Scott Sumner  

From liberalism to illiberalism

Inside the Monkey Trap... Why the Chicken Crossed the Ro...

Here's the New York Review of Books:

In 1988, Orbán and other students set up the Alliance of Young Democrats (Fidesz). They took the word "young" literally: no one above the age of thirty-five was allowed to join. Their program was liberal, anticlerical, and suspicious of nationalism. Eventually, the Fidesz founders were to abandon these ideals for their exact opposites. But they never abandoned one another. Today the country's president, the speaker of parliament, and the author of Hungary's 2012 constitution all happen to be Orbán's friends from university days.
So why should we care about Hungary? Consider the evolution of Britain's UKIP (from a 2014 article in The Economist):
Less than a decade ago UKIP was a Eurosceptic pressure group run by disenchanted Thatcherites, such as Mr Farage, and EU-obsessed academics. Now it is hoovering up support from disgruntled elderly and blue-collar voters. Yet the fact that it is also hoovering up their prejudices reflects how populist, not serious, the party is.
And here's The Economist in 2017:
Douglas Carswell, UKIP's sole MP . . . left the party on March 25th declaring its job done (he remains the MP for Clacton, now as an independent). Mr Carswell's brand of libertarianism had sat uncomfortably with the party's increasingly misanthropic nativism, a contrast only heightened by the vote for Brexit. . . . Under Paul Nuttall, UKIP's new leader, the party has turned to economic nationalism as a way to appeal to fed-up Labour voters.
And then there is Germany's AfD:
When it was formed in 2013, the AfD's main thrust was its opposition to bailouts of indebted European Union member states like Greece. But over time, it has become, first and foremost, an anti-immigration party. A recent study by the prestigious Bertelsmann Foundation concluded that this issue is the only one on which the party possesses significant appeal. . . . The AfD also sees itself as a defender of the traditional nuclear family model. It is anti-abortion and, despite Weidel's prominent role, hostile to "alternative" lifestyles. It favors a series of measures that would increase state financial support for traditional families and is, in this respect, not fiscally conservative.
But this is Europe, what does this have to do with America?

Consider the Tea Party, founded in 2009 as a sort of anti-deficit spending, small government wing of the GOP. By 2016, most of its members were switching from traditional Tea Party types like Ted Cruz to big government conservatives like Donald Trump, who favors dramatically higher government spending (and deficits), controls on foreign investment, and trade barriers.

We will never understand what happened in America until we figure out what happened in Hungary. Unfortunately, we are just as far from understanding what happened in Hungary as we were 5 years ago. That means we still don't know what happened to the right in America.

Some people insist that all of these patterns are completely unrelated and that it's possible to develop a specific American explanation for Trumpism. I don't believe that. There are far too many "coincidences" occurring in the world today. There seems to be a deep force at work here, which transcends the specifics of each local situation. Why did India suddenly become so nationalistic? Why Turkey? In 2004, Putin had "no concerns" about NATO expansion into the Baltics. What happened to Russia after 2004?

If I had to offer a guess, it would be that the Internet somehow contributed to the creation of populist nationalism. After all, the Internet is a truly global force. (Does anyone know whether radio had a similar impact in the 1920s and 1930s?) But there had to be other factors as well. I'm interested in those factors that are truly global, not specifically American (i.e. not the rust belt, or immigration).

PS. I have a new peice defending NGDP targeting at CapX.

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COMMENTS (24 to date)
Mark Z writes:

A big reason I'm inclined to question your position that this is a global phenomenon is that I think the increase in European nationalism and the election of Trump are both perfectly well explained in their own local contexts. If three people die on the same day, without knowing what killed them, we might speculate they all died in the same accident. If we already know one died of a stroke, another of a heart attack, and the third of pneumonia, then looking for a common explanation just seems redundant.

Your case also seems rather anecdotal. Could one compile an equally impressive list of countries that have become less nationalistic during the same period? If one could, I suspect it would garner less attention, as we all seem to notice bad news more than good news. I don't know, I don't follow news outside the US and Europe closely enough, but I'd only find a more rigorous and comprehensive assessment convincing than simply listing several countries that adhere to the putative trend while potentially missing those that contradict it (confirmation bias and all that).

