Are the protesters in Hong Kong liberals or conservatives? Are the “nationalists” who are part of a global nationalist movement actually nationalists or globalists? Is trying to stop the Chinese government from imprisoning Muslims in concentration camps a liberal or a conservative position?
What about holding internet giants accountable for things people say on their sites?
How about impeaching the president? The Federalist Society (a conservative legal group) applauds him while Check & Balances (another conservative legal group) accuses him of gross abuses of power.
Recent global events have clearly demonstrated something that we have suspected for a while now. The political divisions of much of the last century — like liberalism vs. conservatism and nationalism vs. globalism — no longer represent the conflicts people are having. Instead, they’ve been replaced by a set of new conflicts playing out all across the world. Broadly speaking, the new fault lines seem to be:
Authoritarianism vs. Decentralization
Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, the Chinese Communist Party, Hugo Chavez and Viktor Oban all have something in common: a belief that the government — specifically their government — is the only legitimate source of authority. There is nothing they can’t do, no restriction they have to honor, no limit they have to take seriously. They are above the law. Their word is the law.
This used to be anathema to conservatives, who believed in, ‘ya know, limited government and states rights and obeying the constitution. Liberals used to be the party declaring that the federal government could do whatever it wants to. Those labels no longer fit: the question of whether someone is a liberal or a conservative doesn’t tell you anything about whether they believe in authoritarianism (when they’re in charge) or limited government or individuals having rights that cannot be abrogated.
Truth vs. Opinion
A healthy society has room for both, of course, but one of the great fault lines we now see fracturing the globe is between those who believe that there is such a thing as a legitimate truth that does not confirm their pre-existing opinion, and those who believe a truth which does not confirm their beliefs cannot be legitimate. That is to say, is opinion subordinate to truth or is truth subordinate to opinion? Whether someone believes that truth is a higher calling than political victory is shaping up to be one of the major divisions of our time, and no single party has a single opinion on this issue, though some are embracing the idea of truth being subordinate to political convenience far more energetically than others.
High Trust vs. Low Trust
This is related to the question of truth (indeed, these are all related). How much trust do people put into government and independent organizations? Do they trust government agencies? The police? The military? Major media organizations? Their neighborhood associations?
Societies with high trust function vary different from societies with low trust, and it’s no accident that one of the explicit goals of modern information warfare is to reduce the amount of trust in a society. A society that cannot reach certain levels of trust cannot band together to solve common problems.
Online vs. Offline
This should be obvious to everyone: online discussions are very different than offline discussions, primarily online communities are very different than primarily offline ones. Online activism has very different outcomes and dynamics than offline activism.
Finally, there is:
Right vs. Responsibilities
Are we all individual actors for whom it is legitimate to try to maximize our own interest no matter what the cost? Or are we all in this together? What do we owe one another?
I may not have gotten them exactly right, but I think these axes better describe the conflicts we are currently having and will continue to have than right vs. left, liberal vs. conservative do. Nor is it an accident that many of these values imply one another; authoritarians generally encourage opinions over truth, because truth — if it is valued — can be used to challenge the powerful. Authoritarians likewise prefer low-trust societies, since institutions in high-trust societies can also push back. At the same time, institutions that are trusted too much breed abuses. Any organization or person who cannot be held accountable cannot be trusted.
The stakes could not be higher. Forget right and left — what kind of society would you like to see built? Because the bricks are being laid down now. Authoritarians, in particular, are on the march.