The Deep Roots of Liberal Democracy’s Crisis

The Deep Roots of Liberal Democracy’s Crisis

The Breakup

The unmaking of the postwar international order.


Almost immediately upon entering the White House in 2017, Donald Trump began a series of assaults on the existing global order, which has lasted in its essentials since the end of World War II. In 1945, it seemed obvious to the architects of the postwar system that a broad network of international agreements was needed to avoid the virulent nationalism that so recently plunged the world into the bloodiest and most disastrous war in history. Organizations and accords like the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the European Union, the World Trade Organization, and the North American Free Trade Agreement and its more limited predecessor came into being. Declaring a policy of nationalism, Trump has launched verbal attacks on such international institutions, threatening to pull out of many of them, including the more recent Paris Climate Agreement.

Underlying the postwar international order was a widespread belief that the spread of democratic institutions was the best way to prevent the recurrence of the war, dictatorship, and genocide that caused so much destruction between 1914 and 1945, and Trump has attacked these too. At home, he has criticized the American judiciary and the American press, while abroad he has cozied up to dictators and authoritarian strongmen like Vladimir Putin, Viktor Orbán, Rodrigo Duterte, Jair Bolsonaro, Kim Jong-un, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Seldom do we hear professions emanating from the White House of America’s leadership in support of peace, democracy, and international cooperation. Instead, we usually hear threats of trade wars, boasts of nuclear arsenals, and slogans such as “America first.”

These are alarming developments. But are there broader causes of what many commentators describe as the breakup of the West and the decline of the postwar international order? What was and, in fact, what is the West? And has it really ever promoted democratic values across the globe? Is it a concept that has had its day, or is it still a useful tool for understanding the international order? All these questions are raised in an often acute form in British geographer Simon Reid-Henry’s massive new study, Empire of Democracy: The Remaking of the West Since the Cold War, 1971–2017. It leaves us in no doubt that what is happening in the United States is far from a new or isolated phenomenon. In one country after another, politics has become polarized, and the center has been hollowed out. Democratic institutions have come under fire, and right-wing populists and demagogues have taken the reins of power. The liberal values that have long held sway over the internal and external policies of many countries can no longer be taken for granted. Putin has announced that the “liberal idea” has become “obsolete” in the world.

It seems obvious that this situation is the result, above all, of the global financial crisis of 2008–09. But Reid-Henry argues that it began long before the Cold War came to an end. With urban riots and widespread protests over the Vietnam War in the United States, with frequent labor conflicts in Europe, and with skyrocketing inflation in the wake of massive oil-price hikes, he says, the West was already experiencing a serious challenge to the postwar liberal order four decades ago.

Reid-Henry begins his narrative in the early 1970s, in the aftermath of the student movements of 1968 and the challenge they posed, along with the economic downturn that began in 1973. Governments in Europe and the United States struggled to find a way of bringing back economic prosperity and progress as the old industrial base of the advanced economies began to decline under the impact of the global energy crisis and rising competition from China. In these years of economic and political uncertainty, a new generation of leaders—Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Helmut Kohl, François Mitterrand—came to power with the promise of addressing these issues.

In communist Eastern Europe, the economic challenges of the 1980s proved too much for many planned economies and led to rapidly escalating economic and political bankruptcy. In the West, another solution was found in what was beginning to be called neoliberalism—a loose set of doctrines taken up by parties of the right and center-​left that transformed social democracies into regimes defined by low taxation, fiscal deregulation, and a minimalist state.

Neoliberalism triumphed over communism at the end of the 1980s, according to Reid-Henry, and helped create the economic boom of the 1990s. But, he is quick to add, neoliberalism also planted the seeds of the crisis that followed. As the United States and its allies plunged deeper into economic inequality and pursued a series of disastrous and staggeringly expensive wars after 9/11, the deregulation of the financial system caught up with them. Financial institutions lent money with abandon to people who increasingly couldn’t afford to pay it back, and the global interconnectedness of investment and lending banks ensured that when one bank got into trouble over unpaid loans, the crisis would spread with astonishing rapidity across the entire system.

When this finally came to pass in 2008, with banks crashing, borrowers defaulting, and businesses going bust, the advanced industrial societies found themselves facing a sharp increase in unemployment. Still dominated by neoliberal dogma, their governments proved unable to imagine any way to resolve their economic quandaries beyond imposing further cuts in state spending.

