The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion What’s behind the rise of radicalism? Here are some theories.

Yellow-vest protesters kneel during an anti-government demonstration in Paris on Sept. 28. (Zakaria Abdelkafi/AFP/Getty Images)

I used to think there were certain rules about U.S. politics. There were things you had to do, like be nice to veterans. And things you could not do, like stand by a Supreme Court nominee accused of sexual assault, invite foreign leaders to investigate the families of your political opponents or campaign for president as a socialist. 

If those rules ever held, the past five years have gutted them. President Trump hammers daily on institutional norms, to cheers from his supporters; Democrats, meanwhile, are considering their own round of norm violations as soon as they get back in power. 

Something major has obviously changed. It’s tempting to ask, “What has happened to America?” but even that question doesn’t capture the scale of what’s going on. Waves of radicalism have swamped stable political orders all over the Western world. Any theory of Trump must also be a theory of Brexit, and of France’s yellow-vest protesters, the Vox political party in Spain, Alternative for Germany and the Five Star Movement in Italy — and of the left-wing counterreaction in all those places.

Finding such a theory isn’t hard; what’s difficult is choosing between them. As of now, I see at least four very plausible hypotheses — not grand generalizations like “decadent elites,” but specific factor analysis, advanced by smart people and supported by solid evidence.

One school of thought points to the growing divide between the mobile class that floats from successful city to successful city and the people left behind in declining rust belts and rural areas. They are the cosmopolitans and the rooted, or as David Goodhart put it in his 2017 book “The Road to Somewhere,” the “somewheres” and the “anywheres.” 

George Shultz, the economist who served in four senior administration posts for three presidents, including as secretary of state under Ronald Reagan, argues that the ever-increasing centralization of the federal government has exacerbated this divide, pushing power to remote authorities that are less accountable to individual voters, and less trusted. “Accountability is one basic principal of good government,” Shultz tells me, adding, “The other basic principal is trust. You have to have a government you trust.”

Federalizing everything also turns every political question into a life-or-death battle between two sides that are increasingly distant from each other, not just geographically, but culturally and economically.

Economic determinists, meanwhile, can put their faith in a comforting theory advanced by German economists Manuel Funke, Moritz Schularick and Christoph Trebesch. Using a dataset that spans 800 elections in 20 countries over a period of 140 years, they found that “systemic financial crises” trigger political crises and seem to particularly empower the populist right, though the rebellion fades after about a decade.

But that story doesn’t quite explain why immigration is the focus of today’s disparate movements across the West. For that, turn to Eric Kaufmann’s “Whiteshift” (2019). Kaufmann too has a great deal of data and a compelling story: As immigration rates rise and white majorities feel their culture and demographic dominance at risk, they flock to candidates and platforms promising to control the flood.

However, Kaufmann’s theory doesn’t necessarily explain why the left also seems prone to its own radical shifts. For that, a better explanation might be found in Martin Gurri’s “The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority” (2018). The former CIA analyst argues that the 21st-century information explosion has fatally weakened the old hierarchies that maintained social, economic and political order.

The Internet has eroded the monopolies over information and expertise — or the communications systems transmitting them — that shaped and reinforced those hierarchies. Now networked insurgents are making inroads everywhere. Gurri’s case is bolstered by a simple historical regularity: Every major communications revolution — the printing press, the telegraph, the television — has been followed by a major revolution in the political and social order.

Each of these four theories is compelling enough that I have, at one time or another, advanced them in this space. Each of them suggests a different solution, whether devolving government power back toward the geographic periphery or rethinking immigration policy.

But rather than trying to choose the most likely option, let’s consider the possibility that they’re all right — that we are in a sort of perfect storm of factors that tend toward backlash, illiberalism, disruption.

If so, it’s possible the radicals are right, and we need to make a decisive break with past leaders and institutions who are incapable of navigating these new challenges. Of course, it’s also possible that the revolutionaries are merely intensifying the storm winds. In which case all we can do is batten down the hatches, grab onto something solid and hope to somehow ride out the tempest.

Twitter: @asymmetricinfo

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Read more:

Anne Applebaum: Want to build a far-right movement? Spain’s Vox party shows how.

Carl Bildt: Far-right parties across Europe play on a common theme: Fear

Tarik Abou-Chadi: Why Germany — and Europe — can’t afford to accommodate the radical right

Catherine Rampell: The far left is taking a page from its opponents’ playbook

Frida Ghitis: Has the populist storm spent its force?

Anne Applebaum: France’s yellow vests highlight a gap between policy and how it’s perceived