Is it time to declare the end of the end of history? Are we witnessing the exhaustion, or tragic collapse, of the once-vital liberal tradition that supported our politics, both progressive and conservative, and which made politics a (relatively) civil enterprise, and compromise a desirable outcome of that enterprise? The questions are urgent and the stakes are high, not only for America and other liberal democracies but for a global order built on faith in the universal worth of liberal principles, notes the Fall 2017 edition of the Hedgehog Review.
For partisans of liberal democracy, these are trying times, notes the Brookings Institution’s William A. Galston. The triumphalism of the years after the collapse of communism has given way to deep concern. The belief that history would move the world inexorably toward democracy has crashed against the reality of democratic erosion in the heart of Europe. The rise of nationalism and xenophobia has prompted analogies to the 1930s, adds Galston, a former board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.
Although these worries have a basis in fact, there is reason to believe that they are overwrought. Democracies are resilient, not because they always make wise decisions, but because they have a unique capacity for self-correction. The errors that laid the basis for the current crisis have sparked a search for more adequate responses to the difficulties this crisis has unmasked. With better policies and public pressure for long-delayed actions, most democracies can emerge with renewed vitalities. The United States certainly can, or so I shall argue, he writes in ‘What Is To Be Done?’:
It is wise, however, to begin by acknowledging the depth of democracy’s current challenge. The postwar liberal democratic bargain rested on the premise that elected governments could manage market economies to deliver broadly shared prosperity. The bargain that held for the first three decades after World War II weakened during the next three as the standard formula for success—growth, private and public investment, innovation, an educated and trained work force—lost much of its efficacy. During the 1920s and 1930s, the failure of market economies and democratic political institutions boosted the credibility of totalitarian governance and central planning. Today, the Great Recession having eroded the “Washington consensus,” Chinese-style authoritarian state capitalism (sometimes jokingly called “market-Leninism”) is becoming a more credible option for developing countries.
“What many defenders of liberal democracy fail to realize,” notes cultural historian Jackson Lears in “Technocratic Vistas: The Long Con of Neoliberalism,” “is that they are no longer defending either liberalism or democracy; the forms of elite rule that provoke popular anger are merely the husk of liberal democracy.” Pundits call for a national conversation to fix our broken system, but what they fail to understand is that the very word “democracy” has been co-opted by the technocrats:
Since World War II and the Cold War, liberal democracy has described the package of balances most appealing to transatlantic elites. The term has served as an authentic conceptual counter to the spurious “people’s democracies” spawned by dictatorships of right and left, as well as a handy label for the kind of society anyone would (allegedly) want, if given the opportunity—pluralistic, formally democratic, open for business. The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union only reinforced the common assumption among foreign policy elites that longings for liberal democracy were universal and irresistible.
The United States and its liberal democratic allies must develop a new global strategy to counter the power projection of expansive autocracies, and to reboot an international campaign to promote democratic values and ideas, says Stanford University’s Larry Diamond. But we also need to renew the core of what we are fighting for: the worth of our own democracy, he writes for the American Interest.
“Liberal democracy is not self-sustaining. It is a human achievement, not a historic inevitability,” Galston wrote in the Journal of Democracy. That remains true, but our work in sustaining democracy has a proud heritage and a strong foundation upon which to build, he said.
The challenge facing modern democracies is to establish a workable balance among past, present, and future, adds Galston, who will deliver this year’s Seymour Martin Lipset Lecture on the Populist Challenge to Liberal Democracy:
We must do our best to honor the promises we have made, whether to those who purchase public debt or those who rely on established programs for security in old age. We must provide enough buffers against economic shocks so that public discontent does not spill over into social disorder. But we must ensure that enough remains to make the investments and implement the innovations without which the future will be worse than the present. Doing this while strengthening the middle class and expanding opportunity for the working class will require the wealthy to bear more of the burden of funding social insurance programs.
“Investing in the future is a tough sell in democratic politics. Leaders who promise short-term gains usually enjoy an advantage over those who urge deferred consumption in the name of future improvement,” Galston adds. “But at the end of this road lies Venezuela’s wrecked economy and bitterly divided society.”