Liberal democracy is “caught between the hammer of authoritarianism in the form of Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, and the anvil of authoritarian populism,” according to Malcolm Turnbull, the former prime minister of Australia and Chair of the International Advisory Council of the Center for Asia-Pacific Resilience and Innovation (CAPRI).
Speaking at an event held at the University of Virginia on Wednesday, Turnbull went on to primarily discuss the internal “threat” to democracies of authoritarian populism, characterizing it as “a consequence of dramatic changes in the way our democracies operate and the context in which they operate.”
Elaborating on this idea, he focused on changes to media structures as a key negative shift within democracies: “If you go back 50 years or even frankly a decade, or certainly two decades, the media had to reach a broad audience.”
This operates in contrast with the situation now, he said. “Technology, the internet, cable television, the dramatic reduction in the cost of publishing and broadcasting has meant that you can monetize a ‘narrowcast.’”
Turnbull repeatedly conveyed the idea that news media increasingly targeting narrower audiences for profits meant that increasingly people were “not sharing the same facts.”
This had resulted, he said, in news being filled with a “degree of division and animosity and a culture in the political media which you can only really describe as ‘angertainment.’”
In outlining his view of the political consequences of these trends, Turnbull was explicit in naming former U.S. president Donald Trump as a key example. He said that although Trump was not immune to rational arguments, he had been “erratic” on foreign policy. Turnbull labeled Trump’s threats to break up alliances such NATO as “unsettling.”
He also said “the threats to democracy are mostly coming from the right,” a position notable because Turnbull was formerly leader of Australia’s center-right Liberal Party.
Later on, in response to a question from the audience, Turnbull suggested the U.S. could still join The Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) at some point in the future if it chose to.
The CPTPP is a free-trade agreement (currently) between Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam — with the U.K. having just agreed to join. Trump pulled the U.S. out of negotiations in 2017, and Turnbull helped renegotiate the subsequent deal.
As part of his answer, Turnbull noted that one former U.S. defense secretary had previously described the deal as “as important as another aircraft carrier.” Then-U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s reasoning for that claim at the time was that the deal would “deepen [the U.S.’s] alliances and partnerships abroad and underscore [its] lasting commitment to the Asia-Pacific.”
The event Turnbull was speaking at was co-sponsored by CAPRI, the Miller Center of Public Affairs, UVa Global, and the Karsh Institute of Democracy.