Everything was unfolding as it usually does. The academics who gathered in Lisbon this summer for the International Society of Political Psychologists’ annual meeting had been politely listening for four days, nodding along as their peers took to the podium and delivered papers on everything from the explosion in conspiracy theories to the rise of authoritarianism.
A group of entitled academics use government grants funded by our taxes to fly to Portugal.
Then, the mood changed … 68-year-old Shawn Rosenberg, … a professor at UC Irvine, was challenging a core assumption about America and the West. His theory? Democracy is devouring itself—his phrase — and it won’t last.
Interesting. Is he referring to the anti-democratic European Union? To the Oligarchs of Russia? To the totalitarian Chinese? Let’s read on.
As much as President Donald Trump’s liberal critics might want to lay America’s ills at his door, Rosenberg says the president is not the cause of democracy’s fall—even if Trump’s successful anti-immigrant populist campaign may have been a symptom of democracy’s decline.
OK, at least he is not simply Trump bashing.
Democracy is hard work. And as society’s “elites”—experts and public figures who help those around them navigate the heavy responsibilities that come with self-rule—have increasingly been sidelined, citizens have proved ill equipped cognitively and emotionally to run a well-functioning democracy. As a consequence, the center has collapsed and millions of frustrated and angst-filled voters have turned in desperation to right-wing populists.
So people are turning to populists like Trump because they’re dumb? Yep, this sounds elitist. Why does Rosenberg think the so-called “experts” have been sidelined?
A brief three decades after some had heralded the “end of history” it’s possible that it’s democracy that’s nearing the end. And it’s not just populist rabble-rousers who are saying this. So is one of the establishment’s pioneer social scientists, who’s daring to actually predict the end of democracy as we know it.
What populist is saying this? Populists rely on democracy to give them power.
Rosenberg, who earned degrees at Yale, Oxford and Harvard, may be the social scientist for our time if events play out as he suggests they will. His theory is that over the next few decades, the number of large Western-style democracies around the globe will continue to shrink, and those that remain will become shells of themselves. Taking democracy’s place, Rosenberg says, will be right-wing populist governments that offer voters simple answers to complicated questions.
It seems more likely that populists will preserve democracy from antidemocratic globalist institutions like the European Union and the United Nations.
Citing reams of psychological research, findings that by now have become more or less familiar, Rosenberg makes his case that human beings don’t think straight. Biases of various kinds skew our brains at the most fundamental level. For example, racism is easily triggered unconsciously in whites by a picture of a black man wearing a hoodie. We discount evidence when it doesn’t square up with our goals while we embrace information that confirms our biases. Sometimes hearing we’re wrong makes us double down. And so on and so forth.
Our brains, says Rosenberg, are proving fatal to modern democracy. Humans just aren’t built for it. People have been saying for two millennia that democracy is unworkable, going back to Plato. The Founding Fathers were sufficiently worried that they left only one half of one branch of the federal government in the hands of the people. And yet for two centuries democracy in America more or less proceeded apace without blowing itself up.
A democracy established by a bunch of libertarian farmers has persisted for two centuries, but today people are just too stupid for it to continue.
He has concluded that the reason for right-wing populists’ recent success is that “elites” are losing control of the institutions that have traditionally saved people from their most undemocratic impulses. When people are left to make political decisions on their own they drift toward the simple solutions right-wing populists worldwide offer: a deadly mix of xenophobia, racism and authoritarianism.
Elite control is not democracy. It is oligarchy. Because people are escaping the matrix of the government/media elites, they are making democratic political decision to say no to their “betters”. For this, the elites call them out as xenophobes and racists. It is the age old call of “Back to the plantation!”
The elites, as Rosenberg defines them, are the people holding power at the top of the economic, political and intellectual pyramid who have “the motivation to support democratic culture and institutions and the power to do so effectively.”
Yet they don’t listen to the will of the people. They support a false idol of democracy where corporations, the political establishment and the military industry grow ever richer, and the average citizen grows slowly poorer as the elites devalue the world’s currencies with endless debt and quantitative easing.
But today that is changing. Thanks to social media and new technologies, anyone with access to the Internet can publish a blog and garner attention for their cause—even if it’s rooted in conspiracy and is based on a false claim, like the lie that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring from the basement of a Washington D.C. pizza parlor, which ended in a shooting.
But they can also point out the hypocrisy of the main stream media who produced endless reports of Russian collusion that turned out to be the ultimate conspiracy theory. Yes, the elites largely controlled the narrative before the internet. No, that was not a good thing.
While the elites formerly might have successfully squashed conspiracy theories and called out populists for their inconsistencies, today fewer and fewer citizens take the elites seriously.
Why would they? Academia spouts socialist propaganda. The media promotes their own conspiracy theories and biased viewpoints relentlessly, hardly bothering to even pretend that they are impartially covering the news.
Now that people get their news from social media rather than from established newspapers or the old three TV news networks (ABC, CBS and NBC), fake news proliferates. It’s surmised that 10 million people saw on Facebook the false claim that Pope Francis came out in favor of Trump’s election in 2016. Living in a news bubble of their own making many undoubtedly believed it. (This was the most-shared news story on Facebook in the three months leading up to the 2016 election, researchers report.)
