Lessons of the populist revolt in the West

Ernst Roets cautions that one backlash can always lead to another

Social media is abuzz with memes proclaiming that 2016 has been the worst year ever. The train of so-called celebrity deaths in the USA is listed as motivation for this, after which the “abominations” of Brexit and Donald Trump’s election as President of the USA serve as the conclusion.

Prof. Koos Malan recently remarked during a discussion of the recent American election that this event was related to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, which in retrospect obtained a different symbolic meaning as what we have been told for three decades.  

The Wall, which divided Berlin in two, was the forced divide between the (free) Western Germany and the communist Eastern Germany. The unexpected destruction of the Wall in 1989 exposed to the world the legitimacy crisis of communism. It is still accepted that the event discredited communism definitively. F.W. de Klerk even said that the destruction of the Wall had been the single greatest event that had influenced him into announcing on 2 February 1990 that Nelson Mandela would be freed and the prohibition on communist-oriented organisation be lifted.

Two broad theories arose in the 1990s on what the fall of the Berlin Wall actually meant. Francis Fukuyama argued in his famous book The End of History and the Last Man that this symbolic event actually brought on the end of history. His argument was that the event characterised the victory of liberal democracy as world norm and that all other forms of government had been dealt the deathblow:

“We may be witnessing the end of history as such: that is, the end of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

Fukuyama acknowledged that there would still be followers of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, but that liberal democracy had already triumphed. He also wrote that future conflicts would not be about ideas or ideologies, but rather about everyday economic and technical issues. He then concluded that the world after the Cold War would be rather boring. There are indications that Fukuyama was right.

The forty years between 1970 and 2010 saw a significant increase in the number of democratic states around the world. In 1973, only 45 of the world’s 151 states were declared “free” by the independent watchdog organisation Freedom House. In the late 1990s, about 120 states around the world – more than 60% of the world’s independent states – had become electoral democracies (and in cases where states resisted democratisation, the USA very quickly bullied them into democracies).

Samuel Huntington, Fukuyama’s former lecturer, wasn’t too happy with this analysis, however. In The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order he stated that the moment of excitement that had been created by the end of the Cold War was only an illusion of harmony and that time would tell that hopeful expectations of liberalism had been nothing more than temporary happiness. The most important factor to distinguish people after the Cold War, he wrote, would not have been ideological, political or economic, but differences between culture groups or civilisations.

The debate was about what the fall of the Berlin Wall actually symbolised, whereas the question was if the world would become liberal and democratic, or not.  What had been neglected in Fukuyama’s analysis, however, was the element of community politics that had coincided with the fall of the Wall. Huntington took this into account, however.

Analyses of the symbolism of this event that only see it as the acceptance or rejection of a specific political system, fall short. An underlying element that played an important role (with the benefit of hindsight), was the systematic return to the interests of the community as a whole as opposed to the interests of a number of individuals, as liberalism would have us believe.

Brexit was in truth a deed of identity politics. Despite the prediction that the economy would collapse (which has not happened), the British voted for exit from the European Union because freedom for the community weighed more to them than the argument that they would become poorer (in financial terms).

Donald Trump’s election as President of the USA was to a large extent a backlash to the excessive, pedantic and often hypocritical liberalism with which the Americans are daily confronted. Liberal commentators and media elitists gladly conclude that people who voted for Trump support his characterless actions against women, for example. The more correct analysis would be that people voted for Trump not as a result of his scandals, but despite these. This especially since the backlash to the current order remains so great.

Events like Brexit and the election of Donald Trump of course did not happen in isolation. The very close election results the past December in Austria, when the so-called “far-right” Norbert Höfer lost by 7,6% to the leftis Alexander van der Bellen, is another example. Then there were the polls in December that indicated that Geert Wilders’ anti-immigration Partij Voor de Vrijheid in the Netherlands currently enjoys the most support (and their lead continues to grow). The growing possibility that Marine le Pen (another co-called “far-right” politician) may become the next French President, is another example. And so I can go on.

We are starting to see this phenomenon in South Africa as well .It seems as if people express their disillusionment with mainstream media with more self-confidence, to name but one example.

This self-confidence do pose certain risks, of course. The danger of a backlash is that it generally leads to another backlash. We should not err by accepting that everything that is not leftist are automatically right. We should take care of our criticism of the media. That there are reasons for criticism is surely true, yes. However, this does not cancel the fact that there are excellent, objective journalists who work hard to deliver news that is factual and objective. We should support these people.

Only a fool would believe that the disillusionment with one side of the political spectrum creates a carte blanche to deny the limits of civilised action to the other side. We have to learn from the mistakes that the leftist elite made and morally position our action in such a way that we retain room for diverse opinions. If we don’t, there will surely be a follow-up backlash.

Interesting times are ahead. But it is an indisputable fact that the end of the “End of History” has dawned.   

Ernst Roets

Ernst is Deputy CEO of AfriForum

Follow Ernst op Twitter at @ErnstRoets