The Light That Failed: Why the West Is Losing the Fight for Democracy
By Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes
Pegasus Books, 2020, 256 pp.
In this original and deeply thought-provoking study, Krastev and Holmes argue that the retreat from liberal democracy in eastern Europe and elsewhere is rooted in liberalism’s post-1989 global triumph. With the collapse of communism, Western liberalism had no rival. U.S. unipolarity set the stage, and liberal democracy became an all-encompassing model of modernity. What followed was “copycat Westernization,” in which countries all over the world found themselves pressured to mimic the institutions, values, and ways of life of the United States and western Europe. In eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, this mimicry was all the more painful because these same countries had just been released from the ideological and institutional impositions of the Soviet era; now, they were again adopting the ideas and identities of a superpower, albeit under less duress. The result has been a deep and festering resentment in those societies, a collective “psychological stress” that has culminated in a widespread political backlash against liberalism. In Krastev and Holmes’s account, the right-wing politics coming to the fore in Hungary, Poland, and other postcommunist countries has less to do with the reassertion of primordial nationalist and illiberal identities than with a perceived need on the part of citizens in those places for independence, recognition, and dignity. The authors argue that, especially after the long wake of the 2008 financial crisis, Western defenders of liberal democracy need to offer a more realistic vision of world order, making room for alternative models while maintaining faith in the resilience of liberalism.