In the bleak and vaudevillian backdrop of both Brexit and the meteoric rise of Donald Trump, Edward Luce’s “The Retreat of Western Liberalism” (“The Book”) provokes a hard but welcome introspection underlying the rise of populism in settings of democracy. The pervasive spread of “Illiberal democracy” (a term coined by the journalist Farid Zakaria in 1997) in two of the most ‘trumped’ up democracies on earth – Luce argues – has more to do with the sentiments of a disenchanted, disgruntled and ‘deplorable’ (to borrow a term from Hillary Clinton’s failed campaign phrases) populace than with the clarion calls of firebrand supremacists and nationalists of the likes of Donald Trump, Nigel Farage or Marine Le Pen.
Borrowing freely from the seminal work ‘Global Inequality’ by Branko Milanovic, Luce in his book charts the shifting centre of democratic gravity from the West to the East. Touted as a liberating set of values, the tenets of democracy freely sprouted in a rampant fashion following the iconic collapse of the Berlin Wall (an event which was witnessed by Luce in person), as a shield against socialism and communism. The disintegration of the former Soviet Union further vindicated the prospects offered by democracy. Fast forward from the turn of the twenty first and a chilling cartoon in the New Yorker captured the essence of a retreating belief in Western liberalism. As described by Luce, ‘it showed a Chinese mother finger-wagging at her daughter’s uneaten dinner: ‘Eat your rice, Han Ling, don’t you know there are children in West Virginia who are starving?’ It perhaps was the same cathartic emotions of the parents and guardians of the starving children that hurled an eccentric orange mane flaunting white supremacist from the confines of his affluent and opulent mansion into the hallowed portals of the White House. The price of neglect was the virtual sentencing of democracy! The same causes that led to “Trumpian” consequences again played their cards across the Atlantic, when a bewildered world in general and a stupefied Europe in particular witnessed the unraveling of a Shakespearean tragedy that was Brexit in 2016. Once dismissed as a breed of angry inconsequent and impulsive politicians, the UKIP in Britain led by the irascible Nigel Farage mounted an assault on the very edifice of liberalism, exploiting the intransigence of a ruling party that would have put an Ostrich with its head buried under the sand to extraordinary shame!
As Luce highlights, the whole charade that led to an inevitable situation of illiberal democracy in the United States of America was starkly summed up by Columbia University Professor Mark Lilla. Exhorting to end what he terms to be a phase of ‘identity liberalism’, Lilla writes ‘the American left had slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message’. This was the same identity liberalism that ostracized (before finally polarizing) segments of citizenry by nauseatingly deeming them “lubbers, offscourings, crackers, hillbillies, clay-eaters, low-downers, degenerates, white niggers and trailer trash. The term white trash has been around for two centuries and is still very much in use”.
This sordid retreat of democracy and the even more damning rise of illiberal democracy does not augur well for a peaceful and cohesive future of the world. The unwarranted and aggressive posturing over the South China Sea that immediately followed the stunning election of Donald Trump as President, could have swiftly escalated into a debacle of apocalyptic doom involving two military superpowers, but for a timely and decisive intervention by Vladimir Putin. The very fact that an unruly, unrepentant and unscrupulous oligarch (who himself had brazenly annexed the geography of Crimea in 2014) was required to prevent a potential Third and Final World War speaks volumes about the regressive steps taken by liberalism in the Western world. In the words of a Dutch philosopher, ‘Western populism is an illiberal democratic response to undemocratic liberalism’.
Democracy and liberalism are fast turning into meretricious concepts. We as citizens of the world cannot allow this to happen. As Luce meticulously argues it is time to hear ignored voices and violated dignities. It is absolutely essential to restore the self-esteem and confidence of a hitherto uncared for class in a manner that is inclusive and progressive. Most of all it is time to dwell seriously about the future of democracy. A seriousness that was not bestowed upon the likes of Donald Trump as he was ascending a dangerous path of success. Here is Luce quoting a journalist on Trump, ‘the press take him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally’. It turns out that both were wrong. Trump should have been taken seriously and literally’.
For this necessary element of seriousness to evolve, Edward Luce’s revealing book may just be the preliminary starting point.