Author’s note: when I wrote this, I was confident Clinton would win but still worried about the chance of a Trump victory being far higher than it should be. I was confident the UK would not vote for Brexit, but was worried about overall political trends in Europe. Little did I know that Putin would be succeeding beyond his wildest dreams, for as I write this note two years into Trump’s presidency, two of the world’s oldest, most stable, most respected, most powerful continuous democracies are teetering, dysfunctional, and seem unable to govern themselves: the U.S. under Trump is in the midst of its longest government shutdown in its entire history and the UK is stumbling through a debacle of a Brexit process, both all while fascism is on the rise in Europe and elsewhere. We even just learned Trump wants to pull the U.S. out of NATO. All these and other trends only further validate my concerns from my March, 2016, piece below.
Sudden, shocking, disturbing, and largely self-propelled trends in America and Europe are doing more damage to Western democracy today than Soviet armies or nuclear missiles ever did during the Cold War
Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse March 17, 2016
Clockwise: Photo/Agencies, Cheryl Evans/The Republic, AP
AMMAN — Roughly a quarter-century ago, the world seemed poised for a triumph of democracy and human rights unprecedented in human history. As Francis Fukuyama famously noted in “The End of History,” the end of the Cold War marked the end of thousands of years of ideological struggle, and the spread of Western democratic capitalist ideals all around the world was inevitable with the demise of the Soviet Union. It was the end of history as we knew it: nothing could stand anymore in the way of the West and its triumphant march forward through history.
Except, apparently, the West itself.
Not a New Problem
The West and democracy being their own worst enemy is hardly a new thing.
As one historian wrote:
“The pattern of routine partisanship and factionalism, and, as a result, of all other vicious practices had arisen…It was the result of peace and an abundance of those things that mortals consider most important. I say this, because, before the destruction of…[our chief rival power], mutual consideration and restraint between the people and the…[governing elites] characterized the government…Fear of a foreign enemy preserved good political practices. But when that fear was no longer on their minds, self-indulgence and arrogance, attitudes that prosperity loves, took over. As a result the tranquility they had longed for in difficult times proved, when they got it, to be more cruel and bitter than adversity…every man acted on his own behalf, stealing, robbing, plundering. In this way all political life was torn apart between two parties, and [our political system], which had been our common ground, was mutilated…And so, joined with power, greed without moderation or measure invaded, polluted, and devastated everything, considered nothing valuable or sacred, until it brought about its own collapse.”
The above quotation is not from a Western historian of the twentieth or twenty-first centuries; rather, it is the ancient Roman historian Sallust writing in the first century B.C.E. in his The Jurgurthine War (41.1-10). He was writing of the slow self-destruction of the democratic Roman Republic, which lasted nearly 500 years, after its final triumph over Carthage. He lived to see his Republic crumble politically, dying a few years before Octavian would become first of the Roman emperors.
American Founding Father and (second) President John Adams wrote in the early nineteenth-century of democracy being its own worst enemy:
“Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide. It is in vain to say that democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious, or less avaricious than aristocracy or monarchy. It is not true, in fact, and nowhere appears in history. Those passions are the same in all men, under all forms of simple government, and when unchecked, produce the same effects of fraud, violence, and cruelty.”
“Flet victus, victor interiit” (The conquered mourns, the conqueror is undone)—Latin proverb
Much like ancient Rome, the West today exercised relative restraint in domestic affairs when faced with a mighty foe as the Soviet Union functioned as its Carthage. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union, the United States seemed poised to dominate the world for the foreseeable future and the European Union was on its way to producing a unified Europe that would also be a dominant global power, working in tandem with the United States to spread and maintain peace, democracy, and capitalism.
Just a few decades later, in 2016, that vision appear to be fading.
In the United States, the presidency of George W. Bush squandered a massive budgetary surplus, the result of a prosperity not seen since the years after WWII, when Eisenhower gave America a globally-unprecedented highway system and a military that ensured it would be the dominant player in the Cold War; Bush opted to use America’s prosperity to pay for lopsided tax cuts for the wealthy and then prosecuted two disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, whose costs he added to the deficit and debt, and the latter of which destabilized the Middle East more than any event since the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire after WWI.
At home, his administration (and other officials) failed miserably in addressing Hurricane Katrina as it humbled and partly destroyed New Orleans, a great American city, and did nothing to prevent the onset of the greatest global financial and economic crisis since the Great Depression (barely managing to address it in time to prevent a possible total meltdown of the global financial and economic systems).
