Liberalism, broadly understood, is on the defensive. As political scientist Larry Diamond has pointed out, while the number of liberal democracies increased from the early 1970s to the turn of the millennium, since then we have been in a "democratic recession" with global measures of freedom - understood in a liberal sense - in decline.
Twenty years ago, economic determinism seemed to be on liberalism's side. When the 20th century ended, it seemed that free markets, political democracy and a liberal version of the rule of law were the secret of economic success. It was widely thought that this had been demonstrated by the collapse of the Soviet bloc and by the success of the newly democratic east Asian tigers like South Korea and Taiwan. But today, the continued economic rise of the People's Republic of China and the apparent stability of its one-party system of "socialism with Chinese characteristics" have made that claim pretty hard to sustain.
At the beginning of the new millennium, the conventional wisdom was that new information and communications technology would empower people in authoritarian countries to overthrow tyrants while deepening democracy at home. While there are some examples that have vindicated this hope, few people using Facebook or Twitter today feel these are unmitigated blessings. The reversal of democratic advance in the developing world, the success of Vladimir Putin's Russia in pushing public opinion in Europe and the United States toward a nationalist right or anti-market left, and the deepening epistemic closure of the various political tribes in the rich countries makes any technologically determinist optimism increasingly implausible.
In the 1990s, it seemed as if freer movement of goods, people and capital did not even have to be argued for. It was inevitable. The idea that "globalization" was an irresistible force was shared by those who favoured it and those who trashed downtown Seattle to protest it. But since September 11, 2001, borders have become harder and religious and civilizational identities sharper. And since October 2008, the faith that markets should be left alone to increase wealth has been shaken, leading both to a healthy rethinking of global finance and a revival of mercantilist ideas that in trade one nation can win only if another loses. Never mind that Adam Smith and David Ricardo showed almost two hundred years ago that voluntary transactions usually leave both parties better off. In these populist times, who is going to listen to dead white males who were also globalist elites?
The ideological tendencies that have been the pillars of the Western liberal consensus since the Second World War - social democracy and Christian democracy - appeared perfectly healthy when the world woke up to find out that the Y2K panic was overblown. Today, both are in electoral decline, losing ground to populist nationalists on the right, hard-line Marxists on the left and idiosyncratic personality cults in the "centre." Broadening our perspective to democracies in the global South complicates the picture, but also provides reasons for disquiet. I write shortly after the first round of the Brazilian presidential election, in which Jair Bolsonaro - a right populist long considered marginal in the political scene - obtained 46 per cent of the vote (Bolsonaro was elected President in the October 28 runoff).
Not long ago, the English-speaking world seemed different. Granted, it had been through some unwinnable wars and a financial crisis. But anglophone elites could smugly reassure themselves that a foundational liberal consensus, spanning the electable left and the electable right, would not be seriously threatened in the lands of John Locke, Thomas Jefferson and John Stuart Mill. But then came Brexit - and Trump.
To be sure, there is nothing intrinsically illiberal about leaving the European Union. Some Brexiteers argued that a fully sovereign Britain could recapitulate the liberal Little England dreams of Richard Cobden and John Bright by developing its own tradition of rights protection and enter into freer trade relations with the world. But polling evidence suggests that few Leave supporters are interested in a more open Britain, as opposed to preserving what they see as its historic identity. Moreover, leaving Europe has complicated the greatest liberal achievements of the Tony Blair years in finding a political accommodation for the contending Unionist and Nationalist identities in Northern Ireland. While electoral politics in the eras of John Major, Blair and David Cameron were dominated by a broadly liberal consensus around a civic definition of national identity and support of markets mitigated by social insurance, the major parties in Brexitera Britain are dominated by a nationalist and nostalgic right and a left that is profoundly suspicious of business, markets and the institutions of the liberal international order.
As for Trump, as I write (in October), it seems unlikely that his populist nationalism will radically change America's institutions. While he has made immigration enforcement nastier, for the most part he has left policy to conventional congressional Republicans who favour lower taxes and less regulation. But Trump clearly has transformed the rhetoric of the American right in a way that does not seem obviously reversible. Ronald Reagan and the Bushes rhetorically embraced the conservative conception of America as an idea - one of democratic politics, personal freedom and free markets. Trump instinctively rejects this bourgeois-liberal view of human nature, and his emotional connection to the Republican base (which includes most politically active white Christian Americans) shows, to my mind, that they instinctively reject it as well. Trump has consistently refused to claim that America is, or should aspire to be, morally superior. Trump values America solely because it is his, and he identifies its interests with his own. While all American presidents have failed to live up to liberal democratic ideals, he is the first in living memory to reject them.
The relationship between Trump's Twitter stream and actual public policy is unclear. What is obvious is that he can, to the approval of approximately 40 per cent of the American electorate, deliberately dehumanize ethnic and religious groups and rage against norms constitutive of American liberal democracy such as the independence of criminal prosecution from partisan politics It is hard not to worry about how far a more disciplined leader of the same authoritarian coalition might get in future.
Mounk: Sensible proposals from the centre-left
The decline of support for the institutions of liberal democracy is not confined to a single country or a single age group. A number of depressing statistics are laid out in gory detail in Yascha Mounk's The People us. Democracy. Across western Europe and North America, trust in democratic institutions has been declining since the 1950s and is now at all-time lows. Each age cohort is less committed to democracy than the previous one: while 71 per cent of Americans born in the 1930s told pollsters it is "essential" to live in a democracy, only 29 per cent of those born in the 1980s gave the same answer. Similar results can be shown in every wealthy democracy, including Canada. More people support military rule (16 per cent of Americans in 2011) and a "strong leader who does not have to bother with elections" (32 per cent) than ever before. While older voters are more likely to support democracy in the abstract, they are also more likely to express racial resentment and, at least in the United Kingdom and the United States, to vote for right populists like Donald Trump.
The democratic recession is now undeniable and can no longer be dismissed as a blip. It requires rethinking the certainties of the 1990s. Rethinking is something liberals are good at. For the liberal intelligentsia - very much including those on the right primarily motivated by free market economics and keeping the liberal world order secure - the Trump election in particular has finally destroyed whatever complacency survived 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis. Naturally, a demand for "big think" books to tell us what this all means has never been greater, and a supply has followed.
Mounk's contribution to this literature approaches the problem from the antipopulist centre-left. His analysis begins by reminding us of the tension between democracy (a system of majority rule) and liberalism (a system of limitations on government). To be sure, some limits on what governments may do in repressing opposition and competitive sources of power are necessary for democracy to continue. But there is no guarantee that the majority will want these, or any other, liberal guarantees.
Mounk grants that liberalism can restrict democracy in questionable ways. Institutionally, judicial review, independent central banks, trade and investment treaties and other international institutions - most dramatically, the...