Populism and the West: How to save world’s most successful political idea


For as long as many of us can remember, to be modern has meant to be Western, and to be Western has meant being at the forefront of pretty much everything – of science, of social change, of culture, of affluence, of influence, of power in all its forms, says former Economist editor Bill Emmott (above). Not everyone has liked this state of affairs, even inside Western countries themselves, but regardless of sour grapes or ideological discontent this Western dominance of modernity has become such an established fact that we have lost sight of quite why it is so, he writes in his new book, The Fate of the West:

We have also lost sight of quite who we mean by “Westerners”, albeit for the benign reason that neither modernity nor the features that bring it are any longer exclusively associated with geography, any longer exclusively the possession of western Europe, North America and those countries elsewhere that shared European origins through colonial histories. Japan, Taiwan, Slovenia and South Korea are now as intrinsically modern and Western as are Sweden, France and Canada. For what they share is not geography, not history, but an idea.

We often call this idea “liberalism”, or “liberal democracy”, but neither term quite commands either the heart or the brain, Emmott adds:

The heart demurs because the words sound too technical, philosophical or academic to stir the passions. ..The brain rebels at this confusion but also demurs on grounds that “liberal democracy” is a tautology – how could there be an “illiberal democracy”, since democracy is supposed to give power to the demos, the people? – or that in modern use the word democracy must carry little meaning beyond describing a mechanical process than can be used or abused at will.

Behind those phrases, however, lie two other crucial words – one could call them ideals or even lodestars, Emmott notes:

  • The first is openness, for the Latin liber or freedom expressed through liberalism is both a desired outcome for the individual and a statement of the condition of any society in which such a collection of free individuals resides. Such a society is one that is thereby open to new ideas, new elites, new circumstances and new opportunities whether of trade in goods and services or of culture and science. It is thus a society not directed by a central intelligence but formed by the collective desires and actions of its members.
  • Which leads to the second ideal or lodestar: equality. Openness has required a steadily advancing notion of equality in order to make its bracing winds work and be accepted by society at large over the long term. Otherwise, conflicts inevitably arise between free individuals, with no means available to temper or resolve them… This conflict-resolving, socially soothing “equality” is not principally one of income or wealth – though widening gaps between rich and poor can affect equality’s practical meaning, for good or ill – but rather of voice, rights and treatment, of having an equal say and participation in the openness that is being established. RTWT

Democracy, like the market, has one crucial flaw, Emmott contends.

“The competition to gain influence, win elections and steer policy can end up concentrating power. Just as markets create monopolies that need antitrust laws to tame or break them up, so democracy creates the oligarchies, interest groups and wealthy individuals that political parties come to depend on.”

Yet liberal democracy is a great good and it is needed now more than ever, he concludes.

Democracy’s conflict with liberalism is likely to intensify, and is going to present enlightened democrats with some profoundly uncomfortable choices, writes Tom Clark, editor of Prospect (UK). Against Democracy by the American Jason Brennan is a meticulous, crisply written and ultimately sinister book. If an elitist attack on the franchise is coming, here is a foretaste, he writes:

The basic argument runs like this. Most people are pig-ignorant about politics, and when they do engage with it, they don’t become more enlightened, only more inclined to indulge in tribal groupthink. …The other big problem is perverse incentives. Elections can have momentous consequences, but the odds of any one vote swinging the outcome are millions to one, so individual voters see no reason to do their homework.

In David Van Reybrouck’s Against Elections: The Case for Democracy, there is “much shared ground with Brennan – in observing the grotesque distortion involved in what passes for debate, and the lousy way in which the electorate is served by the leaders it chooses,” Clark adds. “But where Brennan is keen to blame the voters, Van Reybrouck stresses withering civic institutions, and the social media echo chamber – developments that might explain why elections are going awry.” RTWT

You are invited to the IISS-Americas book launch of The Fate of the West: The Battle to Save the World’s Most Successful Political Idea, featuring the author Bill Emmott. This public event will take place on Wednesday, June 14, from 10:30-11:30am, at the IISS-Americas, located at 2121 K Street NW, Suite 801, Washington, DC 20037. RSVP If you are unable to attend the event, it will be webcast on the IISS website.

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