Will the climate crisis be a boon for authoritarians?
The worse things get, the more compelling the lies will become
There’s a New Yorker story from a few months ago that I keep thinking about. It discusses a suburb in Arizona, built in a desert, that has run out of water, and is fast running out of options to get more of it. What’s more, the suburb is still growing. Developers are exploiting loopholes in regulations to build more subdivisions. People are buying homes in the desert with no water, figuring that someone will step in to fix things, or the problem will fix itself.
The article offers a window into how residents of the United States are coping with the current impacts of climate change. (poorly. They’re coping poorly.) But it has been on my mind because it gives a foreboding glimpse of what likely comes next.
I’m fairly convinced that, as the impacts of the climate crisis gets worse, we are going to see a wave of electoral victories for authoritarian demagogues. These will come at the local, state, and national levels. They will happen across the world, not just in the U.S. The worse objective conditions get, the more people will be drawn to candidates and parties that promise there is a simple solution. It won’t matter that these solutions are lies—or, at least, it won’t matter at first.
My purpose here is not to bum you out or declare we are all inevitably doomed. Collectively, we have agency. We can build a better world than our fears.
My intent, rather, is to make clear how the playing field in strategic political communication is tilted in ways that systematically benefit the populist rhetorical style of authoritarian demagogues. We cannot overcome that tilt if we do not recognize it and prepare accordingly.
I have suspected for some time that the core philosophical divide in American politics does not map neatly onto a battle between liberals and conservatives. We do not have two competing visions or policy platforms that voters are asked to select between. (The Republican Party does not even have a policy platform anymore – conservatism in America has been revealed as less a coherent ideology than a bundle of simmering resentments.)
What we have instead is two conflicting narratives about government and governance.
The first story goes something like this: “government and governance are fundamentally simple. The reason things have gone wrong is the crooks and idiots in charge. If we just get rid of the crooks and idiots and replace them with the right people, then everything will be fixed.”
You’ve heard this story before. It is the siren song of the authoritarian demagogue. You heard it, almost verbatim, from Donald Trump for years. It’s what he said on the campaign trail. It’s what he said in his convention speech. It’s what he said on Twitter and on television and in public and in private. The government is a mess because of all the crooks and idiots screwing things up. Trump promised that he alone could fix things. He lined up a parade of scapegoats to take the blame when conditions did not improve. He forever looked forward, finding some other crook or idiot to blame. Or he insisted the media coverage was all wrong, that things were in fact going great.
The second story is, in essence, a liberal technocratic narrative: “government and governance are fundamentally complicated. The reason things are going wrong is that governing a large, pluralist society is just really hard and includes a thousand hard-to-navigate tradeoffs. Well-meaning people, trying their best, can make government work better at the margins. But change is frustratingly slow and always incomplete. None of the hard problems can be easily fixed, or else they would have been fixed already.”
(As a political scientist, I am predisposed to believe this latter narrative. If there is one bedrock belief underlying my discipline, it is that government and governance are complicated. That is as close as the field comes to a shared ideology.)
It's tempting to label this a tension between populism and progressivism. But I’d caution that each of those terms has enough baggage and enough competing meanings that it can easily obscure more than it reveals. A full account of left-vs-right populism, and of the historical legacy of Teddy Roosevelt-era progressives is well beyond the bounds of this essay. Instead what I would like to focus attention on here is the rhetorical benefits and limitations of the two competing perspectives.
I am primarily a scholar of strategic political communication. That’s my disciplinary home, though it may be hard to tell from the essays I usually write here. (I’ve been on a bit of a post-tenure detour into other disciplinary conversations where I am very curious and way out-of-my-element.) What has always stood out to me about these two competing ideological perspectives is how slanted the playing field is between the two.
The ”it’s simple” camp has the benefit of much more compelling rhetoric. It contains all the elements of an effective story. There is a hero, a villain, a victim, and a plot resolution. (Elect me. I’ll toss the bums out. We’ll fix the economy/be tough on this problem/make crime go away. Things will all better once I’m in charge.)
What’s more, there are crooks and idiots in positions of power. It isn’t as though every government bureaucrat and politician is a genius/saint. So these stories can get specific, and timely, with news hooks that engage mainstream media and internet drama that can galvanize people on social media.
The “it’s complicated” camp — the defenders of liberal technocracy — have a much more difficult story to tell. “Elect me. We have hard problems, and I can’t make them go away overnight. But together, with time and hard work, we can fix things. It’s going to require patience and fortitude. But the best we can do for one other is to do our very best.”
That story sucks. It’s garbage-fire messaging. It demands daily feats of rhetorical brilliance to make it anything other than a bummer. And it’s a story that keeps being true long after it has lost its news hook and left online publics to wander off in search of more interesting controversies.
The difficulty here is of course that one of these camps is lying and the other is telling the truth. Government and governance is, in fact, complicated.
