What on earth is going on in the Western democracies? From the rise of Donald Trump in the United States and an assortment of right-wing parties across Europe through the June 23 Brexit vote, many on the Left have the sense that something dangerous and ugly is spreading: right-wing populism, seen as the Zika virus of politics. Something has gotten into “those people” that makes them vote in ways that seem—to their critics—likely to harm their own material interests, at least if their leaders follow through in implementing isolationist policies that slow economic growth.
Most analyses published since the Brexit vote focus on economic factors and some version of the “left behind” thesis—globalization has raised prosperity all over the world, with the striking exception of the working classes in Western societies. These less educated members of the richest countries lost access to well-paid but relatively low-skilled jobs, which were shipped overseas or given to immigrants willing to work for less. In communities where wages have stagnated or declined, the ever-rising opulence, rents, and confidence of London and other super-cities has bred resentment.
Each country has followed a unique trajectory, but if we zoom out far enough some general trends emerge from the WVS data. Countries seem to move in two directions, along two axes: first, as they industrialize, they move away from “traditional values” in which religion, ritual, and deference to authorities are important, and toward “secular rational” values that are more open to change, progress, and social engineering based on rational considerations. Second, as they grow wealthier and more citizens move into the service sector, nations move away from “survival values” emphasizing the economic and physical security found in one’s family, tribe, and other parochial groups, toward “self-expression” or “emancipative values” that emphasize individual rights and protections—not just for oneself, but as a matter of principle, for everyone. Here is a summary of those changes from the introduction to Christian Welzel’s enlightening book Freedom Rising:
…fading existential pressures [i.e., threats and challenges to survival] open people’s minds, making them prioritize freedom over security, autonomy over authority, diversity over uniformity, and creativity over discipline. By the same token, persistent existential pressures keep people’s minds closed, in which case they emphasize the opposite priorities…the existentially relieved state of mind is the source of tolerance and solidarity beyond one’s in-group; the existentially stressed state of mind is the source of discrimination and hostility against out-groups.
Democratic capitalism—in societies with good rule of law and non-corrupt institutions—has generated steady increases in living standards and existential security for many decades now. As societies become more prosperous and safe, they generally become more open and tolerant. Combined with vastly greater access to the food, movies, and consumer products of other cultures brought to us by globalization and the internet, this openness leads almost inevitably to the rise of a cosmopolitan attitude, usually most visible in the young urban elite. Local ties weaken, parochialism becomes a dirty word, and people begin to think of their fellow human beings as fellow “citizens of the world” (to quote candidate Barack Obama in Berlin in 2008). The word “cosmopolitan” comes from Greek roots meaning, literally, “citizen of the world.” Cosmopolitans embrace diversity and welcome immigration, often turning those topics into litmus tests for moral respectability.
For example, in 2007, former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown gave a speech that included the phrase, “British jobs for British workers.” The phrase provoked anger and scorn from many of Brown’s colleagues in the Labour party. In an essay in Prospect, David Goodhart described the scene at a British center-left social event a few days after Brown’s remark:
The people around me entered a bidding war to express their outrage at Brown’s slogan which was finally triumphantly closed by one who declared, to general approval, that it was “racism, pure and simple.” I remember thinking afterwards how odd the conversation would have sounded to most other people in this country. Gordon Brown’s phrase may have been clumsy and cynical but he didn’t actually say British jobs for white British workers. In most other places in the world today, and indeed probably in Britain itself until about 25 years ago, such a statement about a job preference for national citizens would have seemed so banal as to be hardly worth uttering. Now the language of liberal universalism has ruled it beyond the pale.
The shift that Goodhart notes among the Left-leaning British elite is related to the shift toward “emancipative” values described by Welzel. Parochialism is bad and universalism is good. Goodhart quotes George Monbiot, a leading figure of the British Left:
Internationalism…tells us that someone living in Kinshasa is of no less worth than someone living in Kensington…. Patriotism, if it means anything, tells us we should favour the interests of British people [before the Congolese]. How do you reconcile this choice with liberalism? How…do you distinguish it from racism?
