“Don’t let the media brainwash you, man. They just want you to obey.” Twenty years ago these words would likely have come from a radical leftist. Today we hear them from the far right. What happened, and how should we react?
Text: Olof Fägerstam
It’s hard to pinpoint where the success of right-wing populism comes from. It’s making gains over much of the world, yet the reasons for its success are wildly different. In Europe, populists gain their popularity from issues related to immigration. The Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro flex their muscles against crime and disorder. Donald Trump’s election was aided by the collapse of the American middle class.
Academia and the media are supposed to be vehicles of free thought, but most of their employeees have coalesced around left-wing politics.
The new populist movements are not united by specific policy proposals, but by a disdain for bureaucratic elites, academics and journalists. This disdain is not entirely unwarranted. Academia and the media are supposed to be vehicles of free thought, but most of their employees have coalesced around left-wing politics. This is confirmed by a variety of surveys: A 2018 study from Brooklyn college showed that among liberal arts college staff, there were 10 registered Democrats per registered Republican. Closer to home, Medier24 surveyed Norwegian journalists and found overwhelming support for left-wing parties. The most popular party among journalists in 2018 was Socialistisk Venstre, and a left-wing coalition would have garnered nearly 75% of the seats in parliament if only journalists got to vote.
This is not to say that the intellectual mainstream is wrong in their opinions – perhaps left wing politics really are superior. But if you find this concern about left-wing cultural dominance to be silly, you should ask yourself: What would you do if you found out that the media was under the control of people who strongly disagree with your politics? How much trust would you put in their proclamations ? This is the situation that an increasingly large segment of the population find themselves in today, and it raises the question of how the mainstream should react.
Naivety of the mainstream
Given how much spite has been directed against the political mainstream, it’s worth considering how the mainstream has responded. The response has mostly been the one that is given by every political order that has grown too self-confident: there is no alternative. Globalization and rising living standards means there’s only one way forward. Economies are too interconnected, populations too mobile and countries too cosmopolitan for nationalism to work. Also, World War II showed that right-wing populism is morally bankrupt.Teaching the atrocities of national socialism in every classroom will ensure that it remains dead and buried.
History shows how naive this response is. In fact, when people start insisting that there is no alternative, you can be sure that massive change is just around the corner. Around 1770, almost every serious political observer agreed that republics could only be viable as small city-states, and that a large country must have a monarch at the helm. They had good empirical reasons to believe this: Every major state in the world at the time was a monarchy. Then the Americans revolted, were arrogant enough to ignore the experts and installed a president. A decade later in Paris, a populist mob responded to economic crisis by toppling the monarchy and attempting to abolish the aristocracy. King Louis XVI was guillotined, and with him died the idea that there is no alternative to monarchy.
The new democracies looked nothing like their predecessors in ancient Greece and medieval Italy. A citizen of Athens would have balked at the idea of electing a representative who would rule in his name. A Venetian aristocrat would have been shocked that the poor were allowed to vote. This is why I consider it safe to say that the new populist regimes, if they become reality, will look neither like Hitler’s Germany nor like Peron’s Argentina. No matter how they take form, they will of course be deeply shocking to current sensibilities– just as our political values would be shocking to the people who came before us.
Thus far, I may have seemed overly critical of our current political system. I can assure you, dear reader, that this is because I happen to like it and wish for it to survive. That’s why it is so sad for me to see that the response to populism has been so clumsy. Academics and journalists tend to speak as if they are indispensable. This may have been true just twenty years ago, but more and more people now are losing trust in the mainstream.
The defectors have already begun setting up their own institutions. The ones who tend to get the most attention are those who spread outright conspiracy theories, like Alex Jones and his news channel, Infowars. Others are relatively moderate, but likely more dangerous to mainstream academia. One example is the Canadian psychologist Jordan B. Peterson, who has risen to fame by mixing science, self-help and political agitation. According to a 2018 article in the New York Times, Peterson pulls in about $80,000 a month from Patreon, a website used by content creators to receive donations. His lectures get millions of views on YouTube. According to Peterson’s profile on Patreon, he wants to “take the humanities back from the corrupt postmodernists” by setting up an online humanities education that undercuts the price of North American universities.
Voters need to make choices and learn from them. There’s no point in making them despise you by standing in their way.
It’s hard to overstate how dangerous this sort of defection is for today’s intellectual elites. Intellectuals don’t wield guns and they have little economic power, which means that their influence is entirely dependent on whether or not people choose to listen to them. Military elites can afford to alienate themselves from the masses because they hold the keys to violent power, and economic elites can afford it because they control the economy. Intellectuals produce ideas, but if the masses see no value in these ideas they’ll have no problem defunding the intellectuals. Universities may seem irreplacable, but so did religion. How influential are the churches today?
Reconciling the Right
How can we best protect liberal democracy? My suggestion is that we compromise on object-level issues and remain extremely rigid on institutional issues. We shouldallow populists to implement policies where they have popular support, but never allow them to touch the basic democratic institutions. If they want to curtail immigration and crack down on crime, and if popular opinion supports them on these issues, we should let them have it their way. If it turns out that these policies were shortsighted – well, itwon’t be not the first time people vote for bad ideas. Voters need to make choices and learn from them,there’s no point in making them despise you by standing in their way. The American satirist H.L. Mencken put it best: “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.”
Secondly, we need more political diversity in the universities and the media. As long as universities are politically homogenous they will be effective targets for political sniping. It’s much better to have the political fault lines go down the middle of academia than between the universities and the people. A further advantage of inviting radicals to work within the mainstream is that they will become dependent on the system. The leaders of the radical right live on grassroots donations, a risky and uncomfortable existence. Inviting them into the institutions will encourage them to soften their politics. If this seems implausible, just think of the Marxists: A hundred years ago they were commited to tearing down capitalism and replacing it with a proletarian dictatorship. Today they compete with each other for cozy jobs at universities and magazines. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could say the same for the radical right?
Thirdly, we must widen the range of what’s considered an acceptable political position. If a certain set of political beliefs are branded as indecent, only indecent people will defend them in public. That’s how you get politicians like Donald Trump. It may or may not be right to build a wall seperating the US and Mexico, but there’s nothing wrong with arguing that a wall should be built. The only thing we get from silencing such opinons is that people will go from disagreement to hate.
Making certain strands of nationalism and social conservativsm acceptable again will seem like a step back for those who disagree with these ideologies. Giving space to your opponents is always hard, but the reason we have democracy is that we don’t want people settling issues by violent means. Now that tensions are mounting all over the West, it’s urgent for us to find ways to defuse them. Allowing nationalists and right-wing radicals to be part of the conversation on equal terms would be a good start.