Lastly, it seems like this putative trend significantly lags behind the massive growth of the internet. If there is a trend, I'd be more likely to attribute it to the last economic crisis. Alternatively, one could posit that it's a generational 'changing of the guard.' In the last decade or so, the first generation to grow up after the end of the Cold War has been coming of age and entering the political discourse. Perhaps it's young people disproportionately doing what young people tend to do: reacting against the only status quo in favor of extreme alternatives like nationalism or socialism?

Weir writes:

From today's Spectator: "Nine out of 12 UK regions voted to leave, including the most populous and prosperous - the south-east. Overall 408 constituencies voted Leave against 242 which voted Remain (55 of which were in Scotland). The reason the result is not seen as decisive is largely because those places most in favour of Remain (Scotland, central and west London, Cambridge, Oxford, Brighton, the mind of A.C. Grayling) all possess a sense of their own importance out of all proportion to their size. Scotland actually has a smaller population than Yorkshire."

When was the EU well-liked? The Brits weren't given a vote about it for 41 years, but the Dutch and the French got a vote in 2005, so throw them in too. The French were 55% against, the Dutch 62. The Irish voted in 2008, 53% against. What psychological malady explains these pathological French and Dutch and Irish nationalists? What if the real question isn't about the majority in each of these countries, it's about what's leftover? What diagnosis explains the Remainers? The Remainers in Scotland were nationalists, so factor that in when you do your psychoanalysis.

Or else remind yourself that 10 years ago Obama was campaigning against NAFTA. Did Americans suddenly became nationalistic in 2016 when they continued to believe the same protectionist myths that politicians are always peddling in every decade and century? What about the populist nationalists within the EU itself, imposing tariffs of 10% on cars and 11.5% on clothes? If the populist nationalists have been setting EU policy for years, imposing double-digit tariffs on food and wine, then the populist nationalists are everywhere.

mbka writes:
If I had to offer a guess, it would be that the Internet somehow contributed to the creation of populist nationalism. After all, the Internet is a truly global force. (Does anyone know whether radio had a similar impact in the 1920s and 1930s?)
Bingo. I had the exact same thought - without much data for proof to offer though. So I'll just give you my train of thought.

If you ever read Benedict Anderson on nationalism, the mechanism he describes for its emergence is that new media (books, and later, newspapers and radio) allow people to realize, often for the first time, that they share a language and some cultural traits with others. This leads to an "imagined community"- nationalism. It is imagined because the very existence of media content in a certain language gives you the impression that others are like you by virtue of that language when in reality you never met them and you never will. His best examples aren't the "old"countries of Europe, but the puzzling emergence of different nationalisms in countries that had been colonized by the same colonial power. Why would Chile or Bolivia or Argentina develop strong identifications as separate "nations" when they all shared the same Spanish colonial history and had no particular demographic or even linguistic differentiations? Here Anderson argues that the elites of various regions were sent to different centers for education and therefore developed their own shared "reality". And new media allowed them to spread their (actual) shared reality to "the people" for whom of course it was more of an imagined, or even imaginary, community (since they hadn't actually gone to these elite schools and therefore had experienced nothing to be shared at all). So, language, an imagined shared reality, spread by new media.

Forward to today. Again, a new medium offers a chance for people of "one kind" to come together, in ways that are different from the "old" media against which some suspicions had accumulated due to past abuses and pathologies. My thesis is that immunity against new media's specific pathologies is initially low. In the 1920's and 30's people, the new media was radio and news on film. People believed the distortions of these then new media, and skilled politicans exploited this to create the fascist wave that swept over Europe, and various assorted populisms. Today, the new media is the Fakebook kind of news, with its own peculiar distortions. These current pathologies are new to people and so there is low immunity. So we have these new swells of imagined common ground with strangers and random reinforcements of sentiment, be it politcal polarization or nationalisms. Hopefully, immunity will build fast.

Tim Worstall writes:

As someone who worked for Farage directly within Ukip I can tell you what the secret is. The market for a classically liberal/libertarian political party isn't very large.

