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Liberal Democracy and Its Enemies

Summary:
The challenges facing Western liberal democracies today are serious enough to recall Europe’s descent into tyranny in the 1930s, and should inspire sensible Americans and Europeans to mobilize to prevent any recurrence. While crying wolf is rarely recommended, sometimes there really is a wolf skulking through the wood. LONDON – When the German playwright Bertolt Brecht wrote that, “All power comes from the people,” he went on to ask the rather important question, “But where does it go?” Solidarity Now PS OnPoint Spencer Platt/Getty Images When China Sneezes Xinhua/Zhang Ailin via Getty

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The challenges facing Western liberal democracies today are serious enough to recall Europe’s descent into tyranny in the 1930s, and should inspire sensible Americans and Europeans to mobilize to prevent any recurrence. While crying wolf is rarely recommended, sometimes there really is a wolf skulking through the wood.

LONDON – When the German playwright Bertolt Brecht wrote that, “All power comes from the people,” he went on to ask the rather important question, “But where does it go?”

Liberal democracy’s signal achievement in the half-century after World War II was to answer that question in a way that promoted social consensus and solidarity. Although governments were chosen by majorities of equal citizens, they worked within a constitutional order based on the rule of law, democratic institutions, and accepted values and rights. And they governed with the consent of a minority that they respected.

By the end of the 1980s, some believed that this system of governance, which engendered economic success and political stability, had won the day against any alternative. Communist and fascist authoritarianism were discredited. A mood of triumphalism set in, breeding complacency. But things look a lot less rosy for liberal democrats today.

For starters, the boom and bust of the first decade of this century took its toll. So, too, did the encouragement of an unrestrained form of globalization that took little account of the social consequences of lower comparative labor costs in developing countries for workers in developed countries. Freer trade and more open exchange were not accompanied by labor-market and...

Chris Patten
Associate Director of Design Thinking, Henry Ford Learning Institute. I use design to make complex issues more tangible and build empathy among stakeholders.

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