Perhaps in another era, this might have led to a resurgence of social democracy and the left. But instead, a new and unprecedented wave of right-wing populism emerged, including the Tea Party in the United States, the Brexit movement in the United Kingdom, the revitalized National Front in France, and the Fidesz party in Hungary. “The pent-up frustration and self-loathing under which a large portion of Westerners had been toiling,” Reid-Henry observes, now found its outlet in the rise of the politics of resentment and extremism, which drove Western democracy into the deepest crisis in its history.

Underpinned by prosperity and rising expectations, neoliberalism was long able to gloss over its contradictions. But in an age of economic crisis and widespread inequality, it has shown itself to be singularly unsuited to withstand the challenges of the new order. To survive, Reid-Henry argues, modern liberal democracies urgently need to be reimagined.

Empire of Democracy gives us a detailed account of this story, telling us how we got to where we are today and tracking the rise and fall of an economic, social, and political order that now seems to be under fundamental and potentially lethal pressure. Despite the convincing nature of his overall diagnosis of the strengths and weaknesses of neoliberalism, however, there are many problems with how Reid-Henry tells this story, starting with the narrative style in which he has chosen to cast it. To put it bluntly, he doesn’t seem to be aware of even the most basic rules of historical narrative. Individual actors in the story, from Mitterrand to Trump, are introduced with only scant background information; important dates are missing in dense chapters; and statements and observations are ventured without any attempt to ground them in evidence. For a more or less random example, near the end of the book we are told that “Dodd-Frank had belatedly been passed in 2011, along with its famous Volcker rule.” You have to read back more than 60 pages for any explanation as to what these things are. At roughly that time, Reid-Henry tells us on the very same page, “amplified by the extended reach of new media, the culture wars…leapt back into life as never before, as tirades blared out across the raucous and indiscriminating airwaves of shock-jock radio and Fox television.” He makes no attempt to unpack this sentence, simply assuming that readers will understand the references. But it’s not a safe assumption to make, and terms such as “culture wars” and “shock-jock radio” really do need to be explained for the uninitiated.

There are more substantive problems as well. For quite long stretches of the book, I found it difficult to understand the sweeping generalizations that pepper the text. For instance, what was “the distinctive sense of ennui that had haunted the Western democracies during the 1990s”? Among whom? Bored with what? “Americans in particular,” we read a couple of pages earlier, “found themselves in a confusing place.” All Americans, and what place? “They were concerned about growing inequity,” the text continues, but we aren’t told how or why or which Americans were concerned or in what way.

Similar generalizations occur about other peoples, such as “the French,” who apparently “felt that they were immune from the troubles that had struck the United States, because their banking system was more prudent.” Actually, most likely the vast majority of “the French” neither knew nor cared very much about their banking system, prudent or not. Later, we are told that a “declining sense of trust within society” in the early 21st century meant that “left and right now converged upon a resolutely anti-state ethos.” Leaving aside the question of precisely which countries this applies to, one can think of myriad issues where this is simply untrue, from the introduction of the Sure Start program in the UK in 1998 to the British left’s growing demand for the renationalization of private utilities, including the railways (now part of the official program of the Labour Party), to the pressure exerted in the US by the right for the expansion of the state security apparatus in the “war against terror” and the persistent advocacy by Republicans of more state expenditure on the military.

Often, Reid-Henry’s use of the passive voice disguises an almost complete absence of detail: “the balance between freedom and democracy that Western liberal democracies had struggled for forty years to maintain was now rejected altogether.” What is the evidence for this struggle? Why should freedom and democracy be treated as opposites between which a balance needed to be maintained? And was this balance actually rejected by everyone? Or if only partially rejected—or not rejected at all—then by whom and when and where? It’s not even true of Poland and Hungary, where substantial forces remain in opposition to the right-wing nationalists currently in power.

In many sections, the book reads more like a commentary on events than an analytical narrative. The description of the election that put Barack Obama in the White House is a good example. There are some interesting observations on Sarah Palin, but we’re not told what public office she held before becoming a candidate for the vice presidency; the Tea Party is brought into the narrative, but we’re apparently expected to know what it was, who helped launch it, and what policies it advocated; and no statistics are provided for the election to indicate how many people voted for Obama and who they were.

