“It’s Fashionable to say that Democracies are dying”

The claim that everything is getting worse is in part the consequence of egocentric bias among liberal commentators

by Cas Mudde  The Guardian, January 28, 2018

Don’t get me wrong. I was upset that Trump won. In fact, I still am. I often quip that, as a scholar of the far right and populism, I used to study the political fringe and now I study the mainstream. But there is a risk that outraged liberal commentators are overstating how bad things are. The dramatic, sweeping statements that everything used to be better and all is going to hell are becoming annoying – and counterproductive.

From the outset, the liberal response to Trump – or in Europe, Brexit – has been over the top. Godwin’s law, which states that the longer an online discussion goes on, the higher the likelihood of someone bringing up Hitler, has been thrown out of the window. Now, “fascism” is already used before an online discussion has even started.

While some serious scholars of historical fascism have pointed out similarities between that era and (the rise of) Donald Trump, the ease with which the term is generally thrown around, and the reality of the situation in the US, makes most fascism accusations far-stretched at best and dishonest at worst.

There is now a whole coterie industry of “anti-Trump” pundits, ironically more from the conservative than the liberal side, who on a daily basis write columns and tweets to inform us how bad Trump is, and how feeble the state of US democracy is.

Book after book is published with onerous titles like How Democracies DieOn Tyranny or The Retreat of Western Liberalism, which either argue or warn that we are reaching a liberal end times. But many pundits do not only overstate their claim, they also are fairly blind to their own biases and privileges.

Several economists have already pointed out the US-centric, or western-centric, bias of the claim that everything is getting worse. Although there is some debate over the best measure, there is no doubt that extreme poverty has been almost halved around the world in the past 30 years.

The rise of Trump has finally catapulted the issue of white privilege on to the political and public agenda

And for all the debate in the US and some European countries, most studies show that “globally democracy is not in decline”. In fact, while there might be growing disillusionment with democracy around the world, the change seems most pronounced in some western democracies, particularly the US.

For several years now the (far) right has been criticizing the functioning of US democracy: think of the Tea Party’s critique of “big government” or Trump’s unfounded claims of mass voter fraud. But disillusionment with democracy is also loudly and prominently expressed by leftwing and young Americans. Occupy Wall Street and the Bernie Sanders campaign are two recent examples. Now the Trump presidency has made it current within more established liberal communities, particularly among higher-educated, straight white males.

This sentiment is at least in part a consequence of an egocentric bias. There is absolutely no doubt that the economic, legal, political and social situation of non-white, non-straight and non-male people is better today than it was a few decades ago. If anything, the “decline” is fairly recent. The last decade saw strong pushbacks against abortion and minority voting rights, for example.

The rise of Trump has finally catapulted the issue of white privilege on to the political and public agenda. White liberals are highly active and visible in the debate but their privilege is seldom the target of their own attacks. And whenever white liberals do critique themselves, it is mostly in a symbolic, self-cleansing kind of way.

People push a coffin though the streets to represent the end of democracy as they protest against Donald Trump in Palm Beach, Florida. Photograph: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Similarly, male privilege is dominating the agenda right now, and male liberals are enthusiastically denouncing and shaming the sexist culture of “the entertainment industry” or “the media”, but rarely bring it closer to home, for example reflecting on how they (we, I) have facilitated the sexual harassment of others and profited from the sexist culture at home or at the work place.

In the wake of the Trump victory there was even some discussion of education privilege. As the liberal media, simplistically, declared the white working class man the prototypical Trump supporter, issues like the massive income gapbetween college-educated and non-college educated people were briefly discussed and somewhat criticized. But liberals soon moved on, focusing on the alleged importance of “fake news” and “post-truth” rather than lack of education.

Indeed, the fact that student debt was among the key concerns of both Occupy Wall Street and the Sanders campaign shows that education privilege is still largely a blindspot on the left.

Even the other privileges, when not used against Trump and his supporters, are often conveniently buried under more convenient liberal and leftwing frames, like “the 99%’ versus “the 1%”.

Reflecting the empirical reality that “the richest 1% now owns more of the country’s wealth than at any time in the past 50 years”, all attention is focused on “the corrupt elite”, which implicitly or explicitly is defined as the sole source of (real) privilege. This populist distinction purifies “the people” and largely ignores broader white, male, straight and education privilege.

It is time to face up to our own privilege, and not hide behind the even more privileged. This doesn’t mean shaming and ritual public self-incrimination, a long-time favorite within leftwing circles, but acknowledging and problematizing it. Just as sexual assault cannot become so pervasive without a broader sexist culture, the 1% cannot flourish outside of a fundamentally unequal society.

It’s more than just the 1% who profit from and sustain that inequality. They include most highly-educated, straight, white, male liberals. It’s time to check our privilege and walk the talk.