Correspondence Chapter2 Is This Time Different? : the crisis of liberal democracy

A Series of correspondence between Bill Emmott, a former editor of the Economist, and Masayuki Tadokoro, the Chair of Asteion Editorial Committee. Jonathan Rauch, a journalist and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, joined in and discussed the world after the US presidential election 2016.

Masayuki Tadokoro > Bill Emmott, Jonathan Rauch
When I discussed with Bill soon after the British referendum last summer, like many I did not think that it was likely that Trump would be the US president. I also thought Theresa May would try to work out some sort of soft-Brexit or might even deliberately sabotage Brexit by indefinitely putting off triggering the Article 50. But now with the parliament endorsement, she seems to have started the clean Brexit. It seemed to me then the most probable source of instability would come from within Europe, in particular Italy, where, as Bill rightly referred to, Matteo Renzi's actually stepped down after the referendum defeat in December. While European uncertainty is certainly there, it is now overshadowed by the election of Donald Trump. Now what I thought was a mainly British or European challenge actually turned out to be literally a global one.

How should we interpret the series of political developments both in the UK and US? We hear, the widening gap between the poor and the rich, lost social cohesion, difficulties caused by immigration, rise of social media, etc. They all sound right but we in Japan cannot help but wonder why inward-looking populism has become so powerful in the UK and the US. The two countries have for long been champions of liberal democracy, capitalism and international free trade. They have been successively hegemons of the world not only through their military and economic power, but also by “soft power” such as intellectual influences of journalism and universities that can project their ideas in English, the lingua franca today, and above all through setting an attractive model of politico-economic life. Whereas it is often irritating to be constantly lectured by Americans on how to run our politics, economy and even free press, we in Japan, like many, very much prefer living in the world run by the Anglo-American model to a Chinese or Russian empire.

Performances of the two countries, in fact, do not look bad at all. Macro economic indictors tell us the level economic well-being of both countries is generally better than other advanced economies. Neither of them is facing any existential threats from outside. Both countries are more successful in integrating new members into their societies than most. After all nothing is more American than immigration and the incumbent London Mayor is Muslim!

A theory of psychology teaches us that people tend to make a reckless decision in trying to avoid pains rather than to gain benefits. If it is the case, I find it puzzling that the Electorate in both countries selected the risky options through their legitimate democratic processes. Both British and Americans are still privileged people living wealthy and free lives among the 7 billion populations on this planet.

Talking about the democratic process, the quality and decency of the public debate during both the referendum and the presidential election was not what one would expect from the political discourses in the two countries. Yes, democracy is always a competitive and often ugly political process, but in order for it to function, we need the commitment to the basic framework of the institution, which includes minimum respect to the political opponents and agreements on basic facts, based on which the public can form their value judgment and interpretation. But, distrust by the significant portion of the public towards the mainstream media and established public intellectuals seem so intensive that “alternative facts” are widely accepted. Yet, we have been long told that both countries are best equipped in facilitating informed public decisions, free speech, free press, free discussion and availability of credible expert opinions. What happened to the mainstream press in your countries?

Perhaps I may be exaggerating. What happened in the two countries may be driven more by distinctive national contexts and occurred in the same year by coincidence. I should be, as I usually am, skeptical to the idea, “this time is different.” Americans did choose many illiberal presidents in the past, and we remember how unreasonable Americans can be on minor trade issues. Anti-immigration movements may be as American as immigration in its history and there was a time yellow journalism was more influential. The decline of America and crises of the postwar international order have been repeatedly talked about since even the 1960s. Yet, Bill, Jonathan, I cannot help wondering. Is this time different?

Bill Emmott > Masayuki Tadokoro, Jonathan Rauch
You are certainly right, Masayuki, when you say that our liberal democracies, and indeed the West as an alliance, have often been in crisis before and have managed to survive and even thrive. For example in 1975 the newly formed Trilateral Commission connecting the US, Europe and Japan issued a book called, guess what, “The Crisis of Democracy”. It carried a quote from Willy Brandt, shortly before he had left office as Chancellor of West Germany the previous year, stating that “Western Europe has only 20 or 30 more years of democracy left in it; after that it will slide, engineless and rudderless, under the surrounding sea of dictatorship”.

