interesting times

Is the World Done With Liberal Democracy?

Five Star Movement supporters protest the president blocking their governing coalition in Naples on May 29, 2018. Photo: KONTROLAB/LightRocket via Getty Images

“The real winners here are Italy’s voters. Thanks to their coolheaded president, they have a chance to rethink their answers to a very important question.” If you want a quick summary of clueless elite liberalism, it would be hard to best these sentences from Beppe Severgnini, the New York Times’ op-ed contributor on Italy. He was relieved that two populist parties with more than 50 percent of the vote — the League and the Five Star Movement — were temporarily barred from forming a government. One new cabinet member was not E.U. or euro-friendly enough for the Italian president. It’s of a piece with George Soros’s campaign to get the Brits to have another referendum on Brexit because they were too dumb to get it right the first time. And with the idea that Trump’s presidency will be suddenly ended because of revelations from the Mueller investigation.

This elite condescension toward challenges to their power stems, philosopher John Gray recently argued, from a fundamental and demonstrably false assumption that liberal democracy and a transnational world order are the ultimate end points of history. The narrative was set in 1989 and, for elites, it cannot be relinquished now. What we’re witnessing, with Trump, Putin, and Xi, is just a detour, liberal democrats tell themselves, before normal service resumes.

But “what if we were wrong?” as Obama asked in the wake of Trump’s victory, according to Ben Rhodes’s new memoir of the White House years. “Maybe we pushed too far.” You think? A ruinous war, a devastating recession, trade policies that wiped out so many communities, soaring debt, and wage stagnation: Not a great record for the liberal democratic elites, is it?

And this record is why the most probable future is not about liberal democracy and internationalism, but about populist nationalism, with a distinctly “strongman” flavor. Italy’s election was another milestone in the unfolding of this future. Here is how the strange right-left populist coalition, which achieved a breakthrough with the Italian president on Thursday, intend to govern: They will set up a “conciliation committee” between the two populist parties to decide on and advance legislation; no members of parliament will be able to switch parties, locking the majority in place, and rendering the parliament a rubber stamp; “unpopular laws [will] be submitted to a sort of screening by referendum; the same [will] apply to international treaties, and therefore to all the steps that Italy has taken to be part of the E.U. and the eurozone.” So combine a little Brexit and direct democracy. Add to that a massive increase in borrowing for higher public spending (breaking the eurozone’s rules); forced mass immigrant deportations; and the ending of asylum centers. Presto: The formula that’s ascendant everywhere, including here.

Germany’s center is not holding either. The current coalition is one no one wants: a replay of the exhausted Social Democrat–Christian Democrat alliance, with the far right Alternative für Deutschland, as divided as they are, now the third-largest party in the Bundestag. AfD also favors more direct democracy, wants less E.U., is fueled by anti-immigrant sentiment, and tilts toward social conservatism. Poland and Hungary are at this point lost causes for anything that might be described as liberal.

Britain’s two major parties have siphoned most of the populist fervor into themselves, which has kept the appearance of the system still working, but conceals a deeper change: The Tories are moving away from Thatcherite austerity toward higher levels of public spending and debt and are shoring their base up with more nationalism; the Labour Party has effectively become a British version of Syriza, the radical Greek party, with an anti-austerity movement taking over. There has, moreover, been no giant spasm of regret over Brexit, even with the negotiations in complete shambles. And the great savior of liberalism and the E.U., Emmanuel Macron, has largely succeeded in pushing through a program that has cut taxes and weakened labor laws, but has thereby sunk in the polls, especially among more left-wing voters, despite a (finally) growing economy. He has no partner anymore for a deeper European integration. Even the Germans are now out of that game.

Greece shows where Italy is probably headed: A showdown with the E.U., and forced austerity, which will only empower the populist extremes still further. Greece just had a 24-hour national strike against the E.U.’s austerity measures, and anti-German sentiment is as strong as ever. But it’s doubtful that a country as big as Italy and as central to the E.U. and the euro could be strong-armed by the Germans, as the Greeks were. We’re approaching a moment of truth for the entire concept of the E.U., as populist parties of right and left tilt against it. Britain may in the future be seen as the country that cannily managed to escape first.

