A quarter century ago, the liberal, free market democracies of the West were triumphant. With the fall of the Soviet Union, the world’s Western leaders had declared victory in the war of ideas. Free market capitalism and liberal democracy had won the day.
Francis Fukuyama, a prominent conservative writer of the era, wrote a celebrated polemic “The End of History,” proclaiming that humanity had now reached its pinnacle of social development. “There is no alternative,” declared then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Oh, how the triumphant have fallen.
As we head into 2018, the world looks very different than it did in 1993. Far from ascendant, the world’s Western democracies are in disarray and looking for leadership as authoritarian and oligarchic regimes, like Russia and China, are on the rise. China, in particular, has stepped into the vacuum of world leadership presented by the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States.
While once the leader of the Western world, the U.S., under Trump, now denigrates our traditional democratic allies while the new president heaps praise on dictatorial strongmen around the world. He is actively undermining democratic norms, such as the rule of law, and appeals to the worst instincts in his supporters.
Today, observers, like Fukuyama, are openly eating their words. It turns out, there are alternatives to free markets and democracy, as displeasing as they may be.
Far from victory, it looks increasingly as if Western democracies may have won a battle, but lost the war of ideas to the demagogues, the kleptocrats, and the fools.
The election of Donald Trump, however, was only a solidifying step in America’s devolution. The handwriting has been on the wall for more than a decade. Just as oligarchs have dominated Russian politics in the age of Putin, they have all but dictated the workings of Washington in the age of Citizens United, the 2010 Supreme Court decision that opened the floodgates to unlimited amounts of dark money in our electoral process. Unconscionable gerrymandering, aided by the latest computer technology, has made rigging elections standard operating procedure, particularly for Republicans. Voter suppression further stifles the will of the people.
A flawed process inevitably leads to flawed policy, such as the tax bill that President Trump signed last week. At a time of extraordinary income inequality, the bill makes a bad situation even worse, promising massive tax breaks to U.S. corporations that already contribute far less to the nation’s treasury than they have in nearly a century. Not surprisingly, the bill is extraordinarily unpopular with the public, but the will of the people has little to do with what happens in Washington these days. Indeed, congressional leaders made no bones about it. Their costly campaigns are bankrolled by billionaires, they told their fellow lawmakers, and the billionaires had demanded their due. America’s oligarchs run the show, much as their Russian counterparts do in Moscow. So who really won the Cold War?
Perhaps more importantly, how is it that the Western democracies find themselves in such dire circumstances? For the most part, they have only themselves to blame. Western leaders, in their arrogance, failed to take account of those who were being left behind as liberalized capitalism and globalization sent more and more of the wealth of nations to those at the top. The left behind struck back with a vengeance in 2017, tossing Britain from the European Union and sending an intemperate grifter and his family to the White House.
It was a dramatic pendulum swing to be sure, and voters may still issue a corrective later in the New Year. But it’s clear that the future is far less settled than it seemed not so long ago. Can Western democracy be saved? Is it worth saving? Only time will tell.