A recent article in The New York Times by David Brooks, “Globalization Is Over. The Global Culture Wars Have Begun,” discusses the decline of globalization generally and Western values specifically around the world.
I agree with much of what Brooks writes but found myself picking one nit. He states: “This is … a conflict about politics, economics, culture, status, psychology, morality and religion all at once. .. It’s a rejection of Western ways of doing things by hundreds of millions of people.”
I would suggest that, to the contrary, it isn’t so much the people who are rejecting Western ways; it’s the people being coerced by leaders who reject Western ways. Consider, for instance, China and Russia. The anti-Western attitudes are coming not from the masses, but from Xi Jinpeng and Vladimir Putin.
We have proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Think Hong Kong and Ukraine. In both these cases, when the people have a free and fair opportunity to choose, they clearly choose Western values. Only coercion by Xi and attempted coercion by Putin can turn them away.
Indeed I would question the use of the term “Western values.” I have no doubt the people of Hong Kong take a proprietary interest in these ways no less than the Ukrainians … or Canadians. They are now universal. We might better call them simply “liberal values.”
Recently those values seem to be pursued with more vigour in Hong Kong and Ukraine than in many of the older democracies. Although people in the established democracies can freely choose, too many appear to be choosing—dare I say it—fascist values. We see this from Eastern Europe to India to the U.S.
Most worrisome is the U.S. In 2016, Americans elected a president who moved the country in a fascist direction, and he is still very much around working his nefarious influence.
It is often said that Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) saved American capitalism with his New Deal and it’s true. Capitalism leads to inequity as surely as it leads to wealth. If balance is not restored, it will lead on to alienation and violence. FDR simply restored the balance to American society after unfettered capitalism had brought it to its knees.
Unfortunately, the lesson was not learned. In the 1980s America, under Ronald Reagan influenced by right-wing economists such as Milton Friedman, adopted a new liberalism—neoliberalism—that harked back to the era when equity wasn’t a component of the philosophy. The free market alone would solve all society’s problems.
It didn’t work. If anything, it proved to be a failed liberalism. While enhancing the dominance of the wealthy, economically and politically, it has worked to strip equity out of American financial rewards. Income inequality in the U.S. has grown to almost the greatest in history and the country now has millions of Americans feeling alienated, left out, angry and frightened. So they do what desperate people commonly do, they look to a demagogue for a saviour.
Including economic equity in liberal values isn’t just a moral imperative, it’s a survival imperative. An inequitable society is unsustainable. Without equity the social contract will fail.
In considering the recent retreat of liberal democracy around the world, we need not be unduly pessimistic. After all, we have just come off a high. As Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt remind us in their insightful book How Democracies Die, “The 1990-2015 period was easily the most democratic quarter century in history.”
Nonetheless, there is work to be done. The democracies need to enhance the equity of their societies in order to convince the great majority that they matter, that they are valued, that their voices are heard. Only thus will we maintain a convincing argument for the citizens of other countries that liberal values are the best route to a healthy society.
In Canada, the recent implementation of a child care program and a proposed dental care program for poor children both work to that end. There is no better buttress against fascism than a strong welfare state.
President Biden is attempting to implement similar measures in his country, but it isn’t easy when he runs into opposition from members of his own party. If he fails, the foot soldiers of fascism may resume their march to the White House, and that will not be good for any of us.