Narrowing Hearts and Minds: Diagnosing the Global Rise of Illiberal Democracy

June 2, 2021

There is no doubt that illiberalism is on the rise. Just as the world is becoming more connected, hearts and minds are constricting in ways that are sure to be self-defeating. 

Tribalism and polarization are on full display in a global wave of political fragmentation. Whether it's violent flashpoints on the streets of Gaza and Jerusalem or the purging of U.S. politicians who refuse to acquiesce to new party extremes, fear and insecurity are making collective action increasingly difficult and compromise near impossible.

The challenge of rising illiberalism and civil unrest in the U.S. and abroad is so acute it provided the climax for President Joe Biden's first speech to the U.S. Congress: "Can our democracy overcome the lies, anger, hate, and fears that have pulled us apart?" he asked. "America's adversaries—the autocrats of the world—are betting we can't."  

The populist playbook is now remarkably familiar: Retreat from globalism, embrace nationalism, stoke ethnic claims, and attack democratic norms and institutions. Today, we see these elements around the world in places as different as Hungary, Brazil, India, and the U.S., and enacted by personalities as distinct as Viktor Orbán, Jair Bolsonaro, Narendra Modi, and Donald Trump.

What makes this brand of autocrat particularly insidious is that these illiberal strongmen have been democratically elected. There was no single moment of fiery revolt or violent seizure of power. Instead, their authoritarian rule is ascending with the consent of the governed. In the hands of these leaders, power is being consolidated to serve a proudly illiberal vision of society and state. In this way, democracy is bending to their will.

Illiberalism favors one's own group while denying the rights and claims of others. Illiberalism is anti-plural; it focuses on singular identity; it seeks to make distinctions by race and ethnicity; it asserts a particular vision of the family, and social order; and it uses anti-democratic means to achieve and maintain power.

In principle, illiberalism can come from the right or the left. But the current wave is most assuredly of the right-wing variety. 

As Viktor Orbán began his fourth term as prime minister of Hungary in 2018, he claimed proudly, "We have replaced a shipwrecked liberal democracy with a 21st century Christian democracy . . ." He was explicit in his accomplishment. The Hungarian state under his regime would be Christian, supportive of the traditional family model ("one man, one woman"), anti-multicultural, anti-elite, and anti-global.  

According to Orbán, "Just because democracy is not liberal, it can still be a democracy." By "not liberal," he refers to previously understood guarantees of individual rights to free expression and due process of law. In its four terms in power, Orbán's government has passed sweeping laws to secure control over three essential institutions: the media, the judiciary, and the universities.  

The Orbán blueprint is familiar to other illiberal democracies such as Poland, Turkey, India, and Brazil. It is also familiar to Donald Trump, who famously made his own attempts to undermine the American media and courts, as well as the electoral process itself, with his illiberal words and deeds.

During a 2018 campaign speech, Trump said, "You know what I am? I'm a nationalist. Ok? I'm a nationalist. Use that word, use that word." He went on to say, "You know what a globalist is, right? A globalist is a person who wants the globe to do well, frankly not caring about our country so much . . ." Trump's globalist straw man conjures up an "us vs. them" that not only empowered his autocratic agenda but provided cover to other world leaders to act similarly. 

For autocrats today, the term "globalist" is used to suggest disloyalty, both to the state and its people. In Hungary, Orbán puts a face on this "sinister globalist force" by demonizing Hungarian-American George Soros. And in doing so, he invokes an anti-Semitic trope: The rootless monied elite who extracts wealth at the expense of the people. While less explicit than Orbán, Trump has also trafficked in the same calumny.

Along with the siren call of nationalism, the most telling common feature of illiberalism is a deep-seated appeal to identity and a mythic past. Ethno-nationalism is the DNA of parties such as Fidesz in Hungary, the BJP in India, and increasingly, the Republican Party in the United States. Claims of "blood and soil" feed sectarian conflicts that are welcomed if not encouraged by illiberal leaders. Orbán's government even went so far as to pass a law it branded as "Stop Soros," which makes it a crime to help undocumented immigrants in Hungary.

With increasing efficiency and gathering global momentum, illiberal democracy is usurping the institutions of the state to serve the interests of one group over others. It is turning individuals and states inward. Extremes are feeding on one another, and the center is disappearing as zero-sum thinking prevails.  

The centrifugal forces are mounting. In April 2021, an open letter signed by approximately 1,000 French military personnel, including 25 retired generals, warned President Emmanuel Macron that France could be facing a "civil war." The letter claimed that the government's failure to act against "suburban hordes" and its "concessions" to Islamism threaten a military intervention to protect the civilization of France.  

Similarly, if not coincidently, more than 120 American retired generals and admirals recently published an open letter questioning the legitimacy of Biden's election as well as the state of the president's mental and physical condition.  

In both France and the U.S., accomplished and high-ranking public servants are telling citizens "our nation is in peril." One can dismiss these letters as the ramblings of the discontent—but this is exactly the attitude taken by many before an illiberal mob stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. If there is a bright red line to be crossed, it is most certainly here in civil-military relations.

A friend of mine recently suggested that democracy is in a phase-2 trial, which seems an apt metaphor. We are at a moment when the efficacy and safety of the open, liberal version of democracy must be proven by reason and experience. Simply put, we need to remind people of why democracy works for them. Otherwise, the appeal of these rising autocrats will be difficult to overcome.  

In the concluding chapter of his memoir A Life in the 20th Century, historian Arthur Schlesinger wrote, ". . . it is hard in the twenty-first century to remember how potent the totalitarian appeal was in the Thirties and Forties to men and women drifting helplessly amid the economic and military wreckage of the day. The attraction to frightened and forgotten people of discipline and dogma, of solidarity and struggle, was palpable during the Great Depression."  

Schlesinger's 1947 book The Vital Center became a call to action against the illiberalism of communism on the left and fascism on the right. He sought to answer the same question we face today: How do we make liberal democracy "a fighting faith" to rally around?

It is not alarmist to consider what might be lost if liberal democracy falls to autocracy in our era: An atomized world of closed groups leading to new cycles of conflict, not to mention diminishing prospects for cooperation around common challenges such as climate change and future pandemics.  

Although the global drift away from open pluralistic democracy is unmistakable, if we act quickly, we can use this moment as an opportunity to better understand this alarming trend and detect the problems within liberal democracy itself.  

As a starting point, I find myself asking whether it is reassuring or unnerving that the current narrowing of hearts and minds is a global phenomenon? If there is a system flaw in liberal democracy, perhaps it can be diagnosed and addressed by seeing it in a global and historical context. 

To that end, comparisons between illiberal democracies should be illuminated and patterns detected as a first step in pushing back. 

Time is short, the stakes are high, and the trend should worry us all.

Joel H. Rosenthal, president of Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs

Follow Joel on LinkedIn to receive future columns translating ethics, analyzing democracy, and examining our increasingly interconnected world. And remember to register for Carnegie Council's upcoming virtual event, "Illiberal Democracy on the Rise: Examining Brazil, Hungary, & India," which will take place June 8 at 12:00pm ET.

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