Sad but true. The two big political markets are for authoritarianism of the right or of the left.

B Krishnan writes:
Why did India suddenly become so nationalistic?

Wait, really? Can someone elaborate or link to a page that elaborates on this statement?

Alec Fahrin writes:


Here’s one great example of an act of blatant Hindu nationalism violating the Constitution that the government now won’t even try to stop, with rhetoric or action.

Hazel Meade writes:

I'll offer two possible explanations:

1. 9/11 and terrorism - the psychological threat posed by terrorism heightened society's fear responses, and the heightened fear led to a kind of realignment or reweighting of moral foundations - making axes involving loyalty and authority more important. This then led to heightened ingroup loyalty, authoritarianism and nationalism.

2. Russia has been funding nationalist groups all over Europe, and probably the rest of the world, so maybe this is all an illusion - there's no increase in nationalism, it just looks like it because they're waging a psy-ops campaign that amplifies nationalist voices.

Thaomas writes:

I think part of the explanation must be in what were the motives for the "small government" stance in the first place. Was it, "We're all in this together and "big government' is in the way of our growing and flourishing each of us in our own beautiful way?" or was it that "big government" was taking our money and giving it to "them?"

B Krishnan writes:
Here’s one great example of an act of blatant Hindu nationalism violating the Constitution that the government now won’t even try to stop, with rhetoric or action.

(sigh) We are stuck between a right wing hindu nationalist party, and a left wing party, we have no libertarian (or even close to it) option here.

Not that such a party would ever win, but still...

mikeyj writes:

The internet has more fully exposed the contempt that the cosmopolitan bureaucratic (media, educational) class has for the national and local culture of the average person. Simply electing officials that, no matter what they purport to stand for, continue to operate along the norms of polite bureaucratic (media, educational) morays never seems to alter the underlying contempt. Despite the average persons overwhelming exasperation with political correctness, it reigns supreme in our institutions. In frustration, the people seek a "king."

Hazel Meade writes:


It seems to be the opposite is true. Before the internet, cultural elites completely controlled all of the network television news sources and popular cultural programming, and used it to promote a decidedly left-leaning political agenda.

Now, you can find popular websites and news sources expounding any number of political philosophies from the extreme right to the extreme left. The left no longer has a lock on acceptable discourse, and nor does anyone else. You can find very offensive viewpoints going completely unchallenged all over the place.

Matthew Waters writes:

That's a pretty pollyannaish view of the 2009 Tea Party. The, uh, culturally conservative part of it was always there. Later they supported Trump when he said the quiet parts loud.

Scott Sumner writes:

Mark, You said:

"Could one compile an equally impressive list of countries that have become less nationalistic during the same period?"


Weir, If you can't see what's obviously going on in Europe, I'm not sure I can help you. It's not just about tariffs, indeed that's a minor issue. It's about authoritarian nationalism.

mbka, Good comment.

Tim, Maybe, but why does it seem to be changing in the past couple years?

Hazel, 9/11 is a US issue, it doesn't explain Poland, Hungary, etc.

Russia could not possibly have created a global trend toward authoritarian nationalism.

Thaomas, I thought it was the former, but now it looks like the latter.

IVV writes:

If there's anything that truly precipitated it, I think the financial meltdown would be it. It resulted in a very real hit to prosperity for a large swath of the middle class, and the general response to it was to find ways to ensure global interests (aka "the elite") were maintained. As a result, it was generally felt globally that the bankers ruined things, but the common man was left to pay for it.

Because of that, there is a lingering deep skepticism for international interests. Middle classes across the planet are left wondering, "Why should I pay for the next country over's excesses?" Why should Germans pay for Greece's spending? Why should Greeks endure penury to hold up German banks? In both cases, it's the German/Greek commoner asked to pay to support the Greek/German elite.

What could be done about it? Finding billionaires who lose everything and are forced to remain poor for the rest of their lives as punishment for causing the problems. That didn't happen, and it's probably too late now to effectively find scapegoats that will appease folks.

So, we all must make do with nationalism.