That may not have been fake news, exactly, but it was certainly a bad prediction. If our institutions are strong, which in most developed countries and especially the US they are, then we are not just resilient but have shown a great ability to evolve, to adapt, to roll with history’s punches and even emerge stronger. So I am an optimist. We can fight off the Trump blues, and indeed Trump himself. But let me admit that there may be differences today. One is that other powers in the world, notably China, are much stronger than during past crises, and we, thanks to the 2008 financial crisis, are much weaker. Another is that our populations are ageing, which makes them more conservative and more inclined to isolationist solutions.

So we may have to fight harder this time to beat not just the siren calls of Trump, Le Pen and strongmen like Duterte and Putin, but also the ailment that weakens us, what you, Jonathan, once aptly described as “demosclerosis”. Yet, in the US at least, the fight against Trumpism might even bring more sclerosis, more gridlock. Is there a way out, Jonathan?

Jonathan Rauch > Bill Emmott, Masayuki Tadokoro
Bill, I wish I knew.

Over the past several years, we’ve seen illiberal populism emerge in many countries, and Trump’s insurgent election, on the back of explicitly authoritarian promises and rhetoric, is the most worrisome development yet. Trump’s grand strategist, Steve Bannon, sees himself and his boss as the vanguard of an international populist-nationalist movement—one which leads to the overthrow of liberal globalism. Mr. Bannon certainly believes this time is different!

Here’s what we don’t yet know, at least in the United States: are we seeing a populist correction or a deeper authoritarian corruption? If the former, then the way out is through. Absorbing and incorporating insurgent ideas and movements, and using them to refresh stale politics, is one of America’s comparative advantages. If that is what’s happening, then we’ll begin paying more attention to working-class men and less to Davos Man, and about time, too.

But there’s a real danger that Trump and his supporters may undermine pillars of democracy itself, by defying laws or trashing liberal norms, or both. (In the March issue of The Atlantic, David Frum and I discuss in detail how a drift to authoritarianism might look in the United States, and how to contain it.) When I wrote Demosclerosis more than 20 years ago, I was writing about a chronic, slow-acting decline in liberal governments’ ability to solve problems. What I didn’t foresee is that public anger and exasperation might reach a tipping point and turn the syndrome suddenly acute—and not just in the U.S.

You and Masayuki and I, in our respective national capitals, all face the same problem: can we build a new case for liberalism—one that seems relevant to those who are left behind economically or socially—and then can we put it across?

Masayuki Tadokoro > Jonathan Rauch, Bill Emmott
Indeed, capitalist democracies are all in trouble. The instability of free market as we saw in financial crashes, and the gap between the winners and losers. Japan is a precursor in this respect. Our long economic stagnation that followed the burst of the financial bubble has undermined the authority of postwar establishments including political parties, the bureaucracy, business corporations as well as the media. What we have had, however, is not a “Big Man”, but many weak governments. The Western mainstream media portrayed Prime Minister Abe very negatively, but he is no Donald Trump. Our problems are probably closer to what you described in “Demosclerosis”. The Japanese public mood now seems to be characterized by a sense of resignation that there is no quick fix to many problems. They would rather have professionals run the country than let amateurs overhaul the existing system.

From the perspective of Tokyo, the danger Trump is causing is that it can irrevocably damage the important foundation of the postwar world order such as the security arrangements through alliance networks, multilateral trade regimes etc. Then authoritarian China and Russia may become dominant powers in their respective regions. Are we losing the Cold War at the end of the day? I have never believed in Japan’s return to militarism, but even I am concerned about the possibility of us being torn between anti-China hysteria and the temptation to bandwagon on the authoritarian Chinese empire if we are left alone in dealing with an increasingly assertive and mightier China. It is reassuring to see that Abe’a efforts to cajole Trump have worked well so far, though they made him vulnerable to criticisms at home exactly like Theresa May.

