Authoritarianism is waxing worldwide, threatening nominal and established democracies. In Europe, Poland and Hungary suppress civil liberties while exploiting anti-Semitism, and authoritarian movements in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and Austria grow by trafficking in xenophobia. Italy’s new coalition is hostile to the European Union. “National selfishness and negativity,” warns French President Emmanuel Macron, could “lead our continent into the abyss...”
In Turkey, Thailand and the Philippines, autocrats attack democratic safeguards. Autocracies in Russia and China strengthen their grip on power, while attacking the institutions of western democracy ― Russia directly, China with greater subtlety.
Instead of protesting, America’s president assaults our own democratic values and traditions. Abroad, President Donald Trump slights our democratic allies and praises autocrats who squelch democracy. Little wonder that former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright warns that the global threat of incipient fascism is “enhanced by the volatile presidency of Donald Trump.”
No good can come of this. Since the end of World War II, the U.S.-led liberal democratic order, despite grave errors and imperfections, has promoted relative peace, prosperity and stability ― including in Europe, the cradle of two catastrophic world wars. Participatory democracies, history teaches, are generally more reluctant to pursue mass conflict. And given a reasonable degree of economic security, liberty is the optimal condition for human happiness and achievement, while oppression stifles creativity and starves the soul.
And so, lamentably, Trump exploited their frustrations and fears by posing as a human Powerball ticket ― the one-man solution to America’s ills.
But the forces of nationalism, nativism, racism and repression are hardier than many thought. We are learning that mankind’s presumptively inexorable march toward freedom is not, in fact, inevitable. A durable democracy, we are re-discovering, requires a collective sense of economic well-being ― that the fruits of prosperity are widely shared.
By comparison, core democratic values such as freedom of speech, tolerance, social justice and the rule of law may be of greater or lesser importance to any particular individual depending on their sense of personal security. This is the ground on which democracy and authoritarianism do battle.
It was America’s unmatched prosperity ― not simply its ideals ― which underwrote its post-World War II leadership role in promoting global democracy and cooperative international institutions. Strip too many Americans of hope and optimism, and our benign interest in advancing freedom founders on resentment and insularity.
Recent surveys in both the U.S. and other Western countries confirm a sharp divide between those who are urgently concerned with economic and personal security, and more fortunate citizens who focus on broader human values. This dichotomy was overlooked by those who believed that the fall of the Soviet Union represented the “end of history” ― the permanent triumph of liberal, free-market democracy as the developmental endpoint of human society.
Not so fast.
In the decades after World War II, our unrivaled prosperity ― combined with progressive taxation and a regulated free-market economy ― provided stable jobs with good benefits, a widening educational opportunity and a rising standard of living which was broadly, though not universally, shared. The appeal of America’s mass culture extended our global reach. As individuals and as nations, others wanted to join the club.
Many did. Through foreign aid such as the Marshall Plan, America helped stabilize democracies in Europe and Asia. Trade agreements enabled other nations to enjoy the fruits of economic growth. The chief systemic alternative, the Soviet Union, was killed off by its own sclerosis. In contrast, the American model was vibrant ― not just economically, but because we spoke for human rights, served as a refuge for the endangered and oppressed, and worked to correct our own racial and social injustices.
But history ground on ― and conditions changed.
In America, systemic dysfunction paralyzed our politics and turbocharged our public debt. Automation, globalization and the information economy gutted industrial and clerical work. Start-ups replaced mature companies that had previously promised lifetime employment, comprehensive health care and adequate retirement benefits. In came the “gig economy” with jobs where a traditional high school education was of little use. Even professionals ― like lawyers and accountants ― were being superseded by computers.
A chief accelerant of discontent was income inequality. The fruits of the information economy were unevenly spread; upper-income tax cuts, deregulation and weakened labor laws widened the gap. Income disparity widened in Europe but, more spectacularly, in the U.S. ― where the top 10 percent now receives 50 percent of our national income.
