First we thought about it a lot. Then we didn’t. And now we are forced to think about it again, but in very different way. What I am referring to is the world beyond our borders, the global community.
When I was a child the Cold War loomed over us and with it an undercurrent of fear. We were the good guys; the Communists, the enemy. But the Soviet Communists were an enemy with nuclear missiles aimed at us and poised for our destruction. However happy we may have been domestically, I grew up in a bilateral world in which we were constantly reminded of annihilation by thermonuclear war. There were safety drills in my elementary school in which we were marched into the basement, where we took cover. And I recall public service announcements on my black and white TV set exhorting me to “stand up in the fight against Communism.” Danger lurked out there and it made us cognizant that there was a larger world beyond America’s borders.
And then with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, that international fear went away. With the disappearance of Communism, more states became democracies and it looked like a peaceful, liberal, open, and prosperous future lay ahead unchallenged. One wasn’t compelled to think of the international arena, at least not in a fearful way. But that innocence lasted only a decade and ended for us on September 11, 2001. Farewell Soviet Communism; enter international terrorism. The international order was forced back into consciousness.
Upsurge in nationalist zeal
But now there is another reason to think in global terms. Few predicted its coming, but in the past several years, like a slowly gathering storm, the world is experiencing an upsurge in nationalist zeal, with the rise of xenophobia, contempt and fear of immigrants and moves to protect national markets from the forces of globalization.
In my view, the most fretful element of this nationalist surge is a marked disenchantment with democracy. For many in the younger generations, democracy as a form of government is increasingly a matter of indifference. In many places, China is seen as presenting a more favorable model of governance: strong economic growth and an autocratic central government. Such democratic mainstays as periodic elections, independent courts, a vibrant, open press, in short political rule by the people, is seen as of passing importance as long as society delivers the goods, so to speak.
At the beginning of the 20th century, there were only a handful of democracies. This number increased after World War I and then again after World War II, and once more after the fall of the Soviet Union, so today there are about 90 functioning democracies. That’s the good news. The bad news is that democracy is experiencing its worst setback since the rise of fascism in the 1930s. Today we ominously witness the support for authoritarian parties and leaders growing in places in which stable democracy has been taken for granted, in Britain, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, in Hungary and Poland, which were moving toward democracy after Communism but which are now increasingly embracing authoritarianism. And, of course, as we painfully know, we experience it here in the United States with the emergence of Donald Trump and all that the Trump phenomenon implies.
The question this compels us to ask is whether democracy, which we have been taught is the best form of government and the only one worthy of a free people, is a passing phenomenon.
The causes of this dark trend are many. But a solid explanation is that democracy flourishes best when economies are strong and upward bound. This was certainly true after World War II when Europe was recovering and becoming more united. And it was dramatically true for the United States in the period in which I grew up and which I now see in context as having endowed me with a privilege that those coming after me may not enjoy. It was a time when growing economies were lifting all boats, and so economic inequality between the rich and a rising middle class could readily be accepted.
But today this is starkly untrue. Those at the top are growing obscenely wealthy, while the wealth and wages of the major share of society are stagnating or in decline. Again, the causes of disenchantment with democracy are many and complex. But in my view, its survival will rest primarily on whether American society can overcome our huge income and wealth gap and move toward both greater economic equity and growing opportunity for all. Without overcoming economic disparity and unfairness, without meaningful employment in the face of growing automation, I fear that the prospects for democracy look grim.
It is a matter of political will.
There is no determinism here. It is a matter of political will. What’s needed are coalitions to reverse these economic trends. Democracy has been imperiled before and has recovered. We can do it again. Indeed, I believe we must. I will be discussing these ideas further in my address of May 6, entitled “The Global Future and Our Own.” I hope you can join me then.