I thought Brexiteers would regret once they start feeling negative impacts, but am surprised that it has not happened yet. Likewise, I bet that there will be strong disillusionment among Trump supporters as it is obvious that he cannot deliver his bloated promises during the election campaign. The courts have already blocked the controversial travel ban. But I read your article on The Atlantic, Jonathan: I may be wrong again. At any rate, it is not sensible just to sit down and wait for “forgotten men and women” to give up their anger out of a sense of resignation. But the question is how. There will be more court battles and civil protests. But since “Liberals” (this is such a confusing word!) are also responsible for the rise of illiberal democracy by their elitism, imposing attitudes and even intolerance or illiberal liberalism. it seems to me liberals themselves need self-reformation. What does the new case for liberalism look like in your view, Jonathan?

Jonathan Rauch > Masayuki Tadokoro, Bill Emmott
Speaking about the U.S., since I know so much less about Japan, I don’t share the conventional wisdom that elites’ incompetence and obtuseness are to blame for illiberal backlash. American elites (not alone, of course) built the postwar global order, encouraged democracy, fostered prosperity, beat back communism, championed the rights of women and minorities, established a fantastically productive scientific system, prevented a second Great Depression in 2008, and kept America safe from terrorism and other threats. That’s not so bad!

But I do agree with you that finger-wagging and whining now won’t help. Working-class economic and social grievances are real and need to be addressed. The good news is that there is no shortage of responsive policy ideas. For example, reinvented and reinvigorated unions can help train workers while giving them more voice; apprenticeships can create more non-college pathways into the workforce; wage insurance can help buffer economic shocks. Political parties need to be strengthened relative to outside groups, so they can do a better job of organizing politics and engaging citizens. Conservatives need to make their peace with the social safety net; they need to pay more attention to monopoly power; and they need to take inequality seriously, because it undermines the legitimacy of liberal capitalism. Progressives need to make their peace with nationalism (a good thing, intelligently managed), and they need to respect that immigration and multiculturalism can only be pushed so far. And Trump isn’t wrong about everything: aging institutions like NATO and the United Nations need a second look.

Those are the kinds of things we could do. The harder question is: what kinds of things can we say? Liberal democracy needs a narrative, a story-line, that competes with populism and “I alone can fix it” (as Trump said in his Republican convention speech). Explaining the high cost of protecting jobs isn’t adequate, because people think their own job is worth protecting.

The facts still support the superiority of the liberal-democratic model, especially with changes to improve the model’s efficacy. Our challenge—yours, Bill’s, and mine—is to understand better how to reach people with that message.

Bill Emmott > Masayuki Tadokoro, Jonathan Rauch
Like Jonathan, I believe this battle can be won, and of course must be won. The worst word to use in any narrative, any message, is “globalization”, for it immediately makes people either think of being bulldozed by the Chinese juggernaut or of a phenomenon that helps Davos Man and not the men and women of Nottingham, Cincinnati or Osaka. The better words, in my view, are “openness” and “equality”, amid a message that the two must go together, work together, be always considered together.

If we look at where our Western countries have gone wrong – and Jonathan, I agree 100% that our long-term record is in fact excellent! – it seems to me that it can be found in the loss of the necessary balance between openness and equality. In America and Europe, in the decade before the 2008 crash, we threw capital and credit markets wide open, but also allowed, or connived in, a rise in the unequal influence over public policy and even democracy of the beneficiaries of that openness, ie Wall Street, the City of London, German banks. Then in the aftermath of the 2008 crash, as in the aftermath of Japan’s crash in 1990-92, we responded to trouble in very unequal ways, using billions to support banks (rightly), neglecting to punish bankers (wrongly) and forcing ordinary people to accept lower incomes and increased insecurity (Japan, Europe), or just high unemployment and underemployