Book Review: In ‘The Retreat of Western Liberalism,’ How Democracy Is Defeating Itself


June 20, 2017

In ‘The Retreat of Western Liberalism,’ How Democracy Is Defeating Itself

In his insightful and harrowing new book, Edward Luce, a columnist for The Financial Times, issues a chilling warning: “Western liberal democracy is not yet dead,” he writes, “but it is far closer to collapse than we may wish to believe. It is facing its gravest challenge since the Second World War. This time, however, we have conjured up the enemy from within. At home and abroad, America’s best liberal traditions are under assault from its own president. We have put arsonists in charge of the fire brigade.”

Luce does not see Donald J. Trump or populist nationalists in Europe, like Marine Le Pen, as causes of today’s crisis in democratic liberalism but rather as symptoms. Nor does he see President Trump’s victory last November as “an accident delivered by the dying gasp of America’s white majority — and abetted by Putin,” after which regular political programming will soon resume.

Instead, he argues in “The Retreat of Western Liberalism,” Trump’s election is a part of larger trends on the world stage, including the failure of two dozen democracies since the turn of the millennium (including three in Europe — Russia, Turkey and Hungary) and growing downward pressures on the West’s middle classes (wrought by the snowballing forces of globalization and automation) that are fomenting nationalism and populist revolts. These developments, in turn, represent a repudiation of the naïve hopes, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, that liberal democracy was on an inevitable march across the planet, and they also pose a challenge to the West’s Enlightenment faith in reason and linear progress.

Like Richard Haass’s recent book, “A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order,” this volume sometimes tries to cover too much in too little space, but it’s equally timely and informed, providing an important overview of the dynamics in an increasingly interconnected and fragmented planet. In his prescient 2012 book, “Time to Start Thinking: America in the Age of Descent,” Luce uncannily anticipated the politics of resentment and the bitter fights over immigration that would fuel “Brexit” and last year’s American election. And in this new book, he lucidly expounds on the erosion of the West’s middle classes, the dysfunction among its political and economic elites and the consequences for America and the world.

The strongest glue holding liberal democracies together, Luce argues, is economic growth, and when that growth stalls or falls, things tend to take a dark turn. With growing competition for jobs and resources, losers (those he calls the “left-behinds”) seek scapegoats for their woes, and consensus becomes harder to reach as politics devolves into more and more of a zero-sum game.
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Edward Luce Credit Niamh King

“Many of the tools of modern life are increasingly priced beyond most people’s reach,” Luce writes. One study shows it now takes the median worker more than twice as many hours a month to pay rent in one of America’s big cities as it did in 1950; and the costs of health care and a college degree have increased even more. There is rising income inequality in the West; America, which “had traditionally shown the highest class mobility of any Western country,” now has the lowest.”

As nostalgia for a dimly recalled past replaces hope, the American dream of self-betterment and a brighter future for one’s children recedes. Among the symptoms of this dynamic: a growing opioid epidemic and decline in life expectancy, increasing intolerance for other people’s points of view, and brewing contempt for an out-of-touch governing elite (represented in 2016 by Hillary Clinton, of whom Luce writes: “her tone-deafness towards the middle class was almost serene”).

Trump’s economic agenda (as opposed to his campaign rhetoric), Luce predicts, will “deepen the economic conditions that gave rise to his candidacy,” while the “scorn he pours on democratic traditions at home” endangers the promotion of liberal democracy abroad. America’s efforts to export its ideals had already suffered two serious setbacks in the 21st century: George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003 and the calamities that followed; and the financial crisis of 2008, which, Luce writes, was not a global recession but an Atlantic one that raised serious concerns about the Western financial model. (“In 2009, China’s economy grew by almost 10 percent, and India’s by almost 8 percent.”)

What fund of good will the United States retained, Luce suggests, Trump has been “rapidly squandering,” with his dismissive treatment of NATO and longtime allies, and his overtures toward autocratic leaders like Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. “Within days of his inauguration,” Luce writes, “Trump had killed the remaining spirit of enlightened self-interest that defined much” of post-World War II America. Given this situation, Luce adds, “the stability of the planet — and the presumption of restraint — will have to rest in the hands of Xi Jinping and other powerful leaders,” though he predicts that “chaos, not China, is likelier to take America’s place.”

Luce’s conclusions are pessimistic but not entirely devoid of hope. “The West’s crisis is real, structural and likely to persist,” he writes. “Nothing is inevitable. Some of what ails the West is within our power to fix.” Doing so means rejecting complacency about democracy and our system’s resilience, and “understanding exactly how we got here.”

Luce’s book is one good place to start.

Follow Michiko Kakutani on Twitter: @michikokakutani

The Retreat of Western Liberalism
By Edward Luce
234 pages. Atlantic Monthly Press. $24.

A version of this review appears in print on June 20, 2017, on Page C4 of the New York edition with the headline: Inside Job: The Harm the West Is Inflicting on Itself.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: In ‘The Retreat of Western Liberalism,’ How Democracy Is Defeating Itself

  1. In the summer of 1989, the American magazine the National Interest published an essay with the strikingly bold title “The End of History?”. Its author, the political scientist Francis Fukuyama, announced that the great ideological battles between east and west were over, and that western liberal democracy had triumphed. .

