The Communication Gap
The recent votes for Brexit and Donald Trump as well as populist movements in Europe reflect an anti-globalization backlash. There is no question that rising unemployment and the technological revolution have caused insecurity. People are afraid for their jobs; millions are worried about the future. Many in democratic countries fear increasing instability.
This is not an ahistorical phenomenon. Recent history provides several examples of similar periods. Certainly the Stock Market crash of 1929 and subsequent Great Depression had traumatic consequences. The rise of fascism in Germany and Italy can be directly related to the economic upheavals of the time.
But beyond simple economic cause and effect – large-scale unemployment and economic uncertainty lead to fascism – there lies beneath the surface a certain type of personality that emerges in these situations. In a study done in 1950 after World War II and the demise of National Socialism in Germany, Theodor Adorno and his team examined what they called a “new anthropological type.” As presented in Adorno’s The Authoritarian Personality and summarized in Stuart Jeffries Grand Hotel Abyss, the authoritarian personality has some of the following characteristics: Tendency to be on the lookout for, and to condemn, reject and punish people who violate conventional norms; Preoccupation with the dominance-submission, strong-weak, leader-follower dimension; Identification with power figures; Opposition to the subjective, the imaginative, the tender-minded; The disposition to believe that wild and dangerous things go on in the world. As Jeffries notes, “Authoritarian personality types included the ‘tough guy’…and the ‘crank’ and ‘manipulative’ types…”
The opposite of the authoritarian type was what Adorno called a “genuine liberal.” The decisive characteristic of this liberal is “opposition to whatever appears to be tyranny.” One can take the above authoritarian characteristics and flesh out the opposites. They would include: Empathy for those who disagree with conventional norms; Rejection of dominance-submission relationships with an emphasis on cooperation and consensus building; Sympathy and tenderness towards those less fortunate as well as those one disagrees with; An understanding that while there are dangers in the world, positive and creative possibilities also exist.
Adorno postulated two distinctive personality types. And, if these personalities are based on an individual’s fundamental psychological makeup, what are the possibilities for change? What are the possibilities for communication between the authority personality and the genuine liberal? Is there any hope for compromise between the two? On a larger scale, by the domestic analogy, can we have communication between countries which have authoritarian characteristics and those which have genuinely liberal attitudes?
Behind the talk of growing populism or political polarization, these are primary questions. Switzerland is an excellent example of a “genuine liberal” democratic country that has been able to be governed by consensus and a magic formula guaranteeing geographic and cultural representation.
But Switzerland is a small, neutral country. The United States and Switzerland began their relationship as the Sister Republics, but the situation has radically changed with the growth of the United States as a superpower. The U.S.’s pressure on Switzerland during the banking secrecy crisis was far from sisterly.
The United States has changed. It will certainly change under President Trump. We are entering a period of a return to geopolitics where interstate relations will predominate and national interest will be prioritized. Concepts like “the international community,” multilateral cooperation, transnational networks and the common good of mankind will take a back seat to a narrow national self-interest. Even enlightened self-interest will be contested. Win-lose will replace win-win; the international will replace the global.
With these assumptions, the possibilities for communication between authoritarian individuals (states) with genuinely liberal individuals (states) will become more and more difficult. Switzerland will continue to be a unique model. But, as with its excellent wines, Switzerland will have difficulty exporting and defending its political system and genuinely liberal values.