Now, America’s first non-white president, Barack Obama, has encountered a level of obstructionism and partisanship from Congress unseen since the Civil War; the elation and hope of the election results of 2008 has given way to a level of dysfunction and gridlock that calls into question America’s ability to govern itself regardless of who sits in the White House. As of now, the U.S. may have a vacant seat on its Supreme Court for close to, or more than, a year, the longest vacancy since the 1840s and the result of partisan obstruction on the part of the Republican Party.
Over the last few months, that Republican Party, one of America’s two main political parties since the elections of 1856, appeared on the verge of melting down in the face of the candidacy of businessman and TV personality Donald Trump; just a few days ago, it seems it reluctantly accepted that he is near-certain to be its nominee. In a few months, the United States might be able to be said to have gone in a mere-quarter century from victor of the Cold War to electing a President Trump.
Jan Kruger/Getty Images
In Europe, even in the 1990s it was demonstrated twice in the Balkans that Europe was incapable of dealing with major conflicts in its own backyard without help and, more importantly, leadership from the United States. Since then, it has failed to effectively deal with conflict in Libya, Ukraine, and Syria, all within or near its periphery. The situation in Syria has led to refugee and migrant crises unseen in the world or Europe since WWII; Europe’s response has been grossly inadequate and the influx of refugees has been one of the main catalysts for the dramatic rise all over Europe of far-right political parties that border on being fascist; they are often against the European Union and are forcefully hostile to immigrants and refugees.
Leaders like Angela Merkel of Germany, trying to show kindness and compassion to refugees, may be ousted sooner by politics rather than later for her troubles, and other governments balk at attempts to coordinate regional refugee and economic policies. In France, a rising far-right party funded by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government may possibly come to control France in the coming years. Poland seems to be in the process of destroying its democracy.
A series of complacent governments in places like Greece, Italy, and Spain set off dramatic economic, finance, and debt crises that have severely weakened confidence in the European Union as well. There was, and still is, talk of a Greek exit (“Grexit”) from the EU. Now, there is talk of a “Brexit,” as, even after unprecedented concessions by the EU to Britain (concessions that severely undermined the EU), Britain’s public may still vote to leave the EU in a matter of months. The United Kingdom itself only recently narrowly avoided disintegration by secession from it by Scotland, a possibility which, it was just announced, will be pursued again.
Even in Israel, considered a bastion of Western democracy in the Middle East, the public and government are becoming increasingly okay with the erosion of democratic values and a deeply undemocratic military occupation of the West Bank as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict stifles Israel’s left and drives its people further to the right. The assault on democratic norms in Turkey by its government is far worse. Still worse in that region, the Arab Spring has, in general, become a massive tragedy.
Failing the Test?
Fighting in Ukraine in 2015—Mstyslav Chernov/Wikimedia Commons
As The Economist pointed out, Europe has its “little Trumps;” America might install its Trump as president. A deeply divided American public is desperate for functionality from its government, but seems incapable of electing a Congress that can produce this; after only a few years of near-total gridlock, it may turn to Trump. If there is an ensuing period of longer dysfunction, it is terrifying to imagine what Americans might opt for then.
Likewise, in Europe, as leftist leaders are challenged, weakened, and/or ousted one-by-one and are replaced by governments whose missions are resisting pressures of EU policy, as racial, ethnic, and religious tension, fears of Islamic terrorism, nativism, and demagogues become ever more commonplace, it is terrifying to envision its future, too. An autocratic Russia sits on Europe’s edge, poking and prodding from the outside, funding right-wing extremist parties in Europe that look to Putin’s Russia as a model, even while that democratic model has become a farce.
Make no mistake, Western Democracy is on trial; if Hillary Clinton does not enter the White House this next January, who or what, then, will encourage Europe to rethink its own rightward march, and what will keep America’s Trump-led “house divided against itself” from following, even encouraging, Europe’s lead? What will that ultimately mean for democracy and its viability worldwide as this century progresses?
That is not to say that it is certain Mrs. Clinton can solve all of these problems. But at least with her, there will be a sincere effort from the most powerful nation on earth to push back against the downward spiral on both sides of the Atlantic; with Mr. Trump, that downward spiral will only be encouraged and accelerated.
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