9/11 and the Betrayal of the Elites

The west’s “crisis of confidence” isn't due to globalization.

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You have read plenty here and elsewhere about a international trend in which democracy is in retreat. I’m going to suggest that this international trend isn’t being fueled by fascist politics so much as by elite indifference around the world but especially elite betrayal in the US of the egalitarian tenets of liberal democracy.

I’m going to suggest this betrayal began on September 11, 2001.

As you probably know, there were about a dozen democratic governments on the planet in the aftermath of the Second World War. By the end of that bloody century, there were 87. Now, in light of the UK’s Brexit and the 2016 US presidential election, we’re more aware that democracy is more fragile than many of us ever thought.


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Fascist politics, which always comes from democratic politics in crisis, has reemerged and is flourishing in countries as diverse as Turkey, Brazil, Poland, Hungary, and the Philippines. In the 2010s, the growth of democracy stopped for the first time in decades and receded, raising fears of democracy’s survival. Many argue this trend is a consequence of a backlash against globalization. I think there’s a better argument.

Democracy’s retreat is a consequence of two things: when conservative elites in America perversely and successfully married ordinary patriotism with militarism; and when liberal elites began thinking and acting more as morally relative citizens of the world than as morally grounded citizens of the United States. To the extent that there has been a “crisis of confidence” in the West—and to the extent that America is no longer the leader of a postwar international economic order—that current is deeply sourced in a volatile mixture of fascist emergency and cosmopolitan aloofness. 

Over the weekend, Anne Applebaum wrote about this “crisis of confidence.” For the Post, she wrote: “There is a decline in faith in liberal democracy, a loss of confidence in universal human rights, a collapse in support for all kinds of transnational projects. There is a constitutional crisis brewing in London. There is a president who defies democratic norms in Washington. There are challenges to the free press and independent judges in democracies everywhere, from Budapest to Manila.”

Case in point is “the slow, grinding, murderous endgame of the war in Syria. Right now, the Syrian government army, aided by its Russian allies, is fighting the last pockets of resistance in Idlib, the only remaining rebel province in northwest Syria. As these forces advance, they shred what remains of humanitarianism and the law of war.”


Democracy’s retreat is sourced in a mixture of fascist emergency and cosmopolitan aloofness.


I have no doubt Applebaum is right, but I also have no doubt that America’s behavior in the wake of September 11, 2001, forever bankrupted our authority as moral leaders. Not only did the Bush administration lie about who our real enemies were; not only did it break international law to invade a country that did us no harm; not only did it torture innocents; not only did it imprison people without due process; not only did it fail to bring to justice the terrorists who murdered nearly 3,000 Americans—it did all this and yet even liberal elites, which is say authoritative public figures who are supposed to help the citizenry actualize self-rule, encouraged the American people to forget it. 

We can’t, of course. 

Americans are still fighting and dying in Afghanistan. The Iraq invasion created a power vacuum eventually filled by the Islamic State (ISIS), which turned to be even more murderous than Al Qaeda. ISIS vowed to create a new nation, or “Islamic caliphate,” by cutting out chunks of Iraq, Turkey and Syria. Such outside threats provided cover for Turkey’s Recep Erdoğan to roll back liberal reforms. They gave Syria’s Bashar al-Assad rationale to gas his own people to death with Russian gas. That years-long civil war has forced more than three and a half million Syrians to seek safe haven in Europe, where local racists panicked at the sight of “the invaders,” thus sparking a right-wing backlash that global elites now attribute to globalization. 

Globalization did play a role but of greater significance, I think, was the class-based effort to persuade the citizenry that the disastrous outcome of a globalized economy did not require criminal accountability on the part of the elites who destroyed it. To be sure, the too-big-to-fail banks got bigger after the American people bailed them out. To be sure, the status quo still gives Wall Street incentive to do it all over again. But there was no need for truth and punishment, liberal elites told us. That would be something like mob rule, we were told. And lo, not one person was ever prosecuted.

Instead, patriotic Americans who publicly protested Wall Street’s capture of their lives and liberty were investigated by American elites, in this case the FBI, as domestic terrorists, itself a consequence of America’s behavior after September 11, 2001. The west’s “crisis of confidence” is real. But it’s not the direct result of globalization.

It’s because elites here and elsewhere betrayed liberal democracy.

—John Stoehr