Reviewed by James Hodgson
Walk into any high-street bookshop today and you will be confronted by a range of titles warning against the forthcoming death of liberal democracy. The exact cause of death varies, but usually the victim has succumbed to a disease called ‘populism’, though some whisper that it was merely a proxy for ‘authoritarianism’ or ‘fascism’. Other sinister contenders include the malign forces of globalisation and the financial services industry, the intangible internet and social media with its attendant fake news, the old enemies of white supremacism and the radical right, as well as the spectres of Putin’s Russia and Xi Jinping’s China. All are thrown up as possible culprits. Occasionally ‘the people’ themselves are speculated to be complicit in their own demise.
Into this crowded field steps Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart’s Cultural Backlash: Trump, Brexit and Authoritarian Populism. The obvious first question is why do we need another book about the assault on liberalism and/or democracy? What fresh perspective is offered? In the case of Cultural Backlash, the answer seems to be statistical data, and lots of it. Norris and Inglehart provide an avalanche of charts, graphs and surveys to support their main thesis: namely, that Western democracies are under threat not from Russian bots, Wall Street hooligans or Mark Zuckerberg, but as a symptom of an internal process of cultural change that has been underway for decades. Building on their earlier work in the field, they argue that the current rise of ‘authoritarian populism’ (in contrast to left-wing forms of populism) is part of a cultural backlash against the inexorable generational shift towards liberal social values. This backlash has accordingly been exploited by authoritarian demagogues for their own nefarious political purposes.
Definitions are key here. Norris and Inglehart define populism not as a political ideology but as ‘a style of rhetoric reflecting first-order principles about who should rule, claiming that legitimate power rests with “the people” not the elites’, yet remains conspicuously silent about second-order principles, such as how to order the economy or which social values to emphasise (4). Populists, according to Norris and Inglehart, make two basic claims: they are anti-elitist, presenting themselves as outsiders against a corrupt and out-of-touch establishment; they also argue that the only legitimate source of political authority rests with ‘the people’. Such anti-establishment rhetoric appeals to lived experience of most people, which is ‘regarded as a far superior guide to action than book-learning’. It also promotes direct or plebiscitary democracy, with populists upholding the mantra that ‘if Westminster disagrees with the outcome of the Brexit referendum, the public’s decision is thought to take automatic precedent’ (5).
While such anti-establishment rhetoric can be utilised by both the right and the left, the authors contend it is dangerous insofar as it opens the door to authoritarian strongmen. Populism provides authoritarianism with the veneer of democratic respectability it needs in order to gain traction. It is this combination of authoritarian values and populist rhetoric that the authors regard as the most severe threat to liberal democracies. They define authoritarianism as ‘a cluster of values prioritising collective security for the group at the expense of liberal autonomy for the individual’ (7). These values include a tendency towards prioritising national security, cultural or ethnic conformity, and obedience to those in positions of authority. These values are premised upon drawing an artificial division between in-groups and out-groups, such that:
When authoritarian values and populist rhetoric are translated into public policies, the key issue concerns the need to defend ‘Us’ (‘our tribe’) through restrictions on ‘Them’ (‘the other’) – justifying restrictions on the entry of immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers, and foreigners, and the use of policies such as official language requirements or bans on certain religious practices […] This orientation underpins and vindicates the intolerance, racism, homophobia, misogyny, and xenophobia characteristic of Authoritarian-Populist parties. (8)
To understand this threat to liberal democracy, the authors contend we must look beyond the specifics of any one populist leader or episode in the United States or Western Europe and adopt a more inclusive approach. ‘The phenomenon’, they write, ‘is much broader than any individual and thus requires a more general theory’ (13). The book is therefore an effort to construct a general theory of authoritarian-populism as it exists today, with the aim of providing guidance to those who would defend the institutions of liberal democracy. This is an ambitious strategy but, as we shall see, one which is not altogether well-advised.
Cultural Backlash is divided into four sections. The first section introduces the general outline of the thesis, including how long-term change in living conditions experienced by successive generations has led to a ‘silent revolution’ and rise of ‘post-materialist’ social values; how this revolution has produced a conservative backlash, one which has been exacerbated by short and mid-term economic factions; how this backlash has been translated into electoral gains, and what the plausible consequences may be for the corrosion of democratic institutions. The second section presents empirical evidence to support this thesis, examining shifting social values and the voting tendencies and attitudes of economically precarious citizens, as well as attitudes towards race, immigration and the refugee crisis. The authors argue that the evidence supports the thesis that cultural factors are the major determinant of support for authoritarian-populist parties, with issues of economic and racial resentment playing auxiliary roles in these trends.
The third section delves into more detail on the effects of populism on electoral systems, examining survey data from European politics and mounting discussions of Donald Trump’s electoral campaign as well as the role of populism in determining the outcome of the Brexit referendum, concluding that authoritarian-populism has ‘entered the bloodstream’ of British politics (22). The fourth and final section concludes with some reflections on the effect of authoritarian-populism on levels of popular trust and confidence in the institutions of liberal democracy moving forward. This has consequences for the legitimacy of liberal democracy as a political regime. The authors suggest that authoritarian-populism may be the symptom as much as a cause of popular discontentment. The book’s overall thesis, however, is that:
In the long term, the cultural cleavage in the electorate is likely to fade over time through demographic trends and processes of urbanization, as Interwar cohorts without college education, often living in relatively isolated white cultural communities, are gradually replaced in the population by college educated millennials living and working in the ethnically diverse metropolitan cities, who tend to be more open to the values of multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism, and social liberalism. During the tipping point era, however, heated culture wars disrupt politics and society. (16-17)
Cultural Backlash is a frustrating book for several reasons. Firstly, the authors seem to view their task as to assemble as much empirical support for the Whig view of history as possible: that is, that history constitutes the inexorable forward march of liberal values and enlightenment, and that we are merely experiencing a few uncomfortable bumps along the road. A mountain of graphs, charts and surveys are amassed to this end, such that after a while they begin to lose their explanatory power and serve merely to buttress the authors’ existing thesis rather than provide specific insights. This is not helped by the fact that many chapters contain reproduced material, given the book the feeling of repetition and ironically making the argument less convincing.