A key element was declining wages. In terms of 2016 dollars, America’s largest employer, Walmart, pays wages which are less than 30 percent of what General Motors paid 50 years ago. Our relatively low unemployment rate conceals that most recent job growth occurred in low-wage jobs; the statistic also hides the burgeoning number of workforce dropouts.
This social polarization is exacerbated by racial anxiety. In America, less educated and economically secure white Americans are more likely to feel that their place in society ― indeed, their values ― is threatened by multiculturalism. In Europe, the tide of Muslim refugees has deepened fears about diminishing ethnic and cultural cohesion ― a force so strong that it transcends the relative security of Europeans in social-welfare states.
This feeds a political tribalism focused on racial and national identity. That phenomena further divides the prosperous from the less fortunate, fueling an anti-elitist resentment which breeds populism and its frequent companion, authoritarian sentiment. One need not be a historian to think of Europe in the early 1930s.
At this critical time, the world at large no longer sees liberal democracy as essential to rising national prosperity or, for that matter, a functioning free-market economy as the precursor to liberal democracy. Ever more authoritarian China prospers in the free-market global economy. Within five years, the share of global income held by autocracies such as China, Russia and Saudi Arabia will surpass that held by Western liberal democracies. According to Foreign Affairs Magazine, of the 15 countries with the highest per capita incomes, almost 2/3 are non-democracies. In the last 25 years, liberal democracies have fallen from a position of unparalleled economic dominance to relative weakness.
All these forces drive the resurgence of authoritarianism. Democratic yearnings, it transpires, were not as immutable as we imagined. Their rise was not simply grounded in a universal human desire for democracy, but in the hope of attaining the wealth and power it seemed to generate.
Concurrently, Trump’s America shrinks from the world.
Many of his adherents resent the cost of maintaining global leadership. To them, American exceptionalism does not derive from our democratic ideals, but from their vision of a bygone American Eden besieged by globalism, multiculturalism, jihadism and unfettered immigration.
They don’t just feel marginalized ― in many ways, they are. For them, the unequal distribution of America’s wealth and advantages increasingly defines their lives, consigning them to an economic, geographic and cultural backwater. And so, lamentably, Trump exploited their frustrations and fears by posing as a human Powerball ticket ― the one-man solution to America’s ills.
In truth, he deepens them. Even as he further diminishes our global economic sway through fitful and misguided policies, he dims the light of America’s ideals. He traffics in racism and xenophobia. He claims autocratic powers and attacks our democratic institutions and the rule of law. He casts our free media as an enemy of the people. He deals in phony populism while catering to the narrow interests of wealthy donors. Through it all, he casts himself as a government of one ― ungoverned by truth, civility or restraint.
But Trump’s toxic misrule is the result, not the cause, of our social and economic travails. A democracy which does not address its urgent problems contains the seeds of its own destruction.
It is certainly true that America did not generate the global threats to democracy and human rights. In great measure, those are driven by internal forces which vary within countries. But given our postwar history, America is critical as advocate and model. We can combat racial animus and economic injustice with clarity and resolve ― or not. We can speak against xenophobia or, like Trump, embrace authoritarianism and tribalism at home and abroad.
Here the stakes are global and historic: whether a prosperous and vibrant America will, once again, advance democracy and human rights by its influence and example ― or, by its ruin, hasten their decline. But the answer to that question must first be found within our borders.
In this age of Trump and authoritarianism, we must exemplify democratic resilience ― replacing false and dangerous nostrums with actual solutions. That means not only getting rid of Trump ― a given ― but addressing the real grievances of the 99 percent.
As matters stand, that task falls to the Democrats. Half-baked populism won’t do. Nor will diminishing their commitment to racial and social justice. What they must advance without apology or equivocation is concrete programs which, by vigorously expanding economic and educational opportunity for all, restore our sense of community and optimism.
America’s success ― or failure ― will resonate in every corner of the globe.
Richard North Patterson is the New York Times best-selling author of 22 novels, a former chairman of Common Cause, and a member of the Council On Foreign Relations.