Hazel Meade writes:


But terrorism in general is a global issue.
Let's not forget the Mumbai massacre, or the influx of Syrian refugees into Europe (via Hungary), or the issues Russia has had with terrorist bombings.

Not sure about Poland, but the fear of Syrian refugees coming into Britain definitely seems to have had something to do with Brexit.

Matthew Waters writes:

"The internet has more fully exposed the contempt that the cosmopolitan bureaucratic (media, educational) class has for the national and local culture of the average person. "

Um, yes, the "cosmopolitan" class, like the "globalists."

Right-wing authoritarianism is hard to argue against because the authoritarians can always double down. They can first be elected with "Elect me and everything will be great." Then after they're elected, it's "those people" who are the reason I haven't made everything great. Evidence can be dismissed by illogical arguments and half-baked conspiracy theories.

Unfortunately, there actually are many ways the top 5% to top 0.1% have captured a lot of rents from lower classes. In my personal experience, these rent captures get absolutely zero animus from right or left-wing authoritarians. It could even involve bankers and the Fed.

I guess it doesn't trigger some tribalist part of the brain. So the *actual* reasons for stagnating living standards get zero passion.

Chris writes:

I don't think it's so much a rise of nationalism as a rejection of radical leftism. I like to say that the left is snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. For decades the west has been seeing success of the liberal project in all areas.... smashing fascism in the mid 20th century, civil rights for minorities starting in the 50s, environmentalism in the 70s, women's rights, sexual rights, free trade (well, freer than it was anyway), defeat of communism (well... not completely, unfortunately), etc.... And the world is seeing now incredible prosperity and unprecedented worldwide peace (relative to the rest of human existence) as a result.

The left just doesn't know when to stop and declare victory... they can't. So they keep pushing and pushing to the point now that they are finding boogeymen around every corner and growing increasingly illiberal as a result. Look at the UK..... they convicted a comedian for "gross offensiveness".... for doing something John Cleese did in the 70s! (as well as Mel Brooks and just about any comedian worth his salt). The country is heading into tyranny. This cancer has been growing for at least the last decade or more and is infecting universities and governments across the free world with assaults on civil rights, primarily on freedom of speech and association. The center is rejecting this insanity and well, are finding common cause with the nationalists (the enemy of my enemy is my friend sort of thing, well, friend is probably too strong a word... comrade in arms maybe?). Hence the apparent growth of nationalism. The MSM is largely in league with the left, so is constantly pushing this "nationalism" narrative again, to create boogeymen to fight against.

How global is this? I see evidence of this in Sweden, Germany, UK (in spades), Canada, Australia and US. I wouldn't be surprised if there's an undercurrent of this nonsense at the root of Italy and other European countries as well. I have no idea what's going on in India.

Mark Z writes:


I find it puzzling that you, a libertarian, would agree with Thaomas's suggestion that support for smaller government is mainly motivate by not wanting to give one's money to disliked demographic groups.

Thaomas presents what is obviously a false dichotomy. Given the choice between a big government party and a small government party, who do, say, white nationalists who don't like redistribution to poor minority groups pick? Obviously, the latter. 100 years ago, they would've (and did) pick the big government party because it was redistributing money toward poor white farmers. In neither case does this reflect the principal motivations for why people favor big or small government.

Also, an important thing to remember is that politics in most countries tends toward binary polarization, so movements inevitably tend toward one of the poles. The Tea Party tended away from just 'small government' toward standard conservatism. Occupy Wall St. tended away from mere economic leftism to embracing all facets of standard progressivism. This isn't a new trend. A movement with even the slightest concordance with one of the two poles will generally tend toward said pole. Call it a generalization of Robert Conquest's second law of politics.

Eugine Nier writes:

Except the UK mainstream is even more illiberal. Or do you consider throwing people in jail for joke youtube videos to be an example of liberalism?

Seriously, some of the things being twitted out by UK police departments on the subject wouldn't be out of place as party slogans in George Orwell's 1984.

