to mass migration among Europeans. This opposition has helped nurture populist movements across the continent, including the new government in Italy. Unrestricted migration helped drive Brexit in the UK and sent many traditionally centrist voters elsewhere flocking to anti-immigrant parties, including some on the extreme, quasi-fascist right.

One can enjoy diverse cultures more than before in the great capitals of Europe, but many don’t see the new, cosmopolitan Europe as a significant improvement. Giles Keppel, a leading French student of Islam, sees Europe “questioning its ability” to absorb these newcomers. The graffiti-filled streets of great cities like Paris, where my wife’s French relatives warn her not to wear jewelry, are poor advertisements for the integration of immigrants from the developing world.

Keppel, like other European intellectuals, identifies Islam, with its lack of distinction between public and private realms, as a direct threat to the future of continental democracy. While European media and academia promote an “erasing of identities” from the past, Muslims possess “a keen sense” of theirs, which is shaped by their religious beliefs. Rather than struggle for their own values, Europeans and others in the West, Keppel suggests, have been told that “they must give up their principles and soul—it’s the politics of fait accompli.”

Some scholars, like Hakim El Karoui, countered that the concern over Islam is overstated. He estimates France’s Islamic population at 8 percent of the national total, and projects it to be at most 20 percent by 2050. Roughly one-fifth of these Muslims, he adds, are “leaving the religion,” and only a similarly sized percentage favor a radical Islamic agenda. The real issue, he insists, is social and economic isolation, not theology. But even if espoused by a relatively small minority, political Islam, with its hostility to gay and women’s rights, as well as to free speech, looms large in a deconstructed Europe, ironically gaining support from progressives, who have reflexive sympathy with the post-colonial “other.” There’s a kind of cultural exhaustion that leads to being overwhelmed by a stronger culture, the theme explored in Michel Houellebecq’s riveting novel Submission, which foresees  the Islamization of France.

To be sure, resurgent xenophobes threaten existing minorities and, in some cases, still carry the incubus of anti-Semitism. But arguably the biggest threat comes not from crude extreme-right outsiders, but from the entrenched and respectable establishment on both sides of the Atlantic. In many ways, the European establishment is the heir to what Tocqueville labeled “excessive centralization,” a disease that long has plagued France, and in recent decades has spread to our continent as well. Those inhabiting these central institutions—the upper bureaucracy, academia, the mainstream media, and many top corporate executives—are increasingly unwilling to brook opposition to their consensus on such cherished issues as migration, climate change, and multiculturalism. Horrified that those below do not obey, important left-of-center voices, such as former Obama budget advisor Peter Orszag and Thomas Friedman, argue that power should shift from naturally contentious elected bodies—subject to pressure from the lower orders—to credentialed “experts” operating in Washington, Brussels, or the United Nations.

These sentiments are, if anything, greater in Europe, where the tradition of rule by sheltered bureaucracies is stronger. Eurocrats have largely ignored Brexit, as well as numerous popular votes since 2005 in which FrenchDanish, and Dutch voters have voted against intensified  EU ties. Even now, they seek to “deepen” the EU, even as less than 10 percent of EU residents identify themselves as Europeans first, and 51 percent favor, according to a European poll, more powerful national entities, compared with 35 percent who want Brussels to have expanded power. Like their colleagues across the Atlantic, EU bureaucrats and their supporters in the media, academia, and corporate boardrooms have grown accustomed to speaking down to the masses. “The EU,” suggests analyst George Friedman, “has become an authoritarian regime insisting that it is the defender of liberal democracy.”

How should those Americans and Europeans who embrace the humanistic values of Tocqueville respond? One answer from Normandy suggests rediscovery of our historic, religious, and cultural identities—and fealty to the nation. Many progressives see nationalism as a dirty word, associated with fascist regimes through history, two world wars, and the extremists of the racist right. Liberal globalists  detested President Trump’s Poland speech last summer in large part because he explicitly defended Western values. Yet in a world where authoritarians are on the rise—most importantly in China, but also Turkey, Russia, and throughout the developing world—embracing Western values has never been more important. To counter the authoritarian wave also means rejecting unrepresentative, allegedly democratic authority that refuses to consider the views of its own citizens.

Tocqueville warned against centralized control; he was favorably impressed by American opposition to overweening government. He was struck, too, by how much America tends to “govern itself,” leaving little to the professional administrators. This notion was essential also to the American Founders whom he so greatly admired. In Federalist 47, James Madison wrote that “the accumulation of powers legislative, executive, and judiciary in the same hands . . . may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.” Tocqueville believed that democracy’s strength stemmed from the commitment of its people. They would determine the health of democracy, where people “will be either greater than kings or less than men.” A nominally democratic society ruled from above by a select few threatens pluralism and individual freedom, and will likely spark a continuous, sometimes ugly populist backlash. When the bond between government and the populace is broken, we may see, as Tocqueville warned, a return to forms of autocracy that we once thought consigned to tragic history.

Photos by Scott Carpenter

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