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The authoritarian fantasy

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My first column for the Daily focused on why Trump’s norm-shattering candidacy appeals to his base, bringing together voters disillusioned by prevailing economic and cultural mores. I also mentioned the alt-right, and — perhaps a little harshly (though they are no strangers to name-calling) — labeled them a motley crew of xenophobes and sexists. Perhaps surprisingly, then, I see parallels between them and the “campus radicals” that the mainstream media has had such a field day with.

The people who comprise the alt-right are the subject of a number of articles, though none so incisive as Allum Bokhari and Milo Yiannpoulos’s piece at Breitbart. Bokhari and Milo paint them as youthful rebels, in the same vein as our parents’ punk rockers. This, they argue, is what motivates their dissident memery, their flouting of the discursive taboos of polite society, and, importantly, their Trump support.

This is all accurate, but doesn’t tell the whole story. Authoritarians have ideologically seduced young people for generations. This makes sense — young people typically have fixed and often radical ideas about the world, irrespective of their place on the political spectrum. Age-old injustices like poverty, discrimination and human rights abuses (on the left), or the erosion of values like virtue, family cohesion and national identity (on the right) seem stark to fresh eyes, and the compromises necessitated by our political system that fail to eradicate them are unsatisfying. With age, we mature (or so I’m told), and come to accept that things are seldom black and white, and that progress comes incrementally. To the young and idealistic, however, this is unacceptable.

And when the world’s problems are so glaring, democratic impediments to change are little more than a bore. It doesn’t help that the functionaries of government, the bureaucrats, politicians and party apparatchiks, are often caricatured — not always undeservedly — as bumbling, out-of-touch idiots. Stories of bureaucratic incompetency call to mind the Luddite parent or the dense schoolteacher — there’s something maddeningly inefficient about it all, which technology-adept, fast-paced Generation Y-ers find uniquely irksome.

The tangle of committees, sub-committees, rent-seeking lobby groups and regulatory agencies that one must navigate in order to pass any bill is enough to make you want to scrap it all and start again … which is basically what many young people want. The proportion of Americans aged 16-24 who agree with the statement that “Having a democratic political system is a bad or very bad way to run this country” rose around 8% between 1995 and 2011, and now rests just under 25%.

For Trump’s younger supporters, this manifests in an enthusiasm towards his authoritarian tendencies, like his respect for dictatorial strongmen and his disdain for press freedom. They see Trump’s firm hand as the antidote to a government entrenched in its ways, and the only recipe for wholesale cultural change in America.

Those on the far left, meanwhile, aside from calling for a Bernie revolution, have made headlines for their unwillingness to tolerate the mere presence of conservative or otherwise upsetting speakers on college campuses. They argue that free speech militates against other, nobler goals, like the end of oppression. Obviously, the aims of such people differ from those of the alt-right, but they share a disdain for liberal norms.

These left-wing young people also lost a great deal of faith in democracy when they turned out in droves for Barack Obama, only to see the transformational change that they had been promised fail to materialize. Put yourself in the shoes of a college radical (or, if you are one, ponder with me for a moment): At a certain point, after years of gerrymandering, obstructionism and Congressional dysfunction, the enemy of progress changed from hardline Republicans into democracy itself and the liberal values that seek to justify it. You decided that you need no longer tolerate the voices on the wrong side of history and that your objectives matter more than their freedom of expression.

And, look, to both the alt-right and the campus extremists: I hear you. Our woefully wasteful, painfully incremental democracy is depressing. It is also all we have. History has taught us too much about the dangers of despotism to allow ourselves to give up the institutions that our ancestors fought for.

Instead of throwing our political system to a strongman or suppressing opposing voices, the most inspiring activists on the far left and far right have turned to activism and innovation. Movements like BlackLivesMatter (on the left), and projects like Seasteading (on the right) are truly exciting and can incite political change where desirable. But upending the whole system, whether by shutting down our opponents or throwing the Presidency to a man who is unsure why he can’t start a nuclear war? No thanks.

 

Contact Sam Wolfe at swolfe2 ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

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