A new book, supposedly on the global decline of liberalism, amounts to a thinly veiled diatribe against Donald Trump, writes Morgan Begg.
It is a tired cliché that 2016 was a big year in politics. The established way of doing politics was given a severe shock, and the magnitude of the commentariat’s disconnect from the communities they spoke down to was exposed for all to see. Professional pundits have increasingly become the voice of despair, unleashed by events that they promised were so terrible as to be impossible. The return of classic dystopian novels, such as George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, have been breathlessly reported in the press indicating the emergence of authoritarianism, while the television adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has been presented less as a fictional story than a symbolic warning of Trump’s America.
The decline of liberalism, freedom and democracy has been visible for some time. Chris Berg wrote on these pages in July about the exhaustion of the centre-right political class, and its failure to revitalise free market ideas and liberalism just three decades after the successes of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Sociologist Frank Furedi has explained how every aspect of human activity, interaction, and exchange has become regulated in some way by the state—a process of ‘juridification’.
The expansion of liberal democracy that occurred following the fall of the Iron Curtain has been in reverse. According to Freedom House, an American organisation which charts democracies around the world, every region of the world experienced a decline in freedom in 2016. Countries that have experienced freedom decline in the past 11 years outnumber countries that experienced gains.
Even public attitudes are cause for concern. According to the World Values Survey, from data collected between 2010 and 2014, the Western response to the question of how ‘absolutely important’ it is to live in a democracy is disturbingly low, ranging from 44.5 per cent in the Netherlands to 73.5 per cent in Sweden. Just 58.7 per cent of Australian respondents said it was ‘absolutely important’ to live in a democracy, and the numbers are even lower for millennials.
However, the pundit class is determined to justify its doom-mongering about Trump. It is in this vein that Edward Luce’s latest book, The Retreat of Western Liberalism, has been widely lauded. Luce, a columnist at the Financial Times and former journalist and speechwriter for a treasury secretary during the Clinton administration, makes the case that Western liberal democracy is not yet dead, but that:
It is far closer to collapse than we may wish to believe. It is facing its gravest challenge since the Second World War. This time, however, we have conjured up an enemy from within. At home and abroad, America’s best liberal traditions are under assault from its own president. We have put arsonists in charge of the fire brigade.
While there may be some tensions between classical liberalism and Trump’s reform agenda, this book fails to provide the evidence to support any of those claims. Indeed, many statements in the book are not substantiated. Western liberalism is never defined in a clear way. Much of what Luce writes about Trump is offered as truisms without further explanation necessary. For instance, the passage ‘To be clear: Trump poses a mortal threat to all America’s most precious qualities’ is not followed by a description of what those qualities are, or how Trump poses such a threat. Similarly, the claim that ‘efforts to suppress the democratic franchise in many US states, particularly among African- Americans, have reached a pitch not seen since the civil rights era. Trump will make this drastically worse’ is not followed by evidence, while declarations such as ‘Putin, who is the only world leader Trump admires’ could not possibly be proven.
This lazy analysis is especially disappointing because Luce’s book does have some valuable insights into the global decline in democracy and the disconnect that has grown between the established political parties and who they represent.
Luce is critical of the Davos class and rejects the simplistic and contemptuous explanation that Trump’s election was a result of the ‘dying gasp’ of America’s white majority. On the 2016 US presidential election, Luce offers a reasonable account of why a mixture of uninspired tone-deafness and outdated third way politics embraced by the centre left in the Clinton and Blair era caused Hilary Clinton to lose. More generally, the adoption of what Mark Lilla calls ‘identity liberalism’ with what Roger Scruton calls ‘oikophobia’, or disdain for one’s own country, has culminated in a modern left that has no understanding of its former working class constituents.
Sadly, Luce doesn’t expand on how these trends have produced a global retreat from liberalism. Instead, Luce writes that free trade has led to greater wealth inequality, which has spurred such aberrations as people voting for the likes of Trump or Brexit. But one wonders how much a jobless factory worker in an impoverished town in the American Midwest is really driven by class or wealth envy, or whether they are more concerned about the misery that has taken hold in their communities as people have lost the dignity of work and turned to welfare and drugs. Certainly their turnout for an ostentatious coastal billionaire would suggest envy isn’t a driving concern.
But why is it that liberal democracy is in decline all over the world? The primary causes Luce identifies are the decline over the last 15 years of American soft power, brought about by the War on Terror and the invasion of Iraq, and the damage to its economic reputation following the GFC.
One further cause of liberal decline that Luce alludes to, and particularly in the developing world, has been the actions by China. Luce mentions how China’s continued economic successes following the GFC gave hope to authoritarians that they could have both prosperity and iron fisted rule. Its state banks have invested billions of dollars into the developing world, naturally without conditions of democratic reform attached. The Beijing-based Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, launched in 2015, has been joined by such Western countries as Britain, France, Germany, and to our great shame, Australia, as founding shareholders, while Chinese news outlets are expanding their overseas presence.
No sooner has China been identified as a cause of the global retreat of liberalism, however, does Luce tell a contradictory delusional tale of American politics in the future. In the story, America and China have gone to war, based on the decisions of caricatures representing the Trump administration and their relatively sensible Chinese counterparts. Total nuclear war is averted when Putin talks Trump down from the ledge, and Taiwan announces that it would be open to ‘unification’ with mainland China. Luce reiterates that a smarter Trump would realise that to secure peace he would encourage Taiwan to submit itself to Communist oppression from Beijing. It is no wonder that liberalism is in trouble when the people coming up with the solutions believe countries should opt in to Communist rule.
The solution Luce imagines to his dystopia, and to Trump more generally, is an active bureaucracy to cripple the Trump administration from within. Trump is seen as a lost cause:
Trump is too narcissistic to change for the better. The stability of the planet—and the presumption of restraint—will have to rest in the hands of [President of the People’s Republic of China] Xi Yinping and other powerful leaders.
This reveals that Luce’s concern for democratic liberalism is shallow at best. In fact, his reaction is part of the problem. Luce is not a marginal figure, he is a mainstream political commentator, but is driven by such contempt that he would put his faith in the president of Communist China to challenge democratic outcomes he finds undesirable. This is a disturbing development in modern political discourse, and one can’t help but feel an introspection of Luce’s reaction to recent political events would have been far more worthy than the diatribe against Trump we were given in this book.