Western liberal values have been the foundation of Western democracy for the past decades. Its zealous defence on democracy, freedom of thought and religion, free speech and openness are some of the defining characteristics of this worldview. These values have been under pressure in the past by outside forces. Western democracy had an ideological warfare with Communism in the post-WWII era. With the fall of the Eastern block, Western liberal values became the dominant ideology. Yet, recent political events suggest that a new political order might be rising. This time the pressure does not come from outside. It comes from within.
In 2016 and 2017, the election of Donald Trump in the United States, the ‘Leave’ vote in the United Kingdom and the rise of Marine Le Pen in France spread shockwaves across the Western world. These three nationalist movements gained strength and momentum by adapting an old but powerful rhetoric to the 21st century: the “us vs. them” division. This rhetoric creates an illusion of a dichotomous society where one group is actively waging an economic and (or) cultural war to the other one. In the U.S, “us” (i.e., Americans) have been subdued and treated unfairly for decades. It is because of “them” (i.e., the rest of the world) that the U.S economy is failing, trade deals are unjust and the military is a disaster. In France, “us” (i.e., le Peuple) have been losing their identity due to mass immigration and the ever-growing power of the European Union. It is necessary to get rid of “them” (i.e., Eurocrats) to regain French values. In the UK, a similar division between “us”(i.e., British) and “them” (i.e., Eurocrats) takes place.
These three transatlantic nationalist movements share a core component. Their objective is to create a permanent confrontation between “us” (i.e., the weak) and “them” (i.e., the elite).
In this worldview, the elite is mouldable. It can take many forms at once. Sometimes they are called globalists; other times they are called mainstream media. Regardless of the name they are given, the elite uses their influence to exploit the common people. This erroneous worldview can only be sustained by making people believe that there are just two, at odds, realities. Societies are defined by the interaction of numerous individuals and groups with vastly different backgrounds and interests. To suggest that a country can be divided into two factions using an “us vs. them” approach is to take reductionism to its maximum expression.
Convincing voters of a non-existent dichotomous society is not an easy task. The leaders of these nationalist movements, personified by Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen and Nigel Farage, have created a complex system of unproven facts, lies and demagoguery to sustain their claims. Sometimes, they openly admit lying. The day after the UK shockingly voted to leave the European Union, Nigel Farage backtracked from the iconic ‘Leave’ promise of giving to “our NHS [National Health Service] the 350 million the EU takes every week”. Arguing that it was not one of his own “adverts”, he concluded that it was a mistake to have made that promise. Other times, these politicians bluntly lie. Marine Le Pen struggled to defend her position on the euro during the French presidential debate. Though her official position was never fully clarified, she hinted on the possibility of the co-existence of the euro and the franc. To defend her stance, she erroneously claimed that big French firms could pay in euros as early as 1993. She never retracted from her unfounded claims.
The spread of lies, conspiracy theories and baseless arguments is necessary to create the illusion of a dichotomous society.
This dangerous approach has drawn some parallels with the classic novel 1984 written by George Orwell. Such comparison reached a new level when Kellyanne Conway, a counsellor to U.S President Trump, used the expression “alternative facts” to sustain the White House’s false claims on the number of attendance at President Trump’s inauguration. Certainly, some of the followers of these nationalist movements use doublethink. Doublethink requires forgetting any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed. The recurrent and perilous use of historical revisionism is a direct threat to democracy. These movements are purposely deceiving large segments of the population to sustain a flawed “us vs. them” worldview. Orwell’s 1984 reminds the reader on the danger of an uninformed society. IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH, one of the Party’s slogans in the book, refers to the power that authorities might have if their constituents blindly follow their leaders. A well-informed society is the best solution to prevent the spread of lies and the normalization of conspiracy theories.
Though many have argued that these movements aim at misinforming the electorate, an alternative, gruesome option is possible.
These leaders are not seeking to convince you that their lies are truth. Rather, they want to make you doubt the very concept of truth. Facts, figures and substantiated claims become dispensable.
Lies no longer violate reality. What is real becomes relative. No source of information is to be trusted. This frightening path feeds distrust among citizens. Donald Trump used this strategy to win the Republican nomination and eventually the White House. President Trump reinforces this narrative by labelling any news media that is critical of his administration as fake news. One of his many tweets expressed that “the FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!” Such statement encapsulates a series of worrisome signals: the “us vs. them” division, feeding mistrust among citizens and a forthrightly disregard to the value of an informed society. Truth and falsehood are not indistinguishable. Citizens must not tolerate the notion that what is real and fake is superfluous.
It is not by accident that nationalist movements have been flourishing across the Western world. It is a response to the growing inequality that many Western democracies have been facing for the past decades. Globalization has permitted a new era of development but its benefits are not equally distributed. Some segments of the population have been or feel marginalized by a globalized world. Yet, these nationalists, inward looking movements cannot provide the necessary changes that need to take place to improve the current system. The problem is not to question the current political and economic environment that has neglected alarming inequality levels. The problem is that the solution is not found in these political movements. Their promotion of fear, division, lies and conspiracy theories can never be a stable and long-term solution. Their relentless disregard for factual statements, their encouragement of “alternative facts” and their desire to create a dichotomous society make these movements incompatible with Western values.
By Rolando Hernandez Gomez