A great fear in the West is the decline of liberal democracies paralleled with the rise of authoritarianism and fascism. The causes of decline are often cast as populism stirred by anti-immigrantism and fear of globalization that are stealing jobs at home in favor of jobs abroad. In fact, these are the symptoms, not causes, of this political phenomenon. History offers an insight into an earlier “great illusion.”
In 1910, author and later knighted Nobel laureate Norman Angell argued in The Great Illusion that war among industrialized states had become obsolete for two reasons. The first was that occupying or annexing territory of neighboring states made no economic sense. And second, war among industrialized states would prove so costly and destructive that it was no longer feasible.
Angell’s “great illusion” thesis was demolished in August 1914 when a handful of bullets fired in Sarajevo earlier that June murdering Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, triggered World War I. Similarly, the flaw in the current thesis of the decline of Western liberal democracies and the rise of authoritarian powers is that it ignores the fundamental cause. Without understanding the cause, solutions for reversing this condition probably will not work.
The fundamental cause of so-called decline of democracies is failed and failing government. Whether in the United States or other states around the world, governments are not providing their public acceptable levels of governance. The United States is a case in point.
The political system of checks and balances is dependent on compromise and civility. Of course politics often swerved away from both. Yet, a righting force persisted.
Today, because America’s political parties have become captured by the more extreme elements of left and right and money plays a more influential role, governing has become focused on election and re-election in a binary choice of being “with us or against us.” The threat of losing a majority in Congress and consignment to a minority status of “wilderness” has caused dozens of Republicans this year to stand down. If the situation were reversed, Democrats would do the same.
Further, social media and cable news reinforce this polarization much as more than two centuries ago, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton bought dueling newspapers to hammer each other. Uncontrolled debt and deficits; growing gaps between rich and others, including a shrinking middle class; and the vulgarity of politics have invoked not just skepticism about governing. Americans are cyncial and frightened about the future.
This fear, induced by the escalating cost of living for virtually everything but especially healthcare, education and retirement, has led to anger in turn leading to outrage. That outrage is manifested in the protests over guns by Parkland students and the #MeToo movement over sexual harassment. And sadly, American politics still stress the four “Gs”: guns, gays, god and gestation periods as litmus tests.
Failure to govern has produced a broken and gridlocked government.
The same phenomena are manifested in other democracies. The U.K., France and Germany suffer from failing government. In part, authoritarian shifts in Hungary, Austria and Poland are responses to failing government. And China and Russia seem to be advancing under authoritarian rule.
The most profound question for the United States is whether a political system invented by the best minds of the 18th century can weather the storms and realities of the 21st. Given the pernicious and septic nature of American politics and the almost irreconcilable differences between both parties, the only forcing function for compromise and reconciliation could be a crisis as severe as the Great Depression or the attack on Pearl Harbor. And whether the nation could deal with such a trauma is likewise uncertain.
Since most Western democracies are parliamentary, in theory, a party with a ruling majority could govern. But many European governments have coalition or minority party rule limiting the authority of prime ministers. Hence, a real crisis over the ability of liberal democracies to govern is not an idle question.
The alternative is one-party rule. China, Russia, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia and Gulf states and Singapore are examples. Yet each has potential flaws in the ability to cope with the demands and centrifugal forces in each society.
“What is to be done?” as Lenin famously asked may be THE most challenging question facing the public as failed and failing government poses the greatest universal threat to society at large. That this question can be satisfactorily answered may be the greatest illusion of all.
Harlan Ullman is the principal author of “shock and awe” and Distinguished Senior Fellow and visiting professor at the U.S. Naval War College. His latest book is “Anatomy of Failure — Why America Loses Every War It Starts. Follow him at @harlankullman.