In the 1990s, Western liberalism’s triumph seemed inevitable. The Soviet empire had disintegrated. Francis Fukuyama had proclaimed the “end of history.” By the end of the decade, the U.S. economy was surging, fueling higher living standards at every income level. More and more countries were seeking to establish the liberal political and economic systems that would allow them to share in the prosperity. At home and abroad, the future seemed bright, almost boundless.
In hindsight, however, the 1990s look less like the ascent of Western liberalism than its heyday. As it turned out, the late ‘90s represented the only period since the early 1970s in which Americans enjoyed the benefits of economic growth so broadly; for more than four decades, with the exception of those at the top of the wealth distribution, incomes have remained mostly stagnant. Around the world, since the turn of the millennium, some 25 democracies have failed, and movements to liberalize-most notably, the Arab Spring-have generally ended in violent collapse.
In 2016, simmering fear and frustration boiled over as American voters elected a political outsider who expressed no interest in promoting the U.S.-led liberal order. And while optimists view Donald Trump as a historical accident, British journalist Edward Luce begs to differ. In “The Retreat of Western Liberalism,” he warns that Trumpism could prove less an accident than a portent in the United States and across the West.
“Western liberalism” can be a mushy term, and even though his book is premised on it, Mr. Luce offers no clear definition. He instead points to elements that, one presumes, are supposed to add up to a whole-texts like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the belief in democracy in the hearts of Westerners and the spread of democratic systems over time. Whatever this whole is, Mr. Luce sees it under assault. America has elected an essentially illiberal president who is “a big fan of walls and a big admirer of Vladimir Putin.” Overseas, democratic capitalism’s broken promises have made the quick-fix pledges of demagogues more appealing. Britain’s “left-behinds” voted against the London elite and opted for Brexit; right-wing autocrats mounted serious campaigns in France, the Netherlands and elsewhere across Europe (albeit with mixed success). In every year since 2008 more countries have restricted freedom than have expanded it, according to the global watchdog organization Freedom House.
Mr. Luce devotes much of his book to why this global rebellion is happening, and why now. His thesis is straightforward. While the rich enjoy greater opulence, living and working among themselves in isolated enclaves, half to two-thirds of Westerners have been “treading water-at best-for a generation” as globalization and robotics have combined to limit wages and eliminate jobs. Productivity growth fueled the economic surge that doubled living standards from the late 1940s to the early 1970s, but the productivity gains that the digital revolution was supposed to deliver haven’t materialized. Meanwhile, the costs of health insurance and higher education-both essential to upward mobility-have continued to rise, putting them increasingly out of reach of the classes that would benefit from them most and making social stratification more pronounced.
How does this growing inequality affect the liberal project? “Liberal democracy’s strongest glue is economic growth,” Mr. Luce argues. “When groups fight over the fruits of growth, the rules of the political game are relatively easy to uphold. When those fruits disappear, or are monopolised by a fortunate few, things turn nasty.” Across the West, Mr. Luce explains, the non-rich losers in this zero-sum game have started to turn against the status quo. For the United States, Mr. Luce cites as evidence the fact that “every single one of America’s 493 wealthiest counties, almost all of them urban, voted for Hillary Clinton. The remaining 2623 counties, most of them suburban or small-town, went for Donald Trump.”
U.S. foreign policy and international economic arrangements have contributed, too. Overseas, the Great Recession delivered a body blow to democracy as a global brand. So did George W. Bush’s messy war in Iraq and Barack Obama’s reluctance to support democratic movements abroad. Meanwhile, the out-of-touch Davos crowd urges more support for the very policies-e.g., more trade and more decision-making by international bodies-against which the West’s frustrated masses are revolting.
Mr. Luce acknowledges that the future isn’t preordained, but he’s worried that we’re headed the wrong way, running out of time to correct course and not nearly concerned enough about where we’ll end up. He suggests some policy ideas that he thinks can help: universal health care, a simplified tax regime, and immigration policies that are more humane but restore “the link between public benefits and citizenship.” He notes, though, that even if they can be enacted these changes will only mitigate the pernicious effects of flat-lining wages. They won’t address the underlying problem.
The sad truth is that we don’t know how to solve the underlying problem. We don’t know how to ensure that the fruits of economic growth are more broadly shared or how to prevent automation from killing more jobs than it creates. Policy makers have been grappling with anemic wage growth and the angry politics it can breed for more than four decades. Hardly a revelation, Mr. Luce’s book is instead a compendium of telling anecdotes that enrich our understanding of a long-term trend.
In this sense, Mr. Luce offers a useful wake-up call to elites, urging them to focus on the very real struggles of America’s besieged middle class before we all lose the freedom and democracy we cherish. If he doesn’t have all the answers, at least he’s asking the right questions in this concise, accessible and valuable work.
Mr. Haas is the author, most recently, of Harry and Arthur: Truman, Vandenberg, and the Partnership That Created the Free World.