How Liberalism Failed

How Liberalism Failed

Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s current prime minister, recently proclaimed: “The era of liberal democracy is over.” (European People’s Party / Flickr)

The Captured Economy: How the Powerful Enrich Themselves, Slow Down Growth, and Increase Inequality
by Brink Lindsey and Steven M. Teles
Oxford University Press, 2017, 232 pp.

Go Back to Where You Came From: The Backlash Against Immigration and the Fate of Western Democracy
by Sasha Polakow-Suransky
Nation Books, 2017, 368 pp.

Counter-Revolution: Liberal Europe in Retreat
by Jan Zielonka
Oxford University Press, 2018, 176 pp.

Today, the West is probably facing its greatest crisis since the end of the Second World War. Liberal democracy has faltered in Eastern Europe, is threatened by populists in Western Europe and the United States, and is being challenged by resurgent authoritarianism in Russia, China, and elsewhere. Reflecting these trends, scholarship and commentary has become consumed by debates about “illiberal democracy,” “global authoritarianism,” and democratic “deconsolidation.” Summing up what has become a widespread view, Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s current prime minister, recently proclaimed: “The era of liberal democracy is over.”

A massive amount of ink has already been spilled trying to figure out what has gone wrong, but two narratives can be plucked from the confusion. The first focuses on economic change. Over the past few decades growth has slowed, inequality has risen, and social mobility has declined, particularly in the United States. This has made life more insecure for the working and middle classes by privileging highly educated and urban dwellers over less-educated and rural ones, and spreading economic risk, fear of the future, and social divisions throughout Western societies. The second narrative focuses on social change. During this same period, traditional norms and attitudes about religion, sexuality, family life, and more have been challenged by the emergence of feminist, LGBTI, and other social movements. Meanwhile, massive immigration and (especially in the United States) the mobilization of hitherto oppressed minority groups like African Americans has disrupted existing status and political hierarchies, making many white citizens in particular uncomfortable, resentful, and angry.

Most analysis stops here, at viewing economic or social change or some combination of the two as leading inevitably to dissatisfaction with liberal democracy and a readiness to embrace populist, illiberal, or even undemocratic alternatives. The issue, of course, is that social, economic, and technological change alone are not the problem—they only become so if politicians and governments don’t help citizens adjust to them. If we want, therefore, to understand liberal democracy’s current problems, we need to examine not only such changes, but also how elites and governments have responded to them.


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