At the height of World War II, Henry Luce, the founder of Time magazine, argued that the United States had amassed such wealth and power that the twentieth century would come to be known simply as “the American Century.” His prediction proved prescient: despite being challenged for supremacy by Nazi Germany and, later, the Soviet Union, the United States prevailed against its adversaries. By the turn of the millennium, its position as the most powerful and influential state in the world appeared unimpeachable. As a result, the twentieth century was marked by the dominance not just of a particular country but also of the political system it helped spread: liberal democracy.
As democracy flourished across the world, it was tempting to ascribe its dominance to its inherent appeal. If citizens in India, Italy, or Venezuela seemed loyal to their political system, it must have been because they had developed a deep commitment to both individual rights and collective self-determination. And if Poles and Filipinos began to make the transition from dictatorship to democracy, it must have been because they, too, shared in the universal human desire for liberal democracy.
But the events of the second half of the twentieth century can also be interpreted in a very different way. Citizens across the world were attracted to liberal democracy not simply because of its norms and values but also because it offered the most salient model of economic and geopolitical success. Civic ideals may have played their part in converting the citizens of formerly authoritarian regimes into convinced democrats, but the astounding economic growth of western Europe in the 1950s and 1960s, the victory of democratic countries in the Cold War, and the defeat or collapse of democracy’s most powerful autocratic rivals were just as important.
Taking the material foundations of democratic hegemony seriously casts the story of democracy’s greatest successes in a different light, and it also changes how one thinks about its current crisis.
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