May 18, 2016 | By Ivo H. Daalder

This Week’s Reads – An Illiberal Offensive


Protesters hold posters with word "Censored" and the names of Hungarian newspapers during a statement of far-right Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler

It seems we are living through a distinctly illiberal moment. Wherever you look these days, free markets and open societies are under siege.
 
Look at China. Under President Xi Jinping, China has taken a series of actions meant to censor criticism and stamp out organized dissent. Last year, the country arrested nearly two hundred people for spreading politically inconvenient “rumors” about the Chinese stock market. Last week, it passed a sweeping new law that restricts the work of foreign NGOs. All the while, a cult of personality has been steadily, quietly building up around President Xi.
 
In Europe, also, illiberal forces are pushing forward. Right-wing political parties in Poland and Hungary have taken different steps to reshape their judiciaries, enact protectionist policies, and limit civil liberties. France, too, is struggling to balance its commitment to pluralism with its heightened security concerns.
 
Then there’s the United States. The 2016 presidential campaign has unleashed a wave of protectionist fervor on both sides of the political aisle. All remaining candidates have rejected the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the largest free-trade deal in history. More troubling, however, is the nativist, authoritarian rhetoric animating a segment of America that is fiercely anti-trade, anti-immigrant, and anti-globalist.  America’s continued military presence in the Middle East, as well as its hollowing middle class, will likely reinforce these attitudes.
 
How did we get here? And how long will this illiberal moment last? This week’s selected readings suggest some answers.

Xi Embraces Mao’s Radical Legacy

Andrew Browne/The Wall Street Journal

As Chinese President Xi Jinping attempts to solidify his hold on both party and state, his invocation of Mao Zedong’s memory glosses over the dark side of his tenure. Emphasizing the chairman who unified China rather than the man responsible for the deaths of millions, Xi seeks to instill a renewed sense of hope and pride in the masses negatively impacted by the recent economic slowdown. He wants to avoid completely deifying Mao, whom to many symbolizes a less corrupt era, while still overwriting the carnage he inflicted.

Illiberalism Takes Root in Europe’s Fertile Center

Tony Barber/Financial Times

The ascension of far-right parties in Hungary and Poland signaled a wave of illiberalism that now threatens Austria, writes Tony Barber. The transition to democracy, capitalism, and EU membership increased standards of living but also brought social inequality. This leads to politicians championing social justice while subverting the independence of the judiciary, media, and other pillars of free society. The European Union cannot punish these subversions without unanimous consent from its member countries, and illiberal countries will band together to protect each other. “It is almost as if the European Union’s own liberal virtues are keeping central Europe safe for illiberalism.”

France is Falling into the Trap Set by ISIS

Francois Heisbourg/Financial Times

The response of the Hollande government to the Paris attacks of January and November 2015 has been misguided, according to Heisbourg, and will play into ISIS’ hands. ISIS wants to trigger civil war in Europe, transforming disaffected Muslim populations into an armed vanguard. The lack of an official investigation into the November attacks suggests a poor attempt on the government’s part to save face, the proposal to strip citizenship from dual nationality citizens found guilty of terrorist offenses would have legalized a second-class tier, and extending the state of emergency continues to suppress democratic due process. To avoid escalating tension, the government must reexamine its policies.

America’s Middle Class Meltdown

Shawn Donnan & Sam Fleming/Financial Times

Growing urban populations do not necessarily correlate with higher incomes for residents of that metropolitan area, according to a recent study from the Pew Research Center. Once a smaller, provincial economy, Raleigh is one example of a city where median income has fallen with an influx of college graduates, creating a poverty problem that marginalizes the less-educated and pushes them towards the folksy economics of Donald Trump. As job openings increasingly require a high-skilled degree, the size of the middle class as a portion of the population will continue to decline.

‘The United States Can’t Fix It’: James Clapper on America’s Role in the Middle East

David Ignatius/The Washington Post

While the intelligence community has made strides in coordination and information sharing since James Clapper became director of national intelligence six years ago, Clapper warns that the complexity of fundamental issues in the Middle East will perpetuate regional conflicts for a long time. Only by continuing a physical US presence in the area and expanding cooperation between American and European intelligence networks will any semblance of progress be made in combating terrorism.

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