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A public policy blog from AEI
With increasingly populist figures gaining traction across the world (even winning or nearly winning major elections), it seems as if the values of Western liberalism are on the decline. This week Ed Luce, the Washington columnist for the Financial Times, joined me to discuss this and his recent book, “The Retreat of Western Liberalism.”
PETHOKOUKIS: What do you mean by ‘liberalism?’
Western liberalism — it’s not the American definition of liberal. So I want to make that clear up front. Liberalism in the larger sense than purely democracy is the political system that grew out of the Western Enlightenment, and evolved into what we now know as liberal democracy. So I’m talking about the retreat of the broad model of governance that we associate with the modern West.
What is your evidence that it is in retreat?
Well let me start with the strongest argument cited against my thesis, namely the French presidential election… Macron defeated Marine Le Pen two-thirds to one-third, she got just over 34% of the vote. In 2002, her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, made it through to the second round, and this caused a sort of funeral for the French Republic. The idea that France could allow essentially a fascist into the second, final round of the French presidential election was a national crisis. Campaigning stopped, [French presidential candidate Jacques] Chirac essentially led the funeral march from round one to round two where he defeated Jean-Marie Le Pen by 82% of the vote to 18% of the vote. Jump forward to 2017, where we have Le Pen’s daughter getting more than one-third of the vote and it being considered quite normal and people being surprised it wasn’t higher. So, there’s a normalization that’s gone on here. … This is not normal. This is abnormal. And I don’t think it’s just because we all suddenly lost all our minds and we’re just so addled by reality TV and social media and ADD and all other kinds of problems of post-modern life. I think it’s because there are real reasons why Western liberal democracy is under challenge.
Do you think the cause of this retreat is primarily the economic issues, or more the cultural breakdown and cultural alienation?
I think we divide, we silo the world into economics, politics, sociology, business, etc. but people don’t live the world like that. If you are an electrician in Massachusetts, or a plumber in Pennsylvania, and you lose your job, it’s not just income you are losing. It’s status, it’s dignity, it’s self-respect. It’s a much larger sense of self-position in your community that you are losing. And so there are economic consequences as a result of that but there are deeper consequences that cause morale to plummet, that cause divorce rates to go up, that cause opioid addiction to rise and pain to rise. So I think it’s wrong to look at this as purely an economic issue. … I think that we’ve had these economic trends and these great sort of morale losses at a time when the Left in Europe and in the United States has been in a very triumphalist way talking about the fact that whites will no longer be a majority and that therefore we don’t even need to listen to you because we don’t need to rely on your vote. … And that’s not just bad tactics, it’s also quite demoralizing politics for those who feel they are the target of this political exclusion.
Economic growth is really sort of the glue that sort of held this whole project together. To what extent is a slow recovery really driving this? And is growth also the cure?
I’d say that growth is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for the health of a liberal democracy. We also have to govern ourselves in a semi-sane manner. We also have to treat others with respect and debate things in relatively reasonable ways. I think we’ve drifted away from that. It is absolutely essential to give people the hope of economic betterment.
How bad is the retreat? Is there an alternative to democratic capitalism/western liberalism?
The damage is pretty bad, but it’s not fatal. And that’s why I used the word “retreat” and not “collapse.” “Retreat” implies a possibility that you can regroup, and I think we can… We need a Marshall Plan for the middle classes. Hillary didn’t actually propose that. She proposed lots of incremental things that even wonks got bored with after a while. Trump promised to go back to the past. He promised to create more coal mining. I mean, really, does anyone want to be a coal miner? Really? It sounds like a punishment to me.
What we need is somebody very plausibly — not magic, but very plausibly — to talk about what would happen if there were a big investment program, an intelligent large-scale one — with the private sector involved as partners — in the skills, lifetime skills not just one-off hits, the continuous learning skills of people in the middle class and beyond. And that’s not actually such a hard thing to imagine. America’s done it before in various forms — the GI bill — with tremendous consequences.
We do need a New Deal for the gig economy… But not some permanent welfare, not a universal basic income where its money for nothing, but where people have insurance in the transitions between rough patches in life, where they know they have some certainty that they’re not going to sink, and can invest in their futures. These are not rocket scientific problems. What I’m worried about is not that they’re not remedies for the middle of the West, it’s that our politics are making it really difficult to get anywhere near discussing reasonable remedies. It’s the politics I’m way more worried about than the policies. I don’t think solutions — or even partial solutions — are missing. I don’t think that’s our problem here.
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