Monbiot’s claim that patriotism is indistinguishable from racism illustrates the universalism that has characterized elements of the globalist Left in many Western nations for several decades. John Lennon wrote the globalist anthem in 1971. After asking us to imagine that there’s no heaven, and before asking us to imagine no possessions, Lennon asks us to:
Imagine there’s no countries; it isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace.
You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.
I hope some day you’ll join us, and the world will be one.
This is a vision of heaven for multicultural globalists. But it’s naiveté, sacrilege, and treason for nationalists.
Chapter Two: Globalists and Nationalists Grow Further Apart on Immigration
But if you are a European nationalist, watching the nightly news may have felt like watching the spread of the Zika virus, moving steadily northward from the chaos zones of southwest Asia and north Africa. Only a few right-wing nationalist leaders tried to stop it, such as Victor Orban in Hungary. The globalist elite seemed to be cheering the human tidal wave onward, welcoming it into the heart of Europe, and then demanding that every country accept and resettle a large number of refugees.
And these demands, epicentered in Brussels, came after decades of debate in which nationalists had been arguing that Europe has already been too open and had already taken in so many Muslim immigrants that the cultures and traditions of European societies were threatened. Long before the flow of Syrian asylum seekers arrived in Europe there were initiatives to ban minarets in Switzerland and burkas in France. There were riots in Arab neighborhoods of Paris and Marseilles, and attacks on Jews and synagogues throughout Europe. There were hidden terrorist cells that planned and executed the attacks of September 11 in the United States, attacks on trains and buses in Madrid and London, and the slaughter of the Charlie Hebdo staff in Paris.
The answer, Stenner suggests, is what she calls “normative threat,” which basically means a threat to the integrity of the moral order (as they perceive it). It is the perception that “we” are coming apart:
The experience or perception of disobedience to group authorities or authorities unworthy of respect, nonconformity to group norms or norms proving questionable, lack of consensus in group values and beliefs and, in general, diversity and freedom ‘run amok’ should activate the predisposition and increase the manifestation of these characteristic attitudes and behaviors.
So authoritarians are not being selfish. They are not trying to protect their wallets or even their families. They are trying to protect their group or society. Some authoritarians see their race or bloodline as the thing to be protected, and these people make up the deeply racist subset of right-wing populist movements, including the fringe that is sometimes attracted to neo-Nazism. They would not even accept immigrants who fully assimilated to the culture. But more typically, in modern Europe and America, it is the nation and its culture that nationalists want to preserve.
Stenner identifies authoritarians in her many studies by the degree to which they endorse a few items about the most important values children should learn at home, for example, “obedience” (vs. “independence” and “tolerance and respect for other people”). She then describes a series of studies she did using a variety of methods and cross-national datasets. In one set of experiments she asked Americans to read fabricated news stories about how their nation is changing. When they read that Americans are changing in ways that make them more similar to each other, authoritarians were no more racist and intolerant than others. But when Stenner gave them a news story suggesting that Americans are becoming more morally diverse, the button got pushed, the “authoritarian dynamic” kicked in, and they became more racist and intolerant. For example, “maintaining order in the nation” became a higher national priority while “protecting freedom of speech” became a lower priority. They became more critical of homosexuality, abortion, and divorce.
One of Stenner’s most helpful contributions is her finding that authoritarians are psychologically distinct from “status quo conservatives” who are the more prototypical conservatives—cautious about radical change. Status quo conservatives compose the long and distinguished lineage from Edmund Burke’s prescient reflections and fears about the early years of the French revolution through William F. Buckley’s statement that his conservative magazine National Review would “stand athwart history yelling ‘Stop!’”
So now we can see why immigration—particularly the recent surge in Muslim immigration from Syria—has caused such powerfully polarized reactions in so many European countries, and even in the United States where the number of Muslim immigrants is low. Muslim Middle Eastern immigrants are seen by nationalists as posing a far greater threat of terrorism than are immigrants from any other region or religion. But Stenner invites us to look past the security threat and examine the normative threat. Islam asks adherents to live in ways that can make assimilation into secular egalitarian Western societies more difficult compared to other groups. (The same can be said for Orthodox Jews, and Stenner’s authoritarian dynamic can help explain why we are seeing a resurgence of right-wing anti-Semitism in the United States.) Muslims don’t just observe different customs in their private lives; they often request and receive accommodations in law and policy from their host countries, particularly in matters related to gender. Some of the most pitched battles of recent decades in France and other European countries have been fought over the veiling and covering of women, and the related need for privacy and gender segregation. For example, some public swimming pools in Sweden now offer times of day when only women are allowed to swim. This runs contrary to strong Swedish values regarding gender equality and non-differentiation.
