The very populists who happily speak in the name of the West have proven to be the most immediate threat to Western political principles, a threat from within, notes Michael Kimmage, a history professor at the Catholic University of America. Those seeking to counter them should revisit and revitalize the Western political tradition, with its reverence for liberty and contempt for tyranny, he writes for The Washington Post:
American higher education has long neglected the West out of disgust with Western misdeeds, out of a desire to shed the constraints of nation and civilization and to breathe the pure air of cosmopolitan openness, out of an accelerating disinterest in the humanities. Over the past few decades this neglect has become systematic, leaving educated young Americans either unschooled in Western ideas or inclined to reduce these ideas to the crimes of Western imperialism. Along the way, the West has been largely abandoned to the demagogues.
One can acknowledge the many dark chapters in Western history and still embrace the core principles contained within the Western idea: the separation of church and state; limited government and the balancing of executive with judicial and legislative power; the rule of law; and the attribution of constitutionally protected rights to citizenship.
The liberal democratic principles associated with the West “have nothing to do with ethnicity or race,” adds Kimmage, a Bosch Public Policy Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “They are not limited by geography, culture or religion. If they gained an early impulse from the French and American revolutions, their roots lie in antiquity. Their adherents can be found across the globe.”
The defense and promotion of democratic values and institutions was the principal purpose of President Ronald Reagan’s speech before the British Parliament on June 8, 1982, notes Judy Shelton (below), chair of the National Endowment for Democracy. He affirmed it was a mistake to ignore the rise of tyrants: He further maintained that democratic nations needed to resist as a matter of self-expression, she writes for The Wall Street Journal:
The 40th president proposed countering totalitarianism and its terrible inhumanity by actively promoting freedom and democratic ideals throughout the world. He envisioned the creation of a bipartisan U.S. political foundation that would assist democratic development by openly providing support to those seeking equality and liberty for their countrymen. Building the infrastructure of democracy—free elections, free markets, free speech and rule of law—would empower people to choose their own way to reconcile their own differences through peaceful means.
Nor did Reagan accept a restrictive, culturally-specific notion of the West, notes The Washington Post’s Christian Caryl:
[J]just in case there’s someone out there who claims he was referring only to white Christians, he added: “This is not cultural imperialism, it is providing the means for genuine self-determination and protection for diversity. Democracy already flourishes in countries with very different cultures and historical experiences. It would be cultural condescension, or worse, to say that any people prefer dictatorship to democracy.”
The Prague Appeal for Democratic Renewal also seeks to defend and promote liberal democratic values and institutions. Its founding statement was signed by more than sixty prominent figures, including public intellectuals and democracy advocates from around the world.