    Now journalist Luce has released a pessimistic commentary on the state of western liberalism (democracy).. The contest is far from over. The world is heading toward a clash of ideologies with religious overtones.–Din Merican

  2. Why do we still cite Francis Fukuyama, the ultimate imbecile in interpreting history? Even in the dreamy and optimistic 1989 only the ignorant could believe his shockingly simplistic end of history. Right, just before the end of the first and second principle of thermodynamics. Only a Wannabe White has the “delusional superiority” that democracy and western civilization are superior over other civilizations and cultures. We’ve Trump today because of this insane shallow interpretation of the most complex issues in politics and economics.

    Throughout history, economic might has always won. Why should today be any different? The major differences today are that 1) economic might is today held at the individual, family, and multinational levels and not the domain of nations, and 2) the pampered citizens of Western nations are unwilling to sacrifice to compete against the hungry, motivated citizens of developing nations. Darwin has for the most part been universally rejected, but there may be some truth to the notion that you have to adapt to survive. Westerners would rather complain and have others make the sacrifices. The form of government is a derivative issue.

    Is the West truly liberal? Isn’t the word democracy used merely as an ornament? Doesn’t the FIRE (driven by Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate) economy render the concept of freedom meaningless? Edward Luce, apparently, is unaware that “liberal” in English today means “let’s regime change and bomb countries who don’t follow our orders.” Democracy in English comes from Greek which means rule by the people. But “populism” apparently, is now Russian for democracy. As far as I can tell, Luce’s life has coincided with the rise of “liberal, democratic” countries exporting military aggression to resource rich countries who don’t follow their orders.

    Order does not arise from the virtue of ideals but through a decisive victory by a power who can create and enforce their version of “international law” as Rome did from Augustus to Aurelius. Such interludes of peace are unnatural and unusual; they are ended by changes to the distribution of power, which the West unwittingly accelerated by believing its values would prevail and that the world wished to adopt all of their values. The problem with western liberalism is that it comes at the end of a loaded gun. It’s full of self-righteousness by graduates from a handful of universities. This isn’t just some PR problem. It’s real as it always has been.

    A key element in the demise of the “liberal democracy” is that those in power have abused their position for personal gain. In America and Europe leaders have allowed themselves to be influenced by business interests. All the ‘liberalizing wars to support democracy” took part in oil rich countries where ultimate beneficiaries would have included the American oil companies. The 2008 crisis instead of being confined to the business world was transferred via the state to the general population. How are American presidential candidates able to spend millions of dollars on their campaigns. When is payback day? Despite journalists refusal to look at these self evident signs they continue to either be stupid or lazy and refer to politicians as being of the left or right. Until they use words which really describe what is happening all their reporting is just so much hot air. The public has woken up to the fact that they are being taken for mugs. Therefore they have lost all trust in both politicians and journalists and express themselves in basic terms – nationalistic and protectionist or liberal and open. This is nothing to do with traditional left or right. But our politicians are still trying to appeal to a stereotype voter who no longer exists.

    Democracy in its modern Western liberal form has shown itself to be inept in a crisis, because the route to popularity is to shower a malleable electorate with promises which will be paid for somewhere down the line. The rot started with Bill Clinton and sub-prime lending, a monstrous abuse of power, but an effective policy model lapped up with glee by Tony Blair as he helped himself to the nation’s savings to buy himself popularity. As we all know the upshot was the financial crisis in 2007. The great tragedy is that the weakness of western democracy has effectively turned the financial crisis into a moral crisis because the perpetrators, instead of being locked up, have been rewarded. Borrowers have been enriched, savers destroyed – a bitter pill to swallow for those brought up to believe in prudence and financial discipline, a sense of fairness and security in old age. People want their pound of flesh, and in voting for Brexit, Trump, Le Pen et al they are casting around hoping that somehow they will get it. But the wrong people are being blamed, and the wrong measures are being implemented to even get close to solving the problems. If there’s one thing we know from the last 30 years it’s that short term fixes cause long term problems yet policy has been all about short term fixes because the western democratic model makes it extraordinarily hard for governments to administer harsh medicine. Yet this and proper accountability are what is needed and until such a time as it arrives the crisis will undoubtedly continue.

    The crisis in the West today is a structural one. Partly it’s the incompatibility of Western working class prosperity with cheaper foreign goods made by harder working but rising peoples willing to work for less; partly it is the rise of the ultra-wealthy and the inherent flaw in democracy, that people want to vote themselves benefits but not to pay for them. If past is prologue a leader will arise who can both unite and solve, remain wed to liberal values, and yet avoid war as the end result of crisis. This lies within our grasp but requires that we embrace the best within ourselves, because the character of a people generates the rise of their leader.

    But history was never linear. The achievements of the West, albeit with some regression in recent years, have not been acquired in a few decades, and have not been acquired in a straight line. They’re the culmination of two and a half millennia of philosophy, popular movements, individual leadership at times, and even science, taking ancient Greeks as a starting reference. And all of this with lots of ups and downs. While some of the inherent contradictions and misuse of liberal democracy have brought us to this regressed state, it is extremely unlikely that the new found authoritarianism, populism and nationalism will deliver the unhappy masses from their plight. It is possible that development in robotics, artificial intelligence, quantum computing and life sciences will push humanity into even a worse direction. But judging by the past, it is unlikely. Not sure who coined the term, but it is very likely that rather than a reversal in humanity’s gains of 2,500 years, this is an “interim ice-age” in the development and progress of humanity. The search of mankind for better and fairer governance of mankind will continue for some more time yet. With ups and downs. But ultimately, hopefully, in the right direction.

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