In the aftermath of the election of Donald Trump as US president a cartoon in The New Yorker (by @WillMcPhail and shown above) went viral. It shows passengers on a plane voting to replace the smug, out of touch pilot with a regular passenger, more like us.
The cartoon is fantastic, the type of thing that a political scientist like me could use as the basis for an in-depth discussion of the challenges of expertise and democracy in a 3-hour graduate seminar. But if you aren’t enrolled in a graduate course on contemporary politics, you are in luck.
[W]hatever your remedies to the crisis of liberal democracy, nothing much is likely to happen unless the West’s elites understand the enormity of what they face. If only out of self-preservation, the rich need to emerge from their postmodern Versailles. At the moment they seem busier shoring up its fortifications.
To understand the crisis, let’s go back to the cartoon above. It is powerful because it serves as a sort of political Rorschach test on populism. For many elite, the cartoon reinforces the view that the ignorant masses are dumb enough to think that they can actually fly the plane, a metaphor for running the modern administrative state. Go ahead and try it, you rubes, no doubt a crash will ensue.
And crash they will. But as we are seeing with the current Trump Administration, an exercise in what Benjamin Wittes has aptly described as malevolence tempered by incompetence, voting a passenger into the cockpit has ramifications for all of us. Tossing out the smug pilot might feel satisfying for a moment or two, but it gets very real when the plane is hurtling down the runway.
A deeper appreciation of the cartoon reveals that the ability of elites to participate in a system of democratic governance depends on their ability to secure the sustained support of the masses. We eggheads use terms like legitimacy to describe the fraught but critical relationship of elite governance and mass participation. My favorite treatise on this subject is the brilliant classic, The Semisovereign People by E.E. Schattschneider, first published in 1960.
Luce, like me, was born in 1968. Us Gen-Xers matured in the era of “the end of history” — a thesis popularized by Francis Fukuyama in the bright optimism of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Western liberalism, the theory held, was irrepressible. The march of history was, it seemed obvious, moving only in one direction.
Luce tells us that as an empirical matter that view is now obviously wrong: Since 2000, 25 democracies have failed around the world, including 3 in Europe (Russia, Turkey and Hungary). Is the end of history at its end? More pointedly, is the retreat of western liberalism (a great title, less grandiose yet directly responsive to Fukuyama of 1989) underway? That is the question that Luce takes on in this ambitious and provocative short book.
A theme throughout the book is the tight interrelationship of the actual and perceived economic standing of the middle and poorer classes and their support for the political regimes that they live under. Consider that US and UK democracies have been thrown into upheaval in response to the demands of those “left behind,” while China’s authoritarian leadership enjoys broad support as everyone is getting richer. Luce paints a picture of a more transactional form of democracy than our political myths generally give credit:
We are taught to think our democracies are held together by values. Our faith in history fuels that myth. But liberal democracy’s strongest glues is economic growth. When groups fight over the fruits of growth, the rules of the political game are relatively easy to uphold. When those fruits disappear, or are monopolised by a fortunate few, things turn nasty. History should have taught us that.
Luce provides a short but well-written survey of the modern era of globalization and how the world is changing — focused on the so-called “rise of the rest.” But at times Luce is a bit too uncritical, such as when he repeats the flawed (but popular) work of Robert Gordon who argues that sustained economic growth is a rare exception and likely to end. Not only does Gordon oversimplify economic history, but if Gordon were correct, it would undercut Luce’s posited relationship between the importance of growth and liberal democracy.
Ultimately, Luce rightly concludes that Gordon’s pessimism is likely to be wrong. Innovation and growth are here to stay, presenting their own set of challenges, especially for the West where automation and offshoring will continue to wreak havoc on modern economies.
If that seems confusing, that is because things are complicated. The absence of sustained economic growth presents challenges for liberal democracy. But so too does the presence of sustained economic growth based on rapid technological change and an increasingly interconnected world that leaves in its wake winners and losers, income inequalities, obsolete professions and concomitant resentments.
This gets us to what I think is the most important part of Luce’s book: choice. We, the global elite, with our fancy degrees, knowledge work, access to power, incredible wealth and access to cultural capital, have important choices in how we move into the future. How those choices are made will determine the retreat or re-invigoration of western liberalism.
In the book’s concluding chapter, I could not help but be reminded of the on-again off-again Twitter exchanges of @Chris_arnade and @MatthewYglesias. Arnade, a self-described “front-row kid” (aka member of the global elite), fancies himself a defender of the dignity of those left behind. He has taken to occasionally calling out Yglesias, who routinely denigrates the lack of intelligence and cultural capital of those in middle America.
Their exchanges take us right back to the cartoon: are the passengers on the plane a bunch of morons for thinking that they might fly the plane? Or do they have a perspective worth engaging and listening to? It’s a choice.
Luce takes on thee questions, carefully and cautiously to be sure, but makes abundantly clear where he stands. In his closing chapter he makes clear that he is no Trump supporter, in terms of policy or politics. But at the same time he takes issue with the political approaches of both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, which served to ostracize large parts of society.
Luce comes very close to the pilot and passengers metaphor when he writes:
History is not some self-driving car taking humanity to a pre-set destination. Whichever human is behind the wheel must ensure the others staying the car. Telling some of the passengers they have no business in the driver’s seat because they are clueless about the destination will sooner or later result in a crash. ‘Take back control’ was the chant of Brexiteers and Trump voters alike. It is the war cry of populist backlashes across the Western world.
Luce doesn’t go far down the path of prescription, but he is right to emphasize that a large part of the solution lies with us, not them: “Liberal elites, in particular, will have to resist the temptation to carry on with their comfortable lives and imagine that they are doing their part by signing up to the occasional Facebook protest.” Strong stuff, but spot on.
If you want to understand the politics of 2017, where we are, how we got here and where we might be going, I highly recommend this book. Think about it, talk about it. Then figure out what you are going to do next.