At a moment of pronounced uncertainty and change around the world, Western liberals (broadly defined) are reverting to form, centering their fears on a devastating internal conflict rather than an external threat. During the Cold War and both World Wars, liberals saw the real enemy of the West as coming from withinthe West itself: the barbaric Hun had burst forth from German culture’s genius for art, literature, science, and theology; the godless Socialist had crawled out of the husk of European civilization left behind by trench warfare; and an international elite of intellectuals had succumbed to the delusion that Marx, Lenin, and perhaps even Stalin had solved the problem of social progress. As Frank Warren observed in Liberalism and Communism, not all of the West’s established left grew convinced that the science was in and freedom was out. But the trend was sobering. “I have seen the future, and it works,” Lincoln Steffens infamously reported from Stalin’s USSR, judging “the notion of liberty” simply “false, a hangover from our Western tyranny.”
Today the same pattern of thinking has naturally extended to the rise of right-wing nationalist and populist movements throughout the West, typified by U.S. President Donald Trump. And once again, Western liberals are raising the alarm, casting these movements as internal threats to the West’s democratic order, and not just to liberalism. In a New York Times editorial from December, Harvard professors of government Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt concluded that “American democracy is not in imminent danger of collapse” but “the warning signs are real”—as their studies show. “The risk we face,” they insist, “is not merely a president with illiberal proclivities,” but “the election of such a president when the guardrails protecting American democracy” —such as the norm of legitimate political opposition, supposedly rejected by the ascendant right— “are no longer as secure.”
Although history has shown concerns like these to be rarely if ever irrational, in this specific case, they are attack on the foundations of political democracy. Rather than hoping or striving to destroy democratic government, the new nationalism on the right is focused on disempowering features of the liberal order that, as many liberals proudly admit, diminish the power and prestige of national politics. To be sure, the actual contours of these battle lines can be obscured by the unfolding ordeal concerning the scope of malign Russian influence in the 2016 U.S. election. But liberals should not lose sight of the fact that their nationalist opponents on the right broadly seek more, not less, democratic governance, and oppose the global liberal order because of the ways in which it has disappointed American aspirations characteristic of democratic life. Political democracy is not quite the creature of liberalism liberals are now so apt to believe it is. In convincing themselves otherwise, defenders of liberal globalization have given in too readily to the fear of a systemic democratic collapse. Western liberals risk mistaking the powerful new resistance to today’s neoliberal order for an attack on the foundations of political democracy.
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