Elsewhere, the strongman model is proliferating: Putin in Russia has dropped all pretense of democracy; Xi is now the first president of China for life; Erdogan in Turkey is still not done enlarging his powers; Netanyahu will be Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, governing on the basis of ethno-nationalism, suspicious of his own deep state, including the Mossad, and cementing a Jewish state from the river to the sea.

And in the U.S., of course, the omens are not good right now. Trump himself is resurgent in the polls — his disapproval-approval gap was -20 points last December; it’s -11 points almost six months later. On the generic ballot, the Democrats’ lead has sunk from 13 points to 6 in the last five months. The party is in shambles in Southern California, one of its key regions for regaining control of the House. Sean Trende now believes that continued GOP control of Congress is perfectly possible, even probable. Since, it seems to me, the midterms are our only real shot at checking our own strongman, this is demoralizing.

Maybe the economy’s continued steady growth is part of Trump’s polling revival, especially as it begins to reach the working class (at long last). Or maybe the outreach to North Korea has persuaded enough people that Trump is not always terribly dangerous in world affairs. Maybe it’s the tax cuts, although they have had no effect on growth so far — first quarter GDP growth was just downgraded to 2.2 percent. But the better part, I’d wager, is simply Trump’s continued salesmanship, his relentless media presence, the tribalism now endemic to our politics, and his core anti-Establishment appeal.

Watch last Tuesday’s Nashville rally for Trump — or, if you can’t bear it, check out Daniel Dale’s account in the Toronto Star. Trump uses these rallies to sustain the cult — and it works. He lies and lies and lies, of course; but his success at delegitimizing mainstream media has helped to build these lies into a narrative of triumphalism that more and more Americans are prepared to believe. Most politicians cannot do this because they retain some shard of shame and simply cannot muster the energy for sustained, authentic rage. But Trump can pull off both because the core stability of his own psyche demands it.

And so, on Tuesday, he went only five minutes before demonizing the media: “There they are, right back there. They’re fake. They are fake.” He then proclaims (as if he needed to) that the GOP is now inseparable from himself: When he brings the candidate he is allegedly rallying for — Marsha Blackburn — onto the stage, it is only for her to say: “Tennessee needs a senator who is going to support President Donald Trump.” And that’s been the message in the GOP primaries, and in almost every ad the GOP has deployed. It’s all about one man, and the need to support him. The policies and their impact don’t seem to matter any more. This is strongman politics, backed up by shameless abuse of power — most recently displayed in his use of the pardon power to help his friends, and potential witnesses.

Dale doggedly counts the lies: Wages “are rising for the first time in many, many years.” False. They’ve been rising for four years now. Nancy Pelosi “loves” the street gang M-13. Please. Mexicans “are going to pay for the wall and they’re going to enjoy it.” Fantasy. The diversity lottery is full of immigrants picked by their governments, in order to get rid of undesirables. Bonkers. Illegal immigration is “down 40 percent.” In the month after Trump’s inauguration, the number of people caught crossing over the border dipped to a 17-year low. But the number of migrants caught in March of 2018 was 200 percent higher than the year before. And on and on. This is not a conventional political speech rooted in reality; it’s an act of shameless salesmanship based on a constantly mutating con job, keeping the lines that worked well in the past, fitting everything into the narrative of American rebirth inseparable from the godfather now in control. And the crowd laps it up.

Trump knows that most Americans are not going to read the fact-checks. And his pitch is so relentless, his ballsmanship so huge, that, in the end, the path of least resistance seems the most practical response. Even now, his repeated, unfounded calumnies against the Mueller inquiry, the Justice Department, and the FBI are working. Belief that Mueller is partisan is growing; confidence in the investigation has sunk; Trump has almost succeeded in making Russia’s intervention in the 2016 elections seem as if it were designed to support Hillary. A majority still hasn’t bought this. But, with a GOP “kinda taking a nap somewhere,” when it isn’t echoing every single lie and delusion of the Supreme Leader, the relentless propaganda is having an effect. Unless Mueller has evidence so astounding that even Sean Hannity draws a breath, the special-counsel probe could also be a political winner for Trump. If he’s impeached, barring an economic collapse, he won’t be convicted in a million years, and his reelection, once unthinkable, now has to be seen as likely.