Weir writes:

Britain had a parliament when Europe had a peasantry and vassalage and standing armies. But the Brits and the Dutch and the Americans insisted on representation. Call that "authoritarian nationalism" too, if you like. Within the filter bubble and echo chamber that is The Economist, everything gets lumped together as populism and sinfulness. Except, bizarrely, clear examples of illiberal policies. For example, tariffs imposed by the EU. As long as the EU "means" liberalism, it doesn't matter about any of its specifically illiberal policies. A tribal attachment to the EU overrides any merely empirical or rational arguments about the Brits having their own parliament.

But that's not even the point. The point is that nationalism is not new. Democracy isn't particularly new, either, but this insistence on re-labelling it "fascism" or "white supremacy" is a peculiar trend in 2018. The protectionists are always with us. There are protectionists at the supra-national level and at the national, and in the planning department at city hall. Hillary campaigned against the TPP. Wealthy white progressives love zoning laws. There are isolationists and environmentalists and socialists trying to restrict this and ban that and plug their ears about everything else. But why, in 2018, this hyperbolic and apocalyptic idea that Hitler is everywhere? Roseanne is Hitler. Sam Harris is Hitler. Some unemployed guy on oxy is one more hyper-privileged Hitler. Meanwhile, actual anti-Semitism in the Labour Party gets a pass from bien pensant Brits.

A specific British explanation for anti-Semitism in the Labour Party might involve the internet, but not as a cause. Labour's Alan Bull got caught because the internet is forever. Labour's Aysegul Gurbuz got caught because the internet is forever. But the anti-Semitism of Louis Farrakhan in America pre-dates Twitter, and it didn't stop Obama and other Democrats from palling around with him. When you're inside the bubble, you look for explanations of why other people would become authoritarian, fascist, illiberal protectionists. It would never occur to you to ask yourself why you and all your friends have divided the world into the children of light and the children of darkness, into your tribe and its enemies. And this lack of introspection, this unwillingness to examine your own assumptions, is pretty obvious to people outside your bubble, even if everyone on NPR and MSNBC and CBC and the BBC remains oblivious.

E. Harding writes:

"That means we still don't know what happened to the right in America."
We do. Trump was leading GOP primary polls in 2011, especially with the "hard birther" constituency. There were many Tea Partiers who wanted government hands kept off their Medicare and supported military spending because it "creates jobs". Trump was also seen by 60% of Republicans as the best candidate on the deficit even as he was getting 35% of the GOP primary vote back in 2016. Schizophrenia on fiscal issues is in the nature of the GOP base. Trump would have won the primary and lost the general had he ran in 2012.

"What happened to Russia after 2004?"
Crackdowns on the oligarchs and Russia's promotion of traditional values provoked a Western backlash, leading to rising mutual suspicion.

UKIP and AfD situations are, indeed, pretty similar. Hungary turned nationalist due to disenchantment with Ever Closer Union. AKP in Turkey was always thuggish; it just stopped caring about sucking up to the West due to the West's economic troubles+incumbency effect.

India, the Philippines, and to some extent, China, are unique cases.

Argentina has become more neoliberal since 2010.

"It's about authoritarian nationalism."

AfD and UKIP are still far more libertarian than the mainstream German and British parties. Gorsuch is far more libertarian than Garland.

Hazel Meade writes:

The "Hitler" aspect enters the equation because of the immigration issue. If they were just talking about trade or government spending, it would be hard to make such comparisons. But when we're discussing literally having armed men come to take people away from the place they have lived in for decades, their family and their friends, in many cases people who are married to American citizens, then it's hard to avoid comparisons to facsism. The fact that some people can't understand why other people might find it abhorrent to be forcibly tearing people away from their families and their homes shows a peculiar lack of human empathy. Why do some people seem unable to view immigrants as human beings with rights?

Causk writes:

My perspective on the german situation with the AfD:

I think their strength is mostly due to Merkel's positioning of the CDU. She has moved the CDU leftwards(f.e. fukushima (nuclear ban), greek financial crisis, renewable energy, gay marriage(instead of equivalent legal status that been put in place in decades earlier) and finally the migrant crisis), and thereby crushed the major contestant for government leadership the SPD, which has to compete with 2 parties on the left of itself and has been unable to articulate and position itself.

