Analysis | Confronting the politics of resentment: How can diplomats protect democracy?

Oliver Mains

Protestors gather at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, VA, on August 12, 2017.
Far-right protestors gathered at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, VA, on August 12, 2017. (Image: Rodney Dunning on Flickr)

It doesn’t take much digging to see that global politics is undergoing a fundamental shift. Democracy, once on a seemingly unstoppable growth trajectory, faces new challenges around the world from illiberal competitors. I entered the U.S. Foreign Service in 2012, riding the optimism of the Arab Spring and all it portended for the power of grassroots democratization. I was confident in the broad appeal of liberal values and excited to help counterparts in fragile states take steps on what I thought was a complex yet largely inevitable march toward democracy. A decade later, my hubris is gone, and I find myself asking how we can mount a more fundamental defense of liberalism against powerful social and political trends, including in established democracies where the appeal of illiberal ideology seemed relegated to the fringe not so long ago.

As a Dean and Virginia Rusk Fellow at Georgetown’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, I recently led a graduate seminar on “Diplomacy and the ‘Politics of Resentment,’” a phrase I borrowed from Francis Fukuyama’s recent work on global threats to democracy. Twelve exceptional graduate students joined me in seeking answers to some of the key questions surrounding the rise of illiberalism: What is driving this trend, and why is it happening now? How did illiberal politics go global, transcending countries with vastly different political traditions and demographics? Most importantly, what can we do about it, and is there a role for diplomacy?

Identity and illiberalism

We found that while the specific origins and trajectories of modern illiberalism differ by country, support for these ideologies is almost always steeped in some form of identity conflict. Practitioners of exclusionary identity politics use what the psychiatrist Vamik Volkan calls “chosen traumas” — powerful narratives of historical victimization — to rally community support and call into question opponents’ political legitimacy. Behavioral biologists like Robert Sapolsky (whose irreverent tome “Behave” was a class favorite) have shown how the power of chosen trauma is steeped in human instinct, transcending cultural traditions. This helps explain why the language and tactics of illiberal politics appear surprisingly similar across countries and regions. India’s Narendra Modi and Hungary’s Viktor Orban have little in common by way of language, religion, or culture, and their two countries share practically nothing in terms of demographic makeup, but they are similarly adept at leveraging chosen traumas to build unity at the expense of a vilified “outgroup.”

If the politics of resentment is a natural outcome of human psychology, why has it taken so long for it to pose a serious challenge to global democracy? Part of the answer is that democracy has always been more fragile than we’d like to admit, and that illiberal tendencies have been chipping away at even established democracies for longer than we’ve been paying attention. Another part of the answer is that democracy can play the identity game too. At its best, democracy can offer compelling identity-based narratives that scratch the human itch for collective belonging without relying on the victimization complex that fuels illiberalism. Successful democracies have done this by insisting that commitments to values such as representative governance, equality of opportunity, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion are unifying principles that define a shared, national identity.

Those democracies ask their citizens to subsume other identities such as ethnicity, regional affinity, or political affiliation under a values-based national identity, but generally allow those other identities to coexist with a national narrative. This pluralism of identities situated under a values-based national narrative is an enormously difficult framework to develop and protect — far more so than the victimization framework on which illiberal models often rely — but it’s the only way to harness identity politics for progress.

Modern stressors on democracy

While democracy seemed to hold the politics of resentment in retreat on a global scale following the end of the Cold War, more recent structural shifts in economics, governance, and demographics have increased democratic vulnerabilities. Fukuyama attributes this primarily to rising global inequality caused by globalization, which calls into question democracies’ ability to deliver on their promise of equal opportunity. He also cites increases in systemic corruption around the world — including the rising influence of money and special interests in politics — which increasingly limit institutional responsiveness to public preferences and priorities. Both these threats undermine democracy as a compelling identity-based alternative to illiberal politics, because key values that sit at the core of national identity in democracies — representative governance and equality of opportunity — are no longer credibly available to large swaths of the public. Adding fuel to the fire, Volkan argues significant increases in global migration since the turn of the century have put identity groups into more frequent and direct conflict than in the past, easing the core illiberal task of cultivating identity-based victimization narratives.

By about 2008, the structural shifts above were fully in motion, but few observers had connected the dots to understand the nature and extent of the threat they posed to global democracy. Social media could not have picked a less opportune moment to come to prominence. My students were unconvinced by the facile argument that “social media killed democracy” — the dynamics favoring illiberalism were all in motion before Mark Zuckerberg donned his first hoodie — but it’s clear that social media’s power to reinforce existing identity conflict accelerated the timeline. It did this by performing what Gideon Lewis-Kraus refers to as a “refraction” of exclusionary identities, responding with resounding success to a growing global desire to associate more — and more exclusively — with people of similar political affinity. We found compelling Lisa Schirch’s conception of a “balance of harms,” which acknowledges social media’s facilitation of Arab Spring-style grassroots activism but weighs that benefit unfavorably against its contributions to the global identity crisis now underway.

Diplomacy’s role

So what can diplomats do to counter these deep-seated trends toward democratic decline? Solving this problem is not by any means our sole purview; my students prescribed a whole-of-society, generational approach for protecting democracy, and agreed that foreign interlocutors are generally among the worst-placed actors to combat illiberal politics at the national level. But there are a few principles diplomats should keep in mind as we navigate an increasingly illiberal world.

First, we can recognize the primacy of identity conflict in driving democratic backsliding and support for illiberal alternatives. This may sound trivial, but it would represent a departure from our archaic centering of military or economic power as the primary arenas of global contestation between democracy and other types of governance. Diplomatic corps around the democratic world could support this by building coursework on the social and psychological drivers of identity conflict into their training curricula and by tracking the dynamics of these conflicts in political reporting.

Second, we need to expand our understanding of what it means to strengthen the connection between domestic and foreign policies. This often begins and ends with a promise by leadership to help domestic constituencies better recognize how they benefit from well-crafted foreign policy. That’s vitally important, but it’s not the full picture. I’ve seen firsthand how rising illiberalism at home undermines the credibility of our efforts to strengthen democratic institutions abroad. Diplomats should press their leaders to recognize internal democratic decline as a foreign policy crisis — not just a domestic one. We should also bring the myriad lessons we’ve learned from democratization efforts abroad back to our home countries, breaking silos between diplomats and domestic democracy activists to exchange best practices.

Efforts by committed liberals to improve institutional responsiveness and defend values-based identities at the national level will remain the primary determinant of democracy’s future. International initiatives to combat systemic corruption and reduce inequality will play crucial roles as well. U.S. and other diplomats work everyday to support both those categories of action, but there’s more we can do to ensure our everyday diplomacy is framed around support for a struggling global liberalism. Recognizing the centrality of identity conflict and reframing the connection between illiberal challenges at home and abroad would help us better respond to some of the most worrying trends in global politics today.

Oliver Mains is a Rusk Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy and a career member of the U.S. Foreign Service. He served most recently as Turkey desk officer for political-military affairs, where he led the desk’s work on defense trade, basing, and countering Russian malign influence. Prior to joining the Foreign Service, he was a program associate at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and an Afghanistan field researcher for the Centre for International Governance Innovation. He holds an M.A. in Conflict, Security, and Development from King’s College London and a B.A./B.M. in History and Clarinet Performance from Oberlin College and Conservatory of Music.

While Oliver Mains is a career U.S. diplomat, the views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of State or the U.S. government.

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