Matt Gurney: This may be how the West might be lost

By Matt Gurney

The late 19th century was the era when, in the United States, the West — the Western states of today’s continental U.S. — “was won.” You all know the images — cowboys, steam locomotives belching thick black coal smoke, gold rushes. Perhaps future historians will look back at this moment in history as when the West, this time meaning the Western world, was lost. And the defining image of that may well be a smartphone.

Anne Applebaum is a writer of history books, a professor at the London School of Economics, and a columnist with The Washington Post. She’s also someone who’s worried that the Western world is losing not just a sense of unity, of shared task and purpose among the many nations that make up the Western bloc, but also a belief in the very things that defined the West — democracy, the rule of law, and pluralism. It’s happening in the United States right now, she fears. And it’s already happened — past tense — in parts of Europe.

Anne Applebaum, an author, historian and professor at the London School of Economics, is seen in a file photo from 2012. Mike Ridewood for National Post

Applebaum was in Calgary this week, presenting a talk on this very topic. In an interview with the National Post, she laid out her argument, which she understands many won’t, or can’t, believe. But make no mistake, Applebaum urges. This is real.

“Surveys are showing that in the Western world — the United States, Western Europe, the proponents of the liberal democratic world — the younger people are far less likely than their parents are, to say that living in a democracy is essential.” She adds, “This is the decline in support for, and belief in and admiration for, democracy.”

Applebaum is right, as far as the surveys go. There is a worrying trend, particularly among younger voters — the much-maligned millennials — to regard democracy as, if not a bad thing, then at least a nonessential thing. Western voters aren’t abandoning the voting booth en masse; the majority of citizens, in any age group, continue to favour democracy. But the trend is admittedly awful. A quarter of American youth view democracy with alarmingly detached interest.

A quarter of American youth view democracy with alarmingly detached interest

It’s important to note, Applebaum says, that this isn’t new. There have always been anti-pluralist factions (she prefers that term to “populist,” which she finds too vague to be useful) within countries’ political systems, or within individual parties. There have always been anti-pluralist elements of the Republican party in the United States (and the Democrats, she says, stressing that the trends that concern her are by no means confined to the right). There have always been radical parties in European politics. The National Front has existed in France for generations. The Austrian far-right, too, has long been an accepted fact of life. European countries with a tradition of coalition governments have had anti-pluralist parties for so long it’s rarely even remarked upon.

That being said, there is a change underway. Extreme parties that may have been around for a long time are now doing better than ever, and even achieving power. Hungary, she believes, is no longer even a functional democracy — its civil institutions have been too badly eroded for citizens to effectively exercise their democratic rights. Poland is on the edge, she worries, but there’s been more effective resistance there.

Demonstrators take part in a rally against Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government in Budapest on March 15, 2019. Hungary is no longer a functional democracy, worries Anne Applebaum. Ferenc Isza/AFP/Getty Images

What’s happened? Why are fringe parties and beliefs going mainstream all over the West?

Part of the answer is well trod, but unavoidable — the disastrous Iraq War and 2008 financial crisis, Applebaum believes, fundamentally shook the faith Westerners had in their way of life. In the 1990s, free market capitalism and liberal-democracy were the systems that had jointly brought down the Soviet Union’s evil empire. For many millennials today, she worries, they’re either the systems that failed to prevent two life-altering disasters, or directly caused them. But she largely rejects the “economic anxiety” argument, noting that the trends are generally comparable across the West, with no major variation between the economic success stories and the basket cases. This leads her to think that the real culprit may be information overload in a globalized world.

This leads her to think that the real culprit may be information overload in a globalized world

“People very much have the sense,” she said, “and they are right to have that sense, that their politicians no longer control events. The ‘Leave’ campaign slogan in the Brexit referendum campaign was ‘Take Back Control.’ People believe they can lose their job in Saskatchewan because of a decision made in China. And they’re right. Their local politicians don’t have any say in that.” The voter’s most powerful implement, their ballot, simply doesn’t work in this era … and the problem is, they know it. And it’s the anti-pluralist parties that are promising to do something about it — to reduce immigration, to abandon free trade, to bring jobs and control back to the locals. That’s an appealing message to people not because of economics, per se, she says, but because of their perception of economics. And perceptions can be shaped.

People are shaping their own views, of course, in their media and social media echo chambers, via an astonishing amount of information delivered at lightspeed over the now utterly ubiquitous smartphone. Traditional institutions, media, governmental and societal, have simply been bypassed or overwhelmed, if not rendered obsolete entirely. “Political parties used to be based on real-life institutions,” she said, citing labour unions and the church as two examples. Now that these have been largely whittled away across the West, “people are seeking new identities and new affiliations online.”

British lawmakers prepare to vote on March 27, 2019, on alternatives for leaving the European Union. The “Brexit” movement was born of a desire among Britons to “take back control,” says Anne Applebaum. Frank Augstein/AP

That’s a natural process — accelerated by technology, but natural. But there’s also deliberate campaigns underway to deliberately divide the West.

“The rise of parties on the extreme left and right is being aided by Russia,” she says bluntly. “Less so by China — they’re more cautious about interfering, at least for now — they’re waiting to see how it goes for Russia first.” But for now, via old-fashioned corruption and influence peddling, as well as “weaponized” social media, Russia is exerting influence across the West, and increasingly openly.

“This is one of the things that Mueller’s report confirmed,” she noted, “and everybody now seems to accept it, even though they denied it two years ago. There is no question anymore: Russia sought to influence the U.S. election, both through cyber hacking and through social media influencer campaigns.” This, she says, has happened across Europe, including in the Brexit referendum. “This is not a kind of mystical conspiracy now. This is pretty open.”

This is not a kind of mystical conspiracy now. This is pretty open

How do we stop it, I asked, meaning not just Russian interference in elections, but all of it.

Make cybersecurity and cyberwarfare the new central role of NATO, she said (which she worries U.S. President Donald Trump will soon pull the U.S. out of with a tweet). If that proves too cumbersome due to the alliance’s historic focus on hard military power, she said, create some analogous Western institution to fight in cyberspace the way NATO would on the land, seas and in the air. There would probably be broad support for that.

More controversially, she says the West is going to have to start thinking about how to regulate the internet. “How do we make the internet conducive to liberal democracy,” she asks. “The Chinese have made their internet conducive to authoritarianism. What’s our answer to that? And are we just going to leave it to Mark Zuckerberg to decide everything, to figure out what gets censored and what those rules should be?”

How do we make the internet conducive to liberal democracy?

But fundamentally, Applebaum worries, what we’re really fighting is the passage of time. We’re increasingly removed from the victories and shared needs that once united the Western world. Our recent track record is littered with costly failures. Even in Eastern Europe, she says, we now have a generation of adults who have no living memories of the horrors and failures of communism.

There is no easy answer for the passage of time. But she’s still looking for them, and sounding the alarm. Will anyone listen?

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