The strongest glue holding liberal democracies together, Luce argues, is economic growth, and when that growth stalls or falls, things tend to take a dark turn. With growing competition for jobs and resources, losers (those he calls the “left-behinds”) seek scapegoats for their woes, and consensus becomes harder to reach as politics devolves into more and more of a zero-sum game.
“Many of the tools of modern life are increasingly priced beyond most people’s reach,” Luce writes. One study shows it now takes the median worker more than twice as many hours a month to pay rent in one of America’s big cities as it did in 1950; and the costs of health care and a college degree have increased even more. There is rising income inequality in the West; America, which “had traditionally shown the highest class mobility of any Western country,” now has the lowest.”
As nostalgia for a dimly recalled past replaces hope, the American dream of self-betterment and a brighter future for one’s children recedes. Among the symptoms of this dynamic: a growing opioid epidemic and decline in life expectancy, increasing intolerance for other people’s points of view, and brewing contempt for an out-of-touch governing elite (represented in 2016 by Hillary Clinton, of whom Luce writes: “her tone-deafness towards the middle class was almost serene”).
Trump’s economic agenda (as opposed to his campaign rhetoric), Luce predicts, will “deepen the economic conditions that gave rise to his candidacy,” while the “scorn he pours on democratic traditions at home” endangers the promotion of liberal democracy abroad. America’s efforts to export its ideals had already suffered two serious setbacks in the 21st century: George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003 and the calamities that followed; and the financial crisis of 2008, which, Luce writes, was not a global recession but an Atlantic one that raised serious concerns about the Western financial model. (“In 2009, China’s economy grew by almost 10 percent, and India’s by almost 8 percent.”)
What fund of good will the United States retained, Luce suggests, Trump has been “rapidly squandering,” with his dismissive treatment of NATO and longtime allies, and his overtures toward autocratic leaders like Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. “Within days of his inauguration,” Luce writes, “Trump had killed the remaining spirit of enlightened self-interest that defined much” of post-World War II America. Given this situation, Luce adds, “the stability of the planet — and the presumption of restraint — will have to rest in the hands of Xi Jinping and other powerful leaders,” though he predicts that “chaos, not China, is likelier to take America’s place.”
Luce’s conclusions are pessimistic but not entirely devoid of hope. “The West’s crisis is real, structural and likely to persist,” he writes. “Nothing is inevitable. Some of what ails the West is within our power to fix.” Doing so means rejecting complacency about democracy and our system’s resilience, and “understanding exactly how we got here.”
Luce’s book is one good place to start.
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