NBC and CNN’s 2 year promotion of the Russiagate conspiracy theory is surely much worse.
The irony is that more democracy—ushered in by social media and the Internet, where information flows more freely than ever before—is what has unmoored our politics, and is leading us towards authoritarianism. Rosenberg argues that the elites have traditionally prevented society from becoming a totally unfettered democracy; their “oligarchic ‘democratic’ authority” or “democratic control” has until now kept the authoritarian impulses of the populace in check.
This is only true if you define democracy as authoritarianism. Oligarchic democratic authority is an oxymoronic word salad. The desire of the populace for leaders who aren’t bought and paid for by the elites is hardly an authoritarian impulse.
Compared with the harsh demands made by democracy, which requires a tolerance for compromise and diversity, right-wing populism is like cotton candy. Whereas democracy requires us to accept the fact that we have to share our country with people who think and look differently than we do, right-wing populism offers a quick sugar high. Forget political correctness. You can feel exactly the way you really want about people who belong to other tribes.
Democracy is government for the citizens, not for non-citizens. You can feel exactly the way you really want about people, because we don’t (yet) have thought police.
Right-wing populists don’t have to make much sense. They can simultaneously blame immigrants for taking jobs away from Americans while claiming that these same people are lazy layabouts sponging off welfare. All the populist followers care is that they now have an enemy to blame for their feelings of ennui.
If you have more than one immigrant, surely one can take a job, and the other can sponge off welfare. How does this not make sense? Denying that uncontrolled immigration won’t take jobs from our poorest citizens and put additional strain on the welfare system makes less sense.
And unlike democracy, which makes many demands, the populists make just one. They insist that people be loyal. Loyalty entails surrendering to the populist nationalist vision. But this is less a burden than an advantage. It’s easier to pledge allegiance to an authoritarian leader than to do the hard work of thinking for yourself demanded by democracy.
Except that they don’t. Trump didn’t get elected on a promise to reward loyalty. He got elected on the promise to bring back jobs, rebuild infrastructure, and secure the border. You can argue whether his goals make sense, and you can argue whether he is sincere. But you can’t believably claim that he’s an authoritarian leader.
“In sum, the majority of Americans are generally unable to understand or value democratic culture, institutions, practices or citizenship in the manner required,” Rosenberg has concluded. “To the degree to which they are required to do so, they will interpret what is demanded of them in distorting and inadequate ways. As a result they will interact and communicate in ways that undermine the functioning of democratic institutions and the meaning of democratic practices and values.”
This merely sounds like an elitist bemoaning the fact that the majority have finally realized that the demands of the elite are harmful to them. As Michael Moore said, Trump’s election was a huge F— You to the establishment.
I should clarify that the loud whispers in the crowd in Lisbon weren’t a response to Rosenberg’s pessimism. This was after all a meeting of political psychologists—a group who focus on flaws in voters’ thinking and the violation of democratic norms. At the conference Ariel Malka reported evidence that conservatives are increasingly open to authoritarianism. Brian Shaffer related statistics showing that since Trump’s election teachers have noted a rise in bullying.
The left seems far more interested in authoritarianism than the right.
Andreas Zick observed that racist crimes shot up dramatically in Germany after a million immigrants were allowed in.
How does this have anything to do with authoritarianism? This is a reaction of average people having to live with the consequences of elites who made decisions on their behalf.
What stirred the crowd was that Rosenberg has gone beyond pessimism into outright defeatism. What riled the crowd was that he’s seemingly embraced a kind of reverence for elitism no longer fashionable in the academy. When challenged on this front, he quickly insisted he didn’t mean to exempt himself from the claim that people suffer from cognitive and emotional limitations. He conceded that the psychological research shows everybody’s irrational, professors included! But it was unclear that he convinced the members of the audience he really meant it. And they apparently found this discomforting.
This is exactly what Scott Adams claims. Most people are irrational most of the time.
There were less discomforting moments in Lisbon. The convention gave an award to George Marcus, one of the founders of the discipline, who has dedicated his career to the optimistic theory that human beings by nature readjust their ideas to match the world as it is and not as they’d like it to be—just as democracy requires.
Yes, and the way the world actually is is being revealed. Populism is the readjustment. Will it be all good? Not likely, but bowing to the elites certainly wasn’t either.
But this isn’t a moment for optimism, is it? What is happening around the world shows that the far-right is on the march. And when it comes to the U.S., the problem might be larger than one man. Liberals have been praying for the end of the Trump presidency, but if Rosenberg is right, democracy will remain under threat no matter who is in power.
Trump is not far-right. By constantly calling him alt-right Hitler, the media gives coverage to the real far-right. Trump was democratically elected. Stop whining and put forward a candidate who the majority recognize as a better alternative. In the words of Churchill, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” One of its greatest properties is that, when the wheels of power have been bent to the will of the elites, the people have the power to throw your asses out.