The nature of Obama’s appeal is also largely left unexplored (his powerful catchphrase “Yes, we can!” isn’t even mentioned), and running throughout the book is also the highly dubious assumption that street politics exercise a profound effect on political systems, from the anti–Vietnam War movement, which the author tells us inaugurated the remaking of the West in the early 1970s, to the Occupy movement, which flared up briefly in 2011 and is now almost completely forgotten. Yet the more than 1 million people who marched through the streets of London on February 15, 2003, to protest the impending invasion of Iraq achieved precisely nothing, nor did the similar number of people who marched through the same streets on March 23, 2019, to demand that Britain remain in the European Union.

There are still many passages in this book that can be read with considerable profit: The account of the 2008–09 financial crisis is particularly perceptive, and one could mention many other examples. But there is a more fundamental and perhaps more interesting respect in which the book rests on a highly questionable assumption. Chief among these is the concept of “the West” itself and its linkage with liberalism and democracy.

Empire of Democracy falls into a long tradition of historical writing centered on predictions of the downfall of the West. In the 19th century, the idea of the West became a foil against which political theorists developed their recipes for progress and change. Russian Slavophiles rejected what they saw as Western individualism and the Western advocacy of material progress based on industrial capitalism, for example, while Russian Westernizers saw their country’s future very much in embracing these things. In the early 20th century, right-wing nationalists in Germany and Central Europe offered similar warnings, excoriating what they saw as the decadent materialism, spiritual weakness, and moral corruption of a West that was no longer able to prevent its own decline. Foremost among them was Oswald Spengler, whose book Der Untergang des Abendlandes, usually translated as The Decline of the West, became hugely popular in Germany during the 1920s, largely because it was read as a prophecy of Germany’s resurgence under a future nationalist dictatorship and then was taken, not entirely accurately, as a prediction of Hitler’s coming to power in 1933.

During the Cold War, liberals contrasted what they portrayed as the West’s preference for individual freedom, representative democracy, private property, public education, and scientific progress with the negation of these values that they claimed was found in the communist East. This liberal concept of the West was incorporated into Western civilization courses in American universities (but not European ones) and promulgated in major historical works like William H. McNeill’s 1963 The Rise of the West, which contained in its exposition of the rise, spread, and eventual supersession of other cultures in world history the implication that such a decline would also be the West’s fate at some point. These also became the themes of post–Cold War texts by conservatives like Samuel P. Huntington and Niall Ferguson, with their neo-Spenglerian predictions of the West’s decline.

While Reid-Henry doesn’t embrace the conservative implications of these later works, he does take for granted that the West, for better or worse, can be broadly equated with liberal democracy and the free market, and so the measure of its decline is found in the failing health of these two institutions. Yet in today’s world, liberal democracy is as loaded a concept as it was during the Cold War or at the turn of the 20th century. If one looks at The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index 2017, for example, 89 countries became less democratic that year, over three times the number that became more democratic. Many of these countries are found in the geographical West, but they are present as well in other parts of the world. Democracy isn’t necessarily Western, as the stable democratic political systems found outside the West—from Indonesia to Tunisia—surely indicate.

The truth is that histories of “Western democracy” in the early 20th century no longer carry any kind of persuasiveness. For the last decade or more, historians have increasingly adopted a global approach that rejects the idea that the modern world was exclusively shaped or even mainly defined by the spread of “Western” culture across the rest of the globe. Before his death in 2016, even the great William H. McNeill came to the conclusion that his thesis concerning “the rise of the West” reflected the imperialist mood of postwar America, and so he preferred instead to lay stress on the contacts and connections among civilizations rather than their rivalries and conflicts.

More recently, global historians have been exploring the interconnectedness of different parts of the world and documenting their influences on one another. The decline of democracy in Europe and America and the economic crisis that lies at its heart are part of a general erosion of democratic and economic institutions worldwide. While Empire of Democracy’s title might suggest the continents-spanning nature of the current moment’s quandaries, much of this goes unexplored. The book offers a wide-ranging narrative of what happened in one part of the world, but because its scope is restricted by its reliance on the outdated notion of the West, the full story of today’s crisis remains to be told.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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