EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is an adapted excerpt from Ganesh Sitaraman’s book The Great Democracy.
For 40 years, we have lived in a neoliberal era, an era defined in public policy by deregulation, liberalization, privatization, and austerity. Starting with the Thatcher and Reagan revolutions, neoliberal ideas spread to capture the center and even the left, ultimately becoming the reigning policy consensus by the mid-1990s.
But over the last decade, that neoliberal consensus has collapsed. We can now see that its results were disastrous.
Neoliberal policies created gaping inequality, unleashing the economically powerful to reshape politics, markets, and society to serve their own interests. Neoliberalism’s radical individualism sapped society of community and solidarity, leaving people lonely and isolated, ultimately pushing us to retreat into tribal identities.
The central question of our time is what comes after neoliberalism. New political paradigms emerge in response to the challenges and failures of the preceding era, and today, four possibilities for the future are emerging.
The first possibility is reformed neoliberalism. It preserves the old ideology’s individualism and cosmopolitan sensibilities and keeps the basic structures of neoliberal capitalism in place, while reversing the worst extremes of its upwardly redistributionist economics. Some in this camp have a nostalgic wish to get things back to “normal,” though they recognize that incremental reforms are essential. Others, like those who see the Universal Basic Income as a paradigm for the future, want to correct the dislocations that neoliberal policies created—but they are hesitant to attack the root causes of inequality head-on. The real danger of this path is that it threatens more of the same: persistent disaffection, further erosions of trust and social solidarity, and demagogues waiting in the wings.
The second possibility is nationalist populism, which combines ethnic, religious, or cultural nationalism with economic populism. This approach, most associated with Steve Bannon, may be viable as a campaigning strategy, but it seems unlikely as a governing strategy, as political and economic elites oppose both the economic and social tenets of the framework. Indeed, candidate Trump campaigned in 2016 on this agenda only to abandon it as president. Because it is unlikely as a governing strategy, it is unlikely to define the next era of politics.
The third possibility, which many refer to as authoritarianism, has gotten the most attention. Scholars and commentators have argued that there is a global rise in autocracy. Political insurgents around the world are channeling popular unrest to win surprising victories. Strongman regimes are breaking constitutional constraints and norms. Meanwhile, constitutional democracies are on the ropes.
There is a proliferation of books and pamphlets with titles such as How Democracies Die, Fascism: A Warning, and On Tyranny, all seeking to awaken Americans to the looming threat. They argue that electoral rules, political institutions, the free press, and constitutional norms are critical to the functioning of democracy—and that their erosion comes with a creeping authoritarianism.
These accounts are alarming, but they offer an incomplete diagnosis of the problem. The rise-of-authoritarianism story focuses almost exclusively on political and constitutional constraints. These commentators worry about the breaking of constitutional and political norms, assaults on the independent media, and the politicization of the judiciary.
Each is hugely important. But they largely ignore the economic and social aspects of these so-called authoritarian countries. They rarely discuss that these nations are run by a small number of oligarchs who rely on crony capitalism and political corruption to get rich and then rig the political system and use divide-and-conquer nationalist tactics to stay in power.
The better term for this third future is “nationalist oligarchy,” and Trumpism is its American variant. This form of government feeds nationalism to the people but delivers oligarchy—special privileges to the rich and well connected. Its economic approach is a corrupt outgrowth of neoliberalism. Its social policy is nationalist backlash. Its political program involves rigging the rules so popular majorities cannot overthrow the powerful. Nationalist oligarchy is undesirable, to say the least—but it could easily define the next era of politics.
The final possibility is that a new era of democracy will follow the age of neoliberalism. Just as it is a mistake to reduce nationalist oligarchy to authoritarian politics, it is wrong to think that preserving elections, voting, the free press, and constitutional norms are sufficient for democracy. Democracy has always demanded much more of societies and individuals.
For thousands of years, since at least the ancient Greeks, political leaders and philosophers have recognized that democracies could not succeed in the presence of extreme economic inequality. In an unequal society, either the rich would oppress the poor and democracy would descend slowly into oligarchy, or the masses would overthrow the rich, with a demagogue leading the way to tyranny. Economic democracy is therefore critical to the persistence of democracy.
Similarly, when a society is deeply divided by race, religion, clan, tribe, or ideology, democracy becomes difficult to sustain. Democracy requires us to determine our own destiny. But when the people are so divided that we aim toward diametrically opposed futures, politics increasingly becomes a zero-sum conflict, the equivalent of warfare rather than the exercise of freedom. “A house divided against itself,” Lincoln famously noted, “cannot stand.” A measure of social solidarity, a united democracy, is essential to the functioning of democracy.
And an economic and united democracy cannot be achieved or sustained without a political process that is responsive to the people. Political democracy means more than just the right to vote. It requires that elections capture the popular will rather than the will of interest groups and wealthy individuals, that elected officials act in the public interest rather than doing the bidding of lobbyists, and that civil servants and judges do not stray from their popular mandates. As important as constitutional restraints and protections of minorities are, majoritarianism is critical to democracy. A system of government that is mostly unresponsive to the people is not a democracy at all.
If a new era of democracy is to take hold, we will need an agenda commensurate with the scope of our challenges. We must become a united democracy by creating opportunities for civic engagement across our differences and by refusing to fall prey to divide-and-conquer racist tactics that perpetuate rule by the rich and powerful. We must create an economic democracy by breaking up economic power and expanding opportunities for people of all races and from all geographies. We must reclaim political democracy from lobbyists, interest groups, and wealthy donors while ensuring that everyone can participate. And we must defend democracy from national oligarchies abroad.
This paradigm does not look backward to a bygone era with promises to make America great again, and it does not resign us to incremental nudges. Instead, it looks forward to the future. As Theodore Roosevelt once said, “A great democracy has got to be progressive, or it will soon cease to be either great or a democracy.”
The neoliberal era has put us in this moment of crisis, and the central battle of our time is now between nationalist oligarchy and democracy. The fight for a great democracy will require boldness and creativity, courage and resolve. If we want to save democracy, we will first need to achieve democracy.