The Downside of Imperial Collapse
When Empires or Great Powers Fall, Chaos and War Rise
Centralization of power in the executive, politicization of the judiciary, attacks on independent media, the use of public office for private gain—the signs of democratic regression are well known. The only surprising thing is where they’ve turned up. As a Latin American friend put it ruefully, “We’ve seen this movie before, just never in English.”
The United States has turned out to be less exceptional than many thought. Clearly, it can happen here; the question now is whether it will. To find an answer, the articles in this issue’s lead package zoom out, putting the country’s current troubles into historical and international perspective.
Some say that global democracy is experiencing its worst setback since the 1930s and that it will continue to retreat unless rich countries find ways to reduce inequality and manage the information revolution. Those are the optimists. Pessimists fear the game is already over, that democratic dominance has ended for good.
To counsel against despair, Walter Russell Mead uses history, and Ronald Inglehart uses theory. Democracies in general, and American democracy in particular, have proved remarkably resilient over time. They have faced great challenges, but they have also found ways of rising to those challenges and renewing themselves. There is no reason they can’t do so once again—if they can somehow get their act together.
Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa offer a bleaker view. The collective economic might of authoritarian powers now outweighs that of advanced liberal democracies, they point out, and it is probable that the future will look less like the end of history than a renewed struggle for global ideological supremacy.
Yuen Yuen Ang and Ivan Krastev, finally, explore how the authoritarian resurgence is playing out on the ground in China and eastern Europe, respectively. At least today’s enemies of democracy are less violent and aggressive than their fascist predecessors, so war is unlikely. And in China, the autocrats have managed to reform their bureaucracy enough to keep the economy moving forward—for now.
The most pressing dangers for the world’s leading democracies, in other words, are not external but internal. The time, resources, and opportunity to turn things around are there; the only things missing are political will and leadership. As Benjamin Franklin walked out of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, a woman asked him, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.” Two and a quarter centuries on, not much has changed.
—Gideon Rose, Editor