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 running the risk of a serious conceptual error, mistaking the powerful new resistance to today’s globalizing but faltering neoliberal order for an 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.

There are, to be sure, reasons to worry about the health of liberal democracy in the West. A growing body of evidence suggests an uncharacteristically sharp generational turn away from norms, such as free speech and deliberative government, that Western liberals have long taken for granted as generically “democratic.” For over a decade, the well-known Freedom House index has shown year-over-year declines in “political rights, civil liberties, or both” in countries around the world. New studies by political scientists Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa show that barely one-third of American millennials—those born since 1980—believe it is “essential” to live in a democratic regime. “Younger cohorts in the long-standing democracies of the West do not just give less importance to living in a democracy,” Mounk and Foa wrote in the Washington Post, but “a larger share of them also openly rejects democratic institutions.” But while they attribute rising anti-democratic sentiment to an “illiberal ‘cohort shift,’” they admit that, in the United States as well as the United Kingdom, “this energy has mostly manifested itself as enthusiastic support for populist candidates of the left” and opposition to Donald Trump and Brexit. Their primary piece of evidence of growing anti-democratic illiberalism is rising support for a “strong leader,” which, of course, is completely compatible with a yearning for a liberal president who rules without regard to the democratic desires of reactionary rubes. That it is getting harder to be both liberal and democratic is much worse news for liberalism than democracy.

Young people protest the Brexit vote, London, June 2016.
Dylan Martinez / Reuters

Yet there is a worrying aspect to this widening gap between liberalism and democracy—even for conservative liberals, who have always viewed untutored and unconstrained democracy with deep suspicion and sometimes outright fear. If faced with the choice of illiberal democracy on one side and undemocratic liberalism on the other, today’s mainstream conservative is out of luck. But there is a saving paradox for liberals, conservative ones included: for nearly two hundred years at least, we have known that democratic life is extraordinarily well-conditioned to send citizens back to the well of some degree of political liberalism or another. In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville noted that the increased isolation and insignificance experienced by citizens in a democratic age encourages them to believe that democratic goals, such as general equality and national unity, can only be advanced by the one institution powerful enough to overarch the whole of society: the state. “Thus it every day renders the exercise of the free agency of man less useful and less frequent,” he writes of the liberal “tutelary” state toward which democracies are so apt to drift; “it circumscribes the will within a narrower range and gradually robs a man of all the uses of himself. The principle of equality has prepared men for these things; it has predisposed men to endure them and often to look on them as benefits.”

When the state itself appears to falter, democratic peoples are inclined to think that the solution is to strengthen it, even at cost to their independence (a dynamic playing out in real time right now in France, with President Emmanuel Macron’s designs on a more “Jupiterian” government that shrinks the legislature and ends the president’s informal obligation to make himself available to the press). Political liberty, or the practice of distributed, shared self-government, is curtailed as a means to more grandly democratic ends. Tocqueville noted that “a great many persons” are “quite contended” with the compromise “between administrative despotism and the sovereignty of the people; and they think they have done enough for the protection of individual freedom when they have surrendered it to the power of the nation at large.” The nationalist revolt on the right arose from a loss of faith in the power of conservative liberalism to pull the United States’ democratic culture away from the allure of smothering liberal administration.

That it is getting harder to be both liberal and democratic is much worse news for liberalism than democracy.

But on the fine points of overriding liberalism in the name of democracy, the new nationalists and their nominal compatriots on the right tend to be divided. For the relationship between political liberalism and political liberty has become increasingly unclear. Dialing back political liberty is more distasteful to “classical” liberals such as U.S. conservatives and libertarians, who champion “limited government,” than it is to “modern” liberals or progressives, who favor the use of government to achieve liberal aims. From this standpoint, the most worrisome gap facing today’s liberal establishment is not between liberalism and democracy but between the political liberalism of the Western global order and the political liberty of the U.S. order. For if Tocqueville is right that democratic life pushes even pro-liberty populists into the arms of the liberal nation-state, there is no evidence that disgruntled democrats can similarly be reconciled to a liberal order global in reach and identity. Liberals need to understand that the international, institutional variety of liberalism that has anchored the postwar order is under attack from the right because it has ceased to deliver the nationalist goods of civic identity, social solidarity, economic stability, and cultural cohesion that even an increasingly anti-democratic liberal nation-state can provide. And to the degree that U.S. liberals are seen as contemptuous and hostile to those goods, they, too, will remain under attack.

Unfortunately, a deep lack of awareness about these dynamics is all too common among leading U.S. liberals. Ben Rhodes, U.S. President Barack Obama’s former foreign policy adviser, tweeted on July 6 that “In [the] global competition between liberal values and anti-democratic movements, Trump’s rhetoric raises questions about what side the U.S. is on.” On one level, everyone knows what Rhodes meant: Trump’s unwillingness to frame Vladimir Putin’s Russia as an ideological and cultural foe is a scandal to liberals, because a regime as authoritarian as Moscow’s can never be a friend to the West. But on another level, proudly asserting that liberalism and democracy go hand-in-hand feels like an act of willful blindness in the wake of the Obama years, when many liberals expressed righteous jubilation when the executive branch took governance on climate, immigration, and other issues into its own hands. Those actions underscored how much the tale of the post-9/11 era has been one of antidemocratic liberalism unbound, from its undeclared wars of liberation in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria to its mobilization of the federal bureaucracy as a social justice vanguard. Liberals in thrall to these achievements, and the means behind them, are poorly positioned to make the case that their political opponents are the real threat to democracy.  

On the other hand, it stands to reason that the more American liberals are willing to make substantial concessions to the nationalists on issues such as trade negotiation, infrastructure, rural development, wage and price stability, and the tempo of immigration, the less they will have to temper their domestic agenda. The problem remains, however, that the global liberal order may not survive unless it makes equally substantial concessions, such as reducing the role of “global governance” organizations, curbing the influence of financial institutions, and trimming the scope of military operations, to constituencies to the right and the left who believe that the Western order as a whole has become too liberal in the anti-democratic sense. Despite such pressure, American liberals today are on the whole flatly unwilling to surrender the idea of a global liberal order that includes the United States. After all, that order, as Barack Obama intimated, holds out the promise of a form of democratic life that transcends the parochialism and division of a human race split up more or less irrationally into nation-states. Alas, the liberal dream of “global democracy” in that misleading sense is much less broadly shared today than in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union, when it seemed so destined to be. If liberals really want a fight on that disadvantageous ground, rest assured: they will get one.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now