Many of her government actions have been deeply unpopular. It doesnt help that the german media establishment is very left leaning and has been pushing very hard against any disagreement with government policy(the Nazi/right wing accusation has been used so much, that i fear it has lost any meaning/shame). There simply has not been a voice for a law and order/traditional values. Worse than that, i think the quality of the public discourse has been poisoned by the reliance on moral argueing and character assassinations. People generally do not appreciate being lectured to and it looks like its not possible to have a calm discussion about costs and benefits in the public domain any more. AfD has been uniquely able to position itself to profit from the anti-establishment mood that has been generated. After all it has yet to be in power anywhere or articulate a coherent programm.

The FDP (most libertarianish party here) has not been able to offer a voice for people dissatisfied, because it stands to the left of the cdu on most social issues and has even dropped out of parliament after its stint in government with Ms Merkel. It has always had problems finding a message that would reach "ordinary" people and is widely perceived and disparaged as a rich boy's lobbying group.

Voting AfD to protest Merkel politics and force change is pretty widespread. Add to that the east germany problem (which has always been enough of base for the communists(die linke) and fachists (npd)) and the Afd has enough of a base that itll be a force for decades.

Given how troubled the latest government coalition building was (6 months is a record for postwar germany) and how much the spd had to be bribed to take part in it, none of the underlying trends are likely to change soon. I am pretty sure it wont be possible at all with Ms Merkel at the helm of the CDU and a politician giving up power before he is forced to seems widely out of character.

Weir writes:

Speaking of a peculiar lack of human empathy: "I won the places that represent two-thirds of America's gross domestic product." People who are "moving forward" and "optimistic." Boasting about that. That's beyond complacency. That's pagan Rome. That's an Athenian aristocrat. In what sense does Hillary believe that all people are equal? If you tell yourself that poor people are morally inferior, that they are slaves by nature, clinging to the slave-morality they call religion, that being well-off makes you morally and psychologically well, then you'll end up believing the simplest morality tales about the wickedness and villainy and depravity of the poor: "You didn't like black people getting rights, you don't like women, you know, getting jobs, you don't want to, you know, see that Indian-American succeeding more than you are." So that's the matter with Kansas. That's what's wrong with Jesusland and flyover country and the land of the low sloping foreheads. If they'd contributed more to America's GDP, they'd be less vile.

That's what becomes of your empathy when you picture yourself in battle with Nazis. You give your enemy a label, then you stop thinking. Name-calling supplants persuading. And there's this insult inflation. It's tied up with asset inflation. If your house is worth an extra hundred grand this year, then your enemies must be that much more reactionary, too. You thought you were battling the patriarchy, but white supremacy is this even fiercer foe. Anti-Semitism on your own side doesn't count, because Palestinian nationalism is not what "nationalism" means. By definition, nationalism is a sin other people commit. Within your own tribe, you believe that Black Lives Matter, unless the perp and his victim are both black. What definitely doesn't matter is nationalism in South Africa. Speaking of forcibly tearing people away from their families and their homes. Speaking of people being tied up, stabbed, and tortured with a blowtorch for several hours. "Her head was covered with a towel. Her eyes were swollen shut. She was partially clothed with just scraps of her shirt remaining."

Julius Malema: "We must ensure that we restore the dignity of our people without compensating the criminals who stole our land." Did you read that quote and want to make a joke about Malema's plan to Make South Africa Great Again? This guy's worse than Trump. More nationalistic. More authoritarian. I never heard of him either. I was vaguely aware of the violence in South Africa, so now I'm googling South Africa news. But he's irrelevant if the whole point of being woke and well-informed is to signal your disdain for Hope Hicks, or your moral superiority to Amy Wax, or the distance between you and Laura Ingraham. Violent, murderous nationalism is irrelevant. Torturing people with a power drill doesn't matter. You don't score any points talking about nationalism in South Africa. Microaggressions by blue collar white men? In the bubble, that's important. If a panel of historians is "too white and too male" or if the author of Building Faith: Ethiopian Art and Architecture during the Jesuit Interlude, 1557-1632, is a white woman? That's outrageous. That's worth a Tweetstorm and a think piece in The New York Times.


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