So whether you are a status quo conservative concerned about rapid change or an authoritarian who is hypersensitive to normative threat, high levels of Muslim immigration into your Western nation are likely to threaten your core moral concerns. But as soon as you speak up to voice those concerns, globalists will scorn you as a racist and a rube. When the globalists—even those who run the center-right parties in your country—come down on you like that, where can you turn? The answer, increasingly, is to the far right-wing nationalist parties in Europe, and to Donald Trump, who just engineered a hostile takeover of the Republican Party in America.
The Authoritarian Dynamic was published in 2005 and the word “Muslim” occurs just six times (in contrast to 100 appearances of the word “black”). But Stenner’s book offers a kind of Rosetta stone for interpreting the rise of right-wing populism and its focus on Muslims in 2016. Stenner notes that her theory “explains the kind of intolerance that seems to ‘come out of nowhere,’ that can spring up in tolerant and intolerant cultures alike, producing sudden changes in behavior that cannot be accounted for by slowly changing cultural traditions.”
She contrasts her theory with those who see an unstoppable tide of history moving away from traditions and “toward greater respect for individual freedom and difference,” and who expect people to continue evolving “into more perfect liberal democratic citizens.“ She does not say which theorists she has in mind, but Welzel and his World Values Survey collaborators, as well as Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis, seem to be likely candidates. Stenner does not share the optimism of those theorists about the future of Western liberal democracies. She acknowledges the general trends toward tolerance, but she predicts that these very trends create conditions that hyper-activate authoritarians and produce a powerful backlash.She offered this prophecy:
[T]he increasing license allowed by those evolving cultures generates the very conditions guaranteed to goad latent authoritarians to sudden and intense, perhaps violent, and almost certainly unexpected, expressions of intolerance. Likewise, then, if intolerance is more a product of individual psychology than of cultural norms…we get a different vision of the future, and a different understanding of whose problem this is and will be, than if intolerance is an almost accidental by-product of simple attachment to tradition. The kind of intolerance that springs from aberrant individual psychology, rather than the disinterested absorption of pervasive cultural norms, is bound to be more passionate and irrational, less predictable, less amenable to persuasion, and more aggravated than educated by the cultural promotion of tolerance [emphasis added].
Writing in 2004, Stenner predicted that “intolerance is not a thing of the past, it is very much a thing of the future.
Chapter Four: What Now?
Stenner ends The Authoritarian Dynamic with some specific and constructive advice:
[A]ll the available evidence indicates that exposure to difference, talking about difference, and applauding difference—the hallmarks of liberal democracy—are the surest ways to aggravate those who are innately intolerant, and to guarantee the increased expression of their predispositions in manifestly intolerant attitudes and behaviors. Paradoxically, then, it would seem that we can best limit intolerance of difference by parading, talking about, and applauding our sameness…. Ultimately, nothing inspires greater tolerance from the intolerant than an abundance of common and unifying beliefs, practices, rituals, institutions, and processes. And regrettably, nothing is more certain to provoke increased expression of their latent predispositions than the likes of “multicultural education,” bilingual policies, and nonassimilation.
If Stenner is correct, then her work has profound implications, not just for America, which was the focus of her book, but perhaps even more so for Europe. Donald Tusk, the current president of the European Council, recently gave a speech to a conclave of center-right Christian Democratic leaders (who, as members of the educated elite, are still generally globalists). Painfully aware of the new authoritarian supremacy in his native Poland, he chastised himself and his colleagues for pushing a “utopia of Europe without nation-states.” This, he said, has caused the recent Euroskeptic backlash: “Obsessed with the idea of instant and total integration, we failed to notice that ordinary people, the citizens of Europe, do not share our Euro-enthusiasm.”