We are confronting systemic threats to liberal democratic societies and to their foundational values and institutions. Our societies’ capacity to navigate a period of rapid economic, social and technological change is being undermined by profound social fractures that have weakened our resilience.
There are remarkable similarities in the crises facing Western societies. People are experiencing a heightened sense of danger to their economic, cultural and even physical security. In the past they may have turned to the institutions of their society to address those concerns – such as the institutions of democratic government, the courts, the media and civil society.
But people are no longer convinced that the ‘system’ in their country is able or willing to protect their interests. As a result, many people are more willing to embrace extreme options – even though those alternatives may undermine the norms, values and institutions of their society.
For many, at a time when the future of work is being disrupted, the most profound threat is to their economic livelihood and their children’s future, with diminishing prospects and stagnating real wages.
Many also perceive feel that their country’s sense of identity and culture is disappearing, largely due to high immigration. Distrust of others is intensified by the filter bubbles and echo chambers of social media. And barbaric acts of terrorism have added a visceral physical dimension to many people’s perception of loss and their willingness to support extreme responses to protect their community.
People feel more exposed to these challenges because of a loss of trust in institutions and weakening social solidarity. When the sense of ‘us’ is low and trust in others is weak, citizens start to prioritise their own group above society as a whole. Leaders who wish to govern for and invest in the greater good find themselves outflanked by tribal demagogues.
These are the ideal conditions for the rise of authoritarian populism. Social division, distrust and rising anxiety have made citizens desperate for action and protection, and more willing to embrace ‘othering’ narratives that attribute those threats to one or more ‘other’ groups such as migrants, refugees, Muslims, or liberal cosmopolitans. Increasing numbers of people believe that their country needs a strong leader who is willing to break the rules. Increasingly sophisticated, resourced and networked populists are exploiting and enhancing people’s fears.