For well over a century, the idea of modern democracy as the superior and only legitimate form of government has reigned unchallenged in the English speaking world and must of the rest of the West. In the second half of the twentieth century, after democracy had defeated Fascism and contained Communism, it also seemed to be spreading around much of the third world as well. Then came the collapse of Communism and the brief illusion that liberal democracy had swept all before it.
Now, thirty years later, the picture looks very different. Liberal democracy has failed to take hold in most of eastern Europe, especially in Hungary and Poland. It has given away to authoritarian rule in Russia and much of the rest of the former USSR, and China is not evolving towards it as well. Countries such as Israel, Turkey and India which embraced at least the forms of secular democracy during the 20th century are moving towards religious nationalism. Countries such as the Philippines and Brazil have elected authoritarian rulers with no respect for democratic norms. And the two nations that did the most to spread the democratic model, the United States and Great Britain, present pitiful spectacles of paralyzed governments and polarized electorates. A boisterous demagogue heads the US government and another is poised to take over in Britain as well. Such movements are also gaining ground in some of the British dominions. Populists also hold power in Italy, the German government is deeply divided, and France, the only major country in which one party rules, has not lined up behind its government either. Why has this happened?
Democracy, I would argue, thrived and spread to the extent that it did in the twentieth century for several reasons. One was the purely intellectual idea of self-government and equal rights, which in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries brought down the idea of privileged orders and hereditary rule in country after country. That is the idea which so many of our educated classes still cling to, even though its application, in recent decades, has not met the needs of a good many of our citizens. A second reason--once again, in the second half of the twentieth century--was that the victory of democratic Great Britain and the United States in the Second World War gave democracy a certain world wide legitimacy. (Ironically, in some of the world, the victory of the USSR did the same for Communism.) But the other reason, the one that we have in my opinion lost sight of, was that democracies had managed to accomplish so much, in so many ways, by mobilizing their society's resources. Not merely the beauty of their ideals, but also the record of their achievements, inspired confidence.
Many of these accomplishments occurred in the field of international conflict. The multipolar world of the 19th and early 20th centuries required all major states to maintain large armies and navies. Young men in every major nation eventually were conscripted in peace as well as in war, until the great turning point of the Vietnam War in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Yet that was not all. In those same centuries, the major nations were expanding their rule and influence overseas. The United States in the 1960s went a step further, and sent men to the moon. They were building modern infrastructure for transportation and communication at home. Many built and maintained public educational systems. In response to the great economic and political catastrophe of the Great Depression, governments became employers of last resort, and regulated capital markets to stop speculative excesses. In Europe, where political failure had brought about the catastrophe of the two world wars, the project of a united Europe brought many governments together. Citizens across the income distribution paid higher taxes, in many cases, than they do today, but many really felt part of critical common enterprises in which they could take genuine pride.
These conditions, of course, carried dangers of their own with them. The well-organized industrial states of the first half of the twentieth century fought wars on a new and destructive scale. In the Second World War, many millions died in death camps, in cities firebombed by aerial bombing, and on the battlefield. The development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles threatened the complete annihilation of the human race. A certain uniformity of dress, custom and values prevailed across the industrialized world. And thus, it seems, a great revolt, led by the generation born in the wake of the Second World War, became inevitable, and burst forth in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Its consequences are still with us.
I am not going to try to trace the steady erosion of loyalty and common purpose that has marked the last few decades. Western governments still play a huge role in their citizens lives, but the nature of that role has changed. They provide critical financial support for many of their citizens, particularly the elderly, and many of them use taxes to provide health care for their whole population. But they have allowed globalization to usurp their role as economic planners, and have often failed to cope successfully with its consequences for their people. Another huge change reflects the behavior of the inhabitants of the industrialized nations. Their birth rates have fallen very significantly, creating labor shortages that only new waves of immigration could solve. But without the kind of common enterprises that the twentieth century featured--including great wars--the new immigrants, it seems to me, have had much more trouble assimilating. In many countries, including the United States, large numbers of them do not even enjoy the right to vote.
The decline of print media, I think, also plays a role in the decline of democracy. Modern societies are enormously complex. Understanding them demands a great deal of journalists, who have to bring facts and their significance to the attention of the public, and citizens, who need to devote time and energy to reading and thinking. Neither television nor social media can fill the gap left by the decline of serious journalism. Instead, they appeal to tribal and ideological loyalties, and spend many hours on sensational scandals of a kind that older generations tried to keep out of politics. That is the only reason, it seems to me, that Donald Trump, who so obviously lacks the knowledge and intellectual ability to be President, could have reached the White House. Too many voters no longer care about those qualities at all. Another culprit is my own profession of history, which began to conclude, in the wake of Vietnam, that the whole idea of a national history was simply a snare and a delusion designed to keep certain groups in power. When everyone's individual story becomes equally important, there is no longer room for the larger story that can bind us all.
Our economic inequality has now, it seems to me, become self-sustaining, and I don't expect it to be reversed any time soon. Yet if our governments cannot increase economic justice, they could still show some capacity to solve problems such as infrastructure and health care that involve us all. The government could also find a sustainable mix of solutions to the immigration crisis. Such measures will not make everyone happy in our fractured landscape, but they could once again make us feel that we share certain common enterprises, and that we can make them succeed. That, I think, is now the necessary first step to any real renewal of democracy.