“The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways. It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our Nation.”
When President Jimmy Carter said all this to the American people on July 14th, 1979, he was delving into territory most politicians would make great efforts to avoid. The American ‘malaise’ he was referring to was not a democratic sickness that could be traced back to a recession, an energy crisis or a foreign war, the crisis Carter saw ran much deeper, right to the heart of the national psyche, a lack of optimism in the democratic mission.
Unfortunately for Carter, his own warnings about national malaise fell on deaf ears. In 1980, voters didn’t want a leader who told them harsh realities, they wanted someone who would tell them it was morning again in America and give them what they really wanted; cheap flights, cheap fuel, and big houses.
The drastic change in political philosophy that took place in the 1980’s was by no means a uniquely American phenomenon. The demise of the post-war social democratic consensus marked a drastic shift in political priorities across what has traditionally been deemed the “Western World.”
Globalisation and the expansion of western markets across the globe has flooded western shopping centers with well-made, inexpensively produced goods, has seen western economies surge ahead of their competition a whole generation of western ‘baby-boomers’ become the wealthiest group of people in human history. Democracy, too, have enjoyed considerable growth in the last 30 years. In 1980, roughly 14% of the planets inhabitants lived in a democracy, today it is close to 60%.
The west could therefore be forgiven for thinking itself invincible, the old ideological conflicts of the Cold War had been swept away and the developed world seemed increasingly united under free-market capitalism and liberal democracy.
But increasingly, that very “crisis of confidence” which Carter spoke of decades ago has cast a shadow over the western democracies and consequently, The West’s leadership in the world.
By treating voters as customers rather than citizens, western politics has reached a particularly troubling crossroads when those materialist interests are not satisfied. The 2008 financial crisis has accelerated a growing disillusionment with the established institutions of the liberal world order. Those segments of society that have lost out the most from globalization and recession; blue collar workers, semi-professionals and the working poor are increasingly turning their back on western institutions in favour of the more visceral certainties of nation, religion and class.
In the Middle East, this sense of economic dissatisfaction took the form of an Arab spring that further fuelled radical Islamism. In the west however, the malaise has been arguably even more profound, undermining faith in free market liberalism and breathing new life into forms of both left and right-wing populism that most politicians assumed had been buried in the 20th century.
But perhaps the greatest indication of Western democracy’s glaring weaknesses has been the end of an era of post-cold war democratization. Authoritarian governments haven’t been this prominent on the world stage since the 1960’s. Xi Jingping’s China and Putin’s Russia are adamant on creating a new world order built upon spheres of influence and not multilateral institutions. Whether it be the crises in Syria, North Korea or the Crimea, these regimes seem intent on filling the leadership vacuum left by the confusion and inaction in Washington, London, and Brussels. Trump’s frustrated, lonely showing at the G20 summit seemed to confirm what many have long thought, inward-looking nativism is increasingly leaving western nations as impotent international actors.
Regimes long thought to be on the cusp of liberal democracy backsliding into authoritarianism merely serve to hammer home this point. In Venezuela and Bolivia, democracy is facing new challenges in the face of presidential power, and in Turkey, the slide towards dictatorship grows ever more troubling.
But populism is a highly unpredictable beast, it can collapse under the weight of its own expectation just as easily as it can flare up. Western liberal democracy need not be overrun by an avalanche of discontent, but first it must deter itself from the belief that merely offering endless growth and consumerism is enough to justify people’s faith in it.
Authoritarianism succeeds by turning the citizens of democracies against the very institutions that protect it. By allowing independent judiciaries to be labelled “enemies of the people”, the free press as creators of “fake news” and universities as breeding ground for sedition and treason.
The news media for instance has all but given up on impartiality in favour of catering to increasingly niche ideological ‘markets’, further exacerbating social divisions based upon how people consume their information.
The values of western democracy can be protected if politicians of all stripes are more prepared to vigorously defend these institutions and what they stand for. Western leaders need to return to articulating ideas that are more meaningful than promises to improve growth or ensure strength and stability. Quite simply, the west needs a philosophical renaissance.
It has often been said of politics that it is the realm of short-termism, and it can be easier to accrue short-term political gain by pandering to division and social stratification. But the west will only retain its position of global supremacy and influence if its leaders can make the case for ideas that have until recently always united them; freedom of expression and association, legal equality, and social justice. Populists have tended to be successful because they understand people’s need for unifying national visions and philosophies, it’s time the more established political class learned to do the same.
For any deft political leader, there will be opportunities to unite the western world behind a common cause in the years ahead, climate change perhaps being the most pressing challenge that could achieve this. But any attempt to modernize and unify the west must also be coupled with an energetic defence of common western values that goes beyond our mutual desire to shop. Otherwise, the crisis of confidence that Carter spoke of could prove even more worryingly prophetic.