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.
“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.