The Retreat of Western Liberalism; The Fate of the West: The Battle to Save the World’s Most Successful Political Idea

In This Review

The Retreat of Western Liberalism
By Edward Luce
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2017
226 pp.
The Fate of the West: The Battle to Save the World’s Most Successful Political Idea
By Bill Emmott
PublicAffairs, 2017
272 pp.

An anxious and beleaguered mood hangs over the liberal democratic world. Scholars, policymakers, and experts—including the authors of these two books—fear that the postwar Western system is breaking down in the face of a profound crisis driven not by external threats but by deep forces at work within the West itself. Luce’s well-crafted book locates the origin of the crisis in declining economic opportunities available to Western middle classes. A majority of workers in the United States and Europe are “treading water,” he writes, which has had a far-reaching, corrosive effect on social and political institutions and has created openings for populist and reactionary appeals. Rising inequality has called into question the notions of progress and social advancement that underpin the Western model of politics and economics. Meanwhile, aside from the superrich, the beneficiaries of this decaying postwar order are China and other non-Western developing states, which have prospered mightily even as they remain hostile to Western political values. Adding to the bleakness of his diagnosis, Luce appears to be ambivalent about whether anything can be done to improve things. New political coalitions and policies could help redistribute wealth and opportunity, but Luce worries that advanced democracies are unlikely to experience a recurrence of the fast-paced technological innovation and explosive growth that propelled them to prosperity in the first place.

Emmott also focuses on the loosening grip of the “social and political glue” that holds the global system together. Liberal democracy has “failed to deliver” for too many people, he writes, and as a result, they have lost confidence in openness and pluralism. Emmott takes the reader on an illuminating tour of Japan, Sweden, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the EU and reveals the distinct set of economic, social, and demographic maladies facing each one. Emmott argues that if Western countries want to reverse their decline, they must reaffirm their commitment to openness, the rule of law, equality of rights, and the special capacities for innovation inherent in liberal democracy. But, like Luce, Emmott doesn’t shed much light on the specifics of what would amount to a wholesale rethinking of the Western social contract.

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