Donald Trump could not live up to any of his promises. Nor could any of the authoritarian demagogues elected across the world in the 2010s or before. The people Trump installed to run the government were loyal to him, but they had no idea how to run a government.
Barack Obama, by comparison, was an icon of the “it’s complicated” camp. The populist elements of his 2008 campaign were the ones that aged the most poorly. When he took office, it immediately became clear that nothing would change easily or fast. He was, ultimately, a very competent technocrat. His historical legacy is mixed for this very reason — some view him as an underappreciated orator and gifted manager of a complicated and deeply dysfunctional government apparatus. Others view him with deep disappointment for failing to live up to his ideals or draw clear enough lines between the parties.
What makes matters worse is that communication strategies promising a simple solution to public problems become ever more potent as objective reality gets worse and more dangerous. Liberal technocracy in America was ascendent during the decades of the 20th century when the economy was booming and technological innovation was demonstrably improving peoples’ lives. It is (relatively) easier to convince the mass public that government is complicated and they should trust the well-meaning efforts of experts when it seems as though our problems are being fixed and life is improving. As reality gets harsher, the simplifying lies become more appealing.
And that brings us to our unfolding climate catastrophe.
A few months ago, the New Yorker ran a story about Rio Verde, Arizona (or, as real estate agents prefer to call it, “North Scottsdale.”) It’s a community of 2,000 suburban homes, located 30 miles north of Scottsdale. Many of the residents moved there because there is no HOA (home owners association), meaning no HOA dues and no nosy neighbors establishing rules you have to follow.
Rio Verde is in the desert, and the problem its residents are facing is that they have no water. Some of them have drilled wells. Some of those wells, dug nine hundred and sixty feet into the ground, have still come up dry. Some residents pay to have water hauled from Scottsdale to Rio Verde. But, with recent drought conditions, Scottsdale has initiated its drought management plan, which will end all water hauling outside the Scottsdale city limits beginning in 2023.
Some homeowners have responded by trying to form a Domestic Water Improvement District (DWID), which could eventually build water-treatment facilities in the area. But other residents have fought back, insisting that the water scarcity problems were overblown and warning that the DWID was just a power grab that would eventually be able to impose taxes or use seize wells through the power of eminent domain. As one local resident told reporter Rachel Monroe, “It’s the haves and the have-nots… Literally, some neighbors were like, ‘Screw you guys. You bought a property that doesn’t have water. That’s not my issue.’”
New houses are still being constructed in Rio Verde. A 1980 law requires new developments to have a hundred years’ worth of water secured, but that only applies to subdivisions with more than five houses. Developers have just sliced and diced new subdivisions so that each one has five or fewer lots. People are still buying these houses. They’re buying existing houses in Rio Verde with no water, assuming that the water problem will just work itself out. (I’m hardly doing the article justice, btw. It’s beautifully written and deeply reported.)
Reading the article, what strikes me is that solving Rio Verde’s problem is really quite hard.
There is a simple version, of course – Rio Verde is desert land. Stop building suburbs and country clubs in the desert! But that isn’t much use to the existing residents. If you are the town government, or Rio Verde’s state representative, “have fun dying of thirst” isn’t a particularly viable policy stance.
Rio Verde should not exist. It was a bad idea to build a suburb in the desert and assume that the water would always come from somewhere. (Marc Reisner wrote Cadillac Desert in 1986. This is not a new or poorly-understood problem.) It becomes a much worse idea as the effects of climate change become etched into our everyday lives. There isn’t a lot we know for sure about the future, but we can be pretty damn confident that the American Southwest will be hotter and drier.
And the worse Rio Verde’s situation becomes, the more compelling the simplistic lie will become.
Eventually a town like Rio Verde is going to hold an election where one side insists that the only solution is complicated: they need more government regulations to seal up that loophole allowing new homes to be built, and they need to form a DWAC and an HOA to get water usage under control, and they need to scale back the size of the local country club, and by-the-way all of these onerous changes will just be band-aids helping to mitigate the underlying issue. There is no solution for Rio Verde, because it's a suburb in the goddamn desert while the droughts are getting worse.
The other side is going to find someone to blame – a nameless bureaucrat, an old law on the books, a current elected official. They’ll insist that the water problems will all go away if we fire these crooks and idiots. They’ll promise that there is an easy solution, and the only reason the existing government hasn’t tried it is because the government wants to control you and control your land. We can fix everything, while sacrificing nothing. Just put our side in charge.
Which story would people rather believe? Particularly after watching the national response to the pandemic, it seems almost certain to me that these communities aren’t going to pull together to face hard realities. They’re going to fall apart.
I don’t know which side will win the election. We can’t know, not for certain. But I know the odds are not 50/50. And this same pattern is going to be replicated across all the elections — local, state, and national — in all the unstable democracies of the world. As our circumstances get harder and solutions become more complex, the allure of simplistic appeals intensifies.
