Tocqueville in Review: Why Realists Own Social Media – And What You Can Do About It

17 September 2023


In the incubatory dark of social media, nonsense is propagating.

In March 2022, shortly after Vladimir Putin’s renewed assault on Ukraine, noted IR theorist John Mearsheimer benefited from a massive upswing in media attention and public interest. The source? A reasonably obscure lecture given at Stanford in 2015 about the causes of the 2014 invasion of Ukraine wherein Mearsheimer places the blame squarely on NATO.

This view quickly propagated. The video in question now has over 29 million views, and has been accompanied by follow-up lectures, making Mearsheimer a darling in certain circles. It somehow struck a chord with audiences across social media, and in turn caused the rebirth of the school of Realism, which since the end of the Cold War had become the province of isolationist Republicans.

Turn on YouTube, and you will see clips of Jordan Peterson talking about NATO’s provocations. Presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, for his part, overtly espouses a Realist foreign policy for the United States. Tune in to your short video service of choice and you will soon find plenty of mouthpieces for great power politics and game theoretical analyses of geostrategic situations. The renewed appeal of Realism has even resulted in a resurgence of Henry Kissinger, the renowned statesman whose Magic 8-ball of IR solutions somehow always advocates war crimes.

Now more than ever, combating the prevalence of “laissez-faire geopolitics” is imperative: it’s not just that Mearsheimer’s Realism is, in fact, an erroneous prism of analysis; the very idea that newer generations of voters and eventually stakeholders of democracies will grow up bathing in a steady stream of protectionist, isolationist views – as well as the choice lies of authoritarians – should make us shudder.

Anti.Prophet is a YouTuber who has risen to prominence due to his viral Shorts. His channel straddles the line between what one could generously call self-help (to use his terms, “escaping the Matrix”) and a generic blend of conservative machismo, also incorporating non-interventionist populism and realist thought. Videos such as these highlight his advocacy of a world which broadly equivocates about human rights and sovereignty for the sake of the balance of power.

Anti.Prophet’s popularity is buttressed by the bizarre injection of political assumptions into otherwise unrelated arenas. Figures such as Andrew Tate also execute this sleight of hand to great effect, vaunting the power and discipline of Russia, the Gulf States, or Eastern Europe when compared to the “decadence” of the West. This allows them to connect with audiences much broader than those who would be drawn by their political views alone.

There are reasons for their popularity: Charisma is one – be it through polish, erudition and politeness, or shock value, transgression and bluntness. There’s also the nature of the audience – ascribing masculine virtue to Putin’s Russia on the basis of its willingness to use force makes the association between international law and “weakness” an easy one to pull off.

But it’s also because the ideas themselves are straightforward and intuitive in a way that liberalism is not. People think in terms of force relations, in terms of spheres of influence, in terms of military power – and this is particularly true as an on-ramp from a more conventionally isolationist perspective. 

The greatest trick Realism ever pulled was convincing its new audiences that by ascribing a sanctity to State interest, therefore to a nation’s foreign policy, it was also representative of the interests of any nation’s people. Through this sleight of hand, it regularly reinforces the worldview of those that hold “being left alone” as a foundational principle.

This is particularly concerning: In recent electoral battles in the West, there has been a recurring idea that democracies have no leg to stand on, in trying to impose supranational principles on the world, because, for one, that imposition itself infringes on a core freedom in international relations. States, it is claimed, should be left alone as a matter of reciprocity, because we also want to be left alone. 

We should give freedom to (states) because we desire freedom from (state intervention). This is how Realism equates freedom with non-interventionism. Except those freedoms are not comparable in any way. One is the freedom for a tyranny to impose its wrath on its people, the other is the freedom of people to self-determine.

One of the reasons that so much attention is being paid to Realist theories is because of its emphasis on geography to underscore the dynamics between nations, something it shares with geopolitics. Both of these fields are benefiting from renewed grassroots interest – not least of all because of the newfound prominence of thinkers such as Peter Zeihan, who holds the unique distinction of having appeared on both the Tocqueville 21 Podcast and the Joe Rogan Experience (here and here, respectively). Events such as the war in Ukraine, the Covid pandemic, and inflation have highlighted the futility of trying to ignore international politics or live in ignorance of it. People are turning to realist perspectives because they have no real idea how countries can meaningfully engage with one another on a political level if the paradigm of globalization is being challenged or stripped away.

The issue is when the thought process often stops there, leaving people with the impression that what actually matters in the modern world are these ineluctable power dynamics. This ultimately gives up on many of the key developments of the 20th century – the process of international edification that has structured and defined the relations between nations for over a century is giving way to the older reality of might makes right. These “common-sense”, modern takes on Realism turn the idea of self-determinism on its head, creating a false equivalency between states determining the fate of their citizens and citizens determining their fate through nationhood.

Yet, in so doing, it has also provided ground for liberal thought to combat it: Since it has made freedom of states a defining characteristic of relations between states, it leaves the door open for arguing that freedom of peoples is what ought to define the freedom of states.

I’ve been heartened by the response to the war in Ukraine in most academic circles. By and large, they’re taking this seriously and avoid the pitfall of parroting Russian propaganda. New voices such as Alexis Carré trumpet alternatives to the fatalism of this popular strain of Realist thought. And it’s important to note that many academics have spoken up against the caricature of Realism proposed by Mearsheimer and his ilk.

Unfortunately, precious little of this trickles down into the public discourse on social media at all, where there is in many ways no recognition of the gravity of the moment we’re living through. Instead, social media is inundated with the previously evoked peculiar strain of political beliefs. Combining non-interventionist populism with braggadocious machismo and religious conservatism, and trumpeted by figures as seemingly disparate as Jordan Peterson, Elon Musk, and Andrew Tate, they feed directly into the narrative that Vladimir Putin espouses and Russian propaganda aims to project. 

So what’s to be done? It is important to engage in the battle of words, not just in academia, but also on social media, where, in far more ways than the cultivated discourse of the ivory tower, it makes a difference. So many people are deeply willing to engage with an alternative vision for how the world works, because this Realist world of constant confrontation is cynical and abhorrent, a world which cares very little for the perspectives or lives of individual citizens. 

Another paradox at the heart of this issue highlights the vulnerability of this new Realism. Realism is descriptive, attempts to explain how things are and why certain countries make certain decisions using predictable metrics such as national interest. Liberalism, on the other hand, is prescriptive in that it aspires to establish things beyond base power dynamics, and is much more focused on asking how we move forward rather than why we got here. But oddly, Mearsheimer’s Realists during this conflict have been rather prescriptive themselves, in warning against poking the bear, and falling prey to tried-and-true (albeit clumsy) intimidation tactics. 

The battle for social media rages on. We cannot let these Realists win.


Shane McLorrain – Managing Editor

Noé Sainderichin – Concerned Citizen

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