Illiberal Democracies, Revisited.

I was struck by the following description as I was reading an article by Shadi Hamid on Foreign Policy.  

It’s almost unfair to compare Trump to the democratically elected Islamists that I normally study.

I’d written about “illiberal democracies” a few times before, in contrast to “liberal authoritarians,” somewhat tongue in cheek but also with deadly seriousness.  The analogue between Trump and the rise of Chavez have been drawn by some observers (Chris Arnade definitely pointed to this in his tweetstream, but i cannot remember who else off the top, and Twitter is not good for digging up references to old stuff).  I think there’s analogue between the rise of the Roh Moo Hyun or Thaksin in East Asia and the Trumpist phenomenon, too.

There is no obvious “ideological” tie that connects them.  They are all “populists,” but that is a vacuous term whose precise definition is a bit underdefined.  All of them do represent, as the Hamid article points to, a group of people who felt, often justifiably, mistreated by the status quo institutions, and, as per my earlier point, have assembled a sufficient plurality to win power and to use it unbridled.

The last point deserves a bit of additional introspection.  Would the result have been different had the election results been slightly altered?  A few hundred thousand votes in the Midwest, either African-Americans in Milwaukee, Detroit, and Philadelphia turning out, or a white working class not turning out in such numbers, will have sufficed to flip the election.  If so, Hillary Clinton will have won on a very flimsy and fragile coalition.  Would she have claimed a mandate to carry on with her program?

It is not clear to me that consigning Trump to the camp of “illiberal democrats” is necessarily fair or completely accurate, however.  The truth is that there are very few “democrats” left whose conception of power and mandate is necessarily “liberal,” that the realm of what is permissible under “politics” is constrained by some sort of social contract by which everyone is bound.  In my earlier musings, I thought it funny that the “democratic” opposition in Egypt and Syria were fairly monolithic, self-righteous blocks animated by a sense of religious fundamentalism spiced by the belief in righteous rule to absolute power given their numbers of organization.  Their opponents, the authoritarians, relied on support from varied minorities who lent the governments support because of their fear of what might happen to them if the illiberal democrats took power.  The cosmopolitanism of the authoritarianism was a reflection more of their supporters rather than something intrinsic in the politics.

Sean Trende has an interesting reflection on how the story of “Emerging Democratic Majority” has fallen apart, at least for 2016.  Not unlike the Islamists in Egypt, the multiculturalist Democatic coalition had the sense that because of the numbers (demographics) and superior organization (the GOTV machinery and big data bruhaha), their triumph was practically foreordained.  Other than their multicultural makeup, their conviction bears a peculiar fundamentalist attitude akin to the Egyptian Ikhwan.  Their sense of moral righteousness, of being on the right side of history, adds even more fundamentalist color to their approach to politics.  Their exclusivist attitude towards those to whom the enforced multiculturalism was foreign completes the trifecta.  So, not unlike the ethno-religious minorities (and many others to whom religious fundamentalism was not a big deal, compared to stability) in Egypt, many who did not share the Democrats’ vision either stayed home or swung their support to Trump.

This is a peculiar paradox:  Democrats built an exclusivist coalition on the message of superficial “inclusivism,” one that failed to incorporate those who differed from them in perspectives and worldview even as they welcomed those who looked different.  Trende reminds us that, in its original form, the “Emerging Democratic Majority” thesis took it for granted that the Democratic coalition will be inclusive and will be able to reconcile the differing worldivews as well as the different appearances and creeds.  This has not taken place and for that, Democrats have paid a heavy electoral price.  If the argument of the kind of realignment being speculated–and for now, only speculated–hold, a version of the “Emerging Democratic Majority” could actually be the next Republican majority, assuming Trump does what he has promised for the working class–something that John Judis himself speculated about.  But a lot of variables remain, eh, variable.  There is a great deal in flux that could turn out in very unexpected directions.


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