It’s all too easy to become obsessed with our domestic political turmoil. President Donald Trump, after all, has fired the attorney general and FBI director to protect himself from investigation, tried to prosecute that same FBI director along with his defeated political opponent, described the media as the “enemy of the people,” trafficked in blatant racism and xenophobia, misused troops for political ends, spread fraudulent theories about voter fraud to undermine his political foes, and lied with impunity and abandon.
Democracy is under siege in the United States—but not just in the United States. It’s a worldwide crisis. Democracy has already been destroyed in Turkey, Egypt, Venezuela, Thailand and Russia, and it is now being undermined in Poland, Hungary and the Philippines. Chancellor Angela Merkel, the bulwark of the West, is on her way out in Germany. Emmanuel Macron, France’s centrist president, is battling record-low approval ratings. And in Britain, the Conservative Party is tearing itself apart over Brexit, making more likely an election that could bring to power a Labour Party led by an anti-Semitic neo-Marxist.
What in the name of John Stuart Mill is going on? How did we go from hopes of an “end of history” in the 1990s to fears of an “end of democracy” today? We are confronting two intersecting crises—an economic crisis and a refugee crisis.
The economic crisis has been brought about by the Information Revolution, which, like the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, is transforming society out of all recognition. The Industrial Revolution created immense fortunes for the Rockefellers, Carnegies, Goulds and other “robber barons” but also great misery for millions of ordinary people who had to leave the countryside to live in grimy cities and work in backbreaking factories. The result was what Benjamin Disraeli described as “two nations”—the “rich and the poor”—“between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets.”
The growing inequality and social dislocation of the industrial era gave rise to radical new ideologies such as Marxism, fascism and anarchism at the very time that new technologies—principally printing presses that made it possible to produce cheap newspapers and magazines, followed by radio and film—gave radical ideologues access to a mass audience for the first time. As T.E. Lawrence said: “The printing press is the greatest weapon in the armory of the modern commander.”
The Information Revolution is just as destabilizing. It is creating vast fortunes for the Gateses, Bezoses, Jobses and Zuckerbergs while impoverishing millions of blue-collar workers. Economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman found that wealth inequality, after falling from 1929 to 1978, has been rising ever since “almost entirely due to the rise of the top 0.1 percent wealth share, from 7 percent in 1979 to 22 percent in 2012—a level almost as high as in 1929.” Meanwhile, the United States has lost 5 million factory jobs since 2000, and the manual labor that remains is generally lower-paying and more insecure than in the past.
These trends are driven mainly by automation, but it is easy for demagogues to put the blame on supposedly disloyal elites such as international bankers, trade partners that are supposedly ripping us off, and immigrants who are supposedly stealing jobs and bringing crime. Conveniently enough, the nostrums pushed by autocratic populists exacerbate the very problems they claim to be addressing, deepening the crisis that gives them the excuse to rule. (Trump-supporting counties have done worse under Trump than counties where the majority voted for Hillary Clinton.)
Xenophobia is an easy sell at the moment because we are in the midst of the largest refugee crisis in history. According to the United Nations, the number of displaced people in the world has grown from 33.9 million in 1997 to 65.6 million in 2016. This mass migration has been sparked by conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Congo, Sudan, Libya, Ukraine and other countries—and by crime and poverty in countries such as Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. Europe saw an influx of almost 1.2 million migrants in 2015-2016. This migration created the conditions for the passage of Brexit and led to a wave of illiberalism across the continent, even in countries such as Hungary and Poland that aren’t seeing any influx of newcomers.
Just as the technological advances of the Industrial Revolution made it easy for Karl Marx to propagate his “Communist Manifesto,” so the Information Revolution has given these populists the perfect medium for getting their message out. The rise of social media and cable television allows them to spread propaganda free of mainstream media fact-checking, which they cynically denigrate as “fake news.”
History suggests that economic upheavals such as the Industrial and Information Revolutions eventually play themselves out and leave the entire world better off. Refugee crises also abate sooner or later. But a lot can happen in the meantime. The crisis of the old order in Europe produced nearly 80 years of often bloody conflict between democracy and its foes from 1914 to 1991. Buckle your seatbelts. The entire world is in for another bumpy road.