In its heyday, Communism claimed that capitalism had betrayed the worker. So what should we make of Moscow’s new battle cry, that democracy has betrayed the voter?
It’s a worldview that has become increasingly clear through the era of Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, via a mosaic of public political statements, off-the-record conversations with academics and intelligence insights. Let’s call it “orderism.”
Orderism has started to challenge democracy in many parts of the world — Turkey, Poland, the Philippines. But Mr. Putin’s Russia believes it holds the copyright on this formula, and sees it as the sharp end of the wedge it is trying to drive among the nations of the West.
The ideology’s basic political premise is that liberal democracy and international law have not lived up to their promise. Instead of creating stability, they have produced inequality and chaos. The secular religion worshiped in the Western parliaments was globalization (or, in the European Union’s case, Europeanization). These beliefs, according to the orderists, overlooked the downsides.
The most obvious downside, according to orderism, is that open borders and global trade have led to vanishing jobs and mass migration. At the same time, a mental borderlessness has shaken liberal societies: With potentially every traditional value now up for negotiation, no habit, custom or institution is sacred. The same leniency that allows for the free sale of marijuana, same-sex marriages and the crowning of a bearded drag queen named Conchita Wurst as the winner of the 2014 Eurovision song contest also tolerates militant Islamism within Western borders.
It is the same moral weakness and decadence, orderism warns, that preceded the fall of previous empires. Like Nero, the establishment is fiddling in its palaces while Rome burns.
Orderism also claims that, on the global stage, international law is beaten into submission by the rules of the strongest, with terrible outcomes. Even the West, orderists claim, adheres to the global rule of law only when it suits its interests. When it doesn’t, the United States and its allies ignore or circumvent United Nations provisions. Orderists believe that events in Ukraine in 2014 are Exhibit A for Western hypocrisy: The United States encouraged and financed a coup in Kiev, they say, and installed obedient politicians afterward. The rule of law and liberal multilateralism, they insist, are just Trojan horses, carrying the West closer and closer to their borders.
Thus it is an act of self-defense for Russia, in the orderist worldview, to secure the Crimean Peninsula, with its sprawling Russian Navy port; to increase military spending; and to hold frequent military exercises along the Russian-NATO borders. Just as the West contained an aggressive East in the 20th century, orderism believes the East must now contain a megalomaniac and arrogant West to prevent the spread of even more chaos.
Orderism prioritizes stability over democracy and offers an alternative to the moral abyss of laissez-faire societies. Russia stands as a model for this new social contract. This contract is built on patriotism, traditional gender roles, Orthodox Christianity, military strength and, at the top, a benevolent czar who will promise only as much as he can deliver (provided the public gives him sufficient support, he can deliver a lot). Orderism may not yet boast the same economic performance as liberalism, but its adherents insist that the cohesion and the common spirit of an orderly nation will allow it to outlive the inevitable downturn of the disorderly West.
It’s easy to see why, especially for those who have suffered dislocation and anomie under liberal democracy, orderism is appealing. But just as the utopian promises of Communism were merely a fig leaf for tyranny, the official face of orderism hides something much darker. Order is attractive only until it stifles, and then represses. Unchecked autocrats turn on the weakest and most vulnerable as scapegoats, and lash out in foreign misadventures to divert attention from problems at home. Society breaks down; fear reigns. Orderism ultimately fails to deliver on its own promises.
What is striking, though, is how compatible orderism is with the attitudes of many voters in the United States and Europe. Donald J. Trump’s campaign boils down to a promise of tough order. And the decision of British voters to leave the European Union, catalyzed by the promise of the U.K. Independence Party and others of an orderly, independent England, was nothing but an attempt to stop the frightening and discomfiting effects of globalization. Part of the difficulty in dealing with orderism is that it is ideological without being an ideology. It is mercurial, pragmatic and cynical; its meaning and values change to fit the circumstances.
Yet, in tackling today’s orderism, there is one lesson the West can draw from yesterday’s fight against Communism. Western leaders must respond to criticisms of liberal democracy, not simply reject them as the product of an insidious, anti-liberal worldview. If Franklin D. Roosevelt and Western Europe’s postwar leaders had dismissed calls for stronger welfare states as Communist-inspired, they would have invited revolution. Instead, they built progressive state institutions that drained the appeal of anti-liberalism.
If jobs are lost and terrorist attacks are mounting, democratic politicians have to have the steady nerves and fresh ideas to carry out the necessary repair work. In this new clash of worldviews, we need a new generation of Roosevelts, Adenauers and Monnets, leaders who will take on orderism’s challenge without lashing out at its adherents. A calm adversarial spirit is what can make democracy great again.
Jochen Bittner is a political editor for the weekly newspaper Die Zeit and a contributing opinion writer.