This trend is already well underway. Consider, for instance, the wave of authoritarian/right-populist electoral victories in the mid 2010s. These candidates often based their campaigns on a rejection of the refugees that had arrived at their countries’ borders. Refugees were framed as an invading population of “others,” culturally dissimilar to the existing populace. They were an easy scapegoat, priming vicious nationalist sentiments and promising firm leadership would solve all the problems.
The migration crisis was not directly caused by climate change, but it isn’t hard to see the connections. Extreme weather events exacerbate local conditions (droughts, food shortages, etc) that increase the likelihood of armed conflict against or amongst repressive state actors. Over time, climate destabilization is going to increase the likelihood of events that result in mass refuge crises.
The remainder of the 21st century is going to include an increasing number of mass displacement events. People will migrate or die. Nation-states will accept migrants or consign them to death. That is going to be complicated, to say the least.
We have seen how authoritarians make use of these refugee crisis to activate ethnic identity and nationalist tendencies. For the authoritarian standing for election (in those nation states that still hold free and fair elections, that is), a refugee crisis is a political gift. They are granted a scapegoat populace that can be easily othered. They can communicate, simply, that the migration crisis is not our problem, we have been dragged into it by crooks and idiots, and everything will turn out fine once we have new leadership. What a comforting story. If only our world, our problems, our governance, our politics were so simple…
We are also seeing it in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and in the aftermath of the COVID pandemic. How easy it is to look at rising energy prices and say “my government simply would not allow gas to be so expensive!” How easy it is to look at the (imperfect, poorly-implemented, haphazardly communicated) COVID public health policies and say “everything would have been fine if the people in charge weren’t crooks and idiots.”
This is the underlying struggle in electoral democracy. It is not conservative versus liberal — not exactly, at least. We have one party coalition that insists government and governance is simple, despite all evidence to the contrary, and another party coalition that acknowledges government and governance is complicated and tries to maintain public support despite obvious communications disadvantages.
We are not helped by a media system – social media, broadcast media, and the interaction between the two – that caters to and rewards simplicity. Analytics-based feedback loops make it plain to news organizations and social media influencers just how much more potent the simple messages are than the complicated ones. We all respond to our incentives, and the incentives weigh against robust defenses of liberal technocratic governance.
We are also not helped by a technocratic system that too often fails to deserve our trust and faith. “Well, it’s complicated” is the ready excuse of cowards seeking to defend the existing power structure. Frank Wilhoit once famously declared that “conservatism consists of exactly one proposition, to wit: there must be in-groups whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect.” Technocratic complexity can be a rhetorical shield in cases where mass outrage is legitimately warranted.
And, of course, an uneven playing field is not a declaration of electoral destiny. The lesson of the past five years is that Democracy is fragile. But authoritarianism is fragile as well. Eventually, all the scapegoating in the world isn’t going to bring water to the desert suburbs. The populist demagogues aren’t guaranteed victory just because they have the benefit of simple, compelling stories that travel well through our contemporary media system. They just have an unfair advantage that we must work hard, together to overcome.
So my core, admittedly foreboding, conclusion is this: as the impacts of the climate crisis accelerate, the narrative elements of the populist/authoritarian communication style will become more attractive. The years ahead will require massive, complex endeavors, and this will unfurl against a heavy headwind of Trump-like figures who seize power on the backs of comforting lies.
My proposed solution, to the extent that I have one at all, is fourfold:
(1) Spend public money. Lots of it. Spend it on efforts that benefit the public. Spend it efforts that soften the destabilizing impacts of climate change. use the power of the public sector to shield the mass public from harm. Doing so is right. And it also partially defangs the narrative power of simplistic lies.
(2) Demand excellence from government and governance. Make sure the system is working for the public, not acting as a shield for the powerful. The strongest case for liberal technocracy is made through liberal technocracy actually working well and showing that government can, in fact, improve peoples’ lives.
(3) Pay for all that public spending and state capacity-building through taxes on the wealthy. Wealth inequality exacerbates all our other problems. It creates an insular billionaire-class who come to believe that they themselves are the heroes who can save the world from the crooks and idiots who stand in their way.
(4) Articulate and stand behind the central belief that government and governance are, in fact, complicated. Liberal technocracy is far from perfect, but the alternative is a compelling lie. Those of us who accept, at our core, that governing a mass, pluralist society is fundamentally difficult and complicated, need to stand behind that belief and defend it. There are a few rare examples of liberal technocrats who hold deep populist values and make deft use of populist rhetoric. (Elizabeth Warren springs to mind.) Learn from them, and build on the messaging strategies they’ve worked out so far.
The coming decades will be hard. We are not collectively doomed, but we are going to collectively pay the price for decades of neglecting the climate crisis. The years to come will be made harder by the interaction between climate catastrophes and authoritarian populism. As objective reality gets harder, the simple lies will become more attractive.
No savior is going to rescue us. We’re going to have to work together to save ourselves.