In the end, most people just give in to the lie completely. It’s easier than constantly resisting a malignant, relentless narcissist. Or you tune out. It’s perfectly understandable. Covering this degeneration for the last year and a half has stressed me beyond any expectation. I may be missing a looming, massive tide for the Democrats this fall, and I hope I am. But it is perfectly possible that we will soon be entering the next phase of Trump: when the lie becomes the truth entirely.

Religion’s Gender Gap

Here’s another interesting study on the potency of hormones, especially in understanding the different behaviors of men and women.

A new study by Aniruddha Das of McGill University in Canada in Springer’s journal Adaptive Human Behavior and Physiology analyzed data extracted from the 2005–2006 and 2010–2011 waves of the National Social Life, Health and Aging Project. From the analysis of over 1,000 men, Das found that men with higher levels of the sex hormones testosterone and dehydroepiandrosterone in their bodies had weaker religious ties. “Religion influences a range of cultural and political patterns at the population level. Results from the current study indicate the latter may also have hormonal roots,” says Das. “There is therefore a need for conceptual models that can accommodate the dynamic interplay of psychosocial and neuroendocrine factors in shaping a person’s life cycle.”

Religion? Seems absurd at first, until you recall that women greatly outnumber men in most religious congregations. Here’s a Pew study. Money quote:

In the United States, women are more likely than men to say religion is “very important” in their lives (60% vs. 47%), according to a 2014 Pew Research Center survey. American women also are more likely than American men to say they pray daily (64% vs. 47%) and attend religious services at least once a week (40% vs. 32%). 1 According to media accounts, women so outnumber men in the pews of many U.S. churches that some clergy have changed decor, music and worship styles to try to bring more men into their congregations.

This gender gap in religiosity is global: “Across the 84 countries for which data are available, the average share of women who say they pray daily is 8 percentage points higher than the average share of men.” The gender gap in attending services doesn’t pan out in Muslim-majority countries, partly, perhaps, because of more entrenched patriarchy, and many other factors may contribute, of course, with nurture and culture definitely playing a role. Among the best cultural explanation: “‘Women often give higher priority to religion not because of their sex per se, but because they usually experience less security in their lives,’ being more vulnerable than men to the hardships of ‘poverty, debt, poor health, old age and lack of physical safety.’ … For this reason, ‘women give higher priority to security – and religion,’ which ‘provides a sense of safety and well-being.’”

What’s interesting to me is that the latest study focusing on testosterone was only with men over 57, when testosterone levels are in steep decline from their peaks. What is the effect when testosterone is flooding the system in your teens or 20s? Seen many men of that age in church lately? And are there any differences between women’s religious observance and their testosterone levels? My own anecdotal experience is that I find it much harder to meditate in the days after a testosterone shot. There’s something about testosterone that makes you want to act and to do, rather than just be. There’s something about it that gives you a sense of impunity. That isn’t the usual precursor to fearing God.

The Crisis Continues

In another not-great omen in the opioid-overdose epidemic, there’s no sign that fentanyl’s grip is loosening. Au contraire if this story is an indicator of supply channels:

In a record-breaking drug bust in Nebraska, state troopers seized 118 pounds of fentanyl — containing enough lethal doses to kill tens of millions of people …

Twenty-six million people to be precise — if you take 2 mg as a lethal dose, which is the current DEA measurement. This wasn’t the result of law enforcement’s penetration of supply routes, sadly. More like dumb luck:

A trooper spotted a Freightliner tractor-trailer weaving April 26 onto the shoulder along the interstate and switched on his emergency lights, according to a probable-cause affidavit. After following the truck for about two miles, the trooper pulled alongside the vehicle and waved at the driver to pull over.

After a search, they came upon the substance, packed tightly into saver foil bricks: among the largest fentanyl busts in the history of the U.S. And look at where the bust took place — smack-dab in the middle of the largely white, midwestern plains. This wave of death has not subsided. It may even be building.

See you next Friday.

Andrew Sullivan: Is the World Done With Liberal Democracy?