Secondly, the authors’ analysis of right-wing populism is often simplistic, bordering on a bundle of clichés. Curiously for a volume of such heft, there is little attempt to explicate the history of this phenomenon in more detail, or the changing face of right-wing populism in relation to the general population. In the European context, populists have become more sophisticated in their approach over the years, appealing to a broader constituency than the authors seem to allow for; this includes, in France, Marine Le Pen’s success in reaching out to female voters and, in the Netherlands, liberal-minded citizens mindful of protecting LGBT rights and the rights of women against growing numbers of migrants from socially conservative Islamic countries. This absence of an account of the history of authoritarian-populist parties in a theory of authoritarian-populism is therefore a surprising oversight.
Thirdly, this lack of detail on the changing face of populism across the globe gestures towards a wider problem in the book: that despite their worthwhile attempt to construct a general theory of authoritarian-populism, the authors have produced a book which is strikingly Western (or even US-focused) in its outlook. There is not much attention given to populist movements and victories in Latin America, South East Asia or Eastern Europe, for example. Instead, the argument focuses on the social transitions in post-industrial societies in North America and Western Europe. Indeed, there is a risk of ethno-centrism here, as authoritarian-populist politicians in other regions might be seen as merely mimicking the strategies of their successful Western counterparts. This is to the book’s considerable detriment, as what is produced is much less than what is promised, and any reader left wondering about the state of populist politics on a global level will be left none the wiser.
Moreover, with the major non-American example of authoritarian-populism presented in the book – that is, Brexit – the authors display a lack of sensitivity into the nuances of the debate surrounding Britain’s vote to leave the European Union. Indeed, there is little attempt to account for the internal dynamics of British constitutional politics in shaping the vote shares of Leave and Remain, particularly why a clear majority of voters in Scotland (which had also seen decades of deindustrialisation, but is more ethnically homogeneous compared to England, and with significant powers devolved to its national assembly) voted to Remain. Further, the authors make repeated mention of how the referendum was merely advisory and how it may have been treated as indicative rather than decisive, with further referendums held to presumably reverse or moderate the outcome. This makes their analysis excessively partisan, and is reflected in their attempts to bundle the key reasons why British citizens voted Leave – a strong sense of national identity, scepticism about the European Union, a desire for more control over immigration – into their package of authoritarian values. A more liberal interpretation of these reasons is available, but the authors do not avail themselves of it lest it upset their argument.
Fourthly, there are internal problems – or at least unexplained lacunae – within the authors’ argument of which they seem unaware. It is not clear, for example, why the generations which had the most direct experience of the dangers of authoritarian-populism – in the form of the fascist movements of the 1930s and 40s, which launched a devastating war and programme of genocide that killed millions – would cleave to ‘authoritarian’ values. One would expect these cohorts to be the least likely to identify as authoritarian, yet the authors seemingly do not recognise this contradiction and do not attempt to explicate the reasons behind it. Furthermore, it is not clear how the authors’ own argument (that an increase in the material living standards have brought about generations of citizens with post-material values) can be sustained when we consider the increasingly precarious economic circumstances in which many younger citizens live today. Again, we would expect these younger ‘critical citizens’ to be the hungriest for change in the form of material security instead of the most willing to prop up the status quo. This suggests an interesting question: can ‘post-material’ values exist absent the material conditions which gave rise to them? Unfortunately, it is one the authors do not attempt to answer.
Beyond a list of uninspiring homilies – which do not amount to much more than increased funding for public education and poverty reduction programmes, as well as the arts and humanities (464) – the authors have little to offer by way of prescriptions for dealing with the rise of authoritarian-populists. Perhaps the largest disappointment with the book is the authors’ failure to engage seriously with the concerns of populist voters as political concerns. There are some brief allusions to this, but it does not account for the increased sense of alienation from the policy-making process felt by the citizens of Western democracies. In many countries, the political class has become a class apart from the rest of society, with populations feeling an accompanying sense of disenchantment with their rulers. In this sense, the populist backlash is not against ‘post-material’ values but against technocratic and elitist practices of governance. Alas, the authors give no recognition to this other side of the populist coin, reproducing the sense of an anthropologist studying a curious new specimen instead of treating them seriously as political opponents in a democratic contest.
Overall, Cultural Backlash reveals the hopes of its authors rather than any profound insight into the reasons for our populist moment. While the authors’ thesis on shifting cultural values no doubt explains one part of a complex reality, it does not account for numerous other factors, such as the inability of social democratic parties to sustain their electoral coalitions, the role of country-specific institutions and identities, and the volatility of partisan politics in multiparty electoral systems. It also does not question its own thesis, that the arc of history bends towards ‘liberal’ values. Given the facts of aging societies in the West, the role of life-cycle effects in making voters more conservative, and the higher rate with which older voters participate in elections, as well as the material and cultural insecurity which younger generations are faced with – and which the authors do not address – the direction of the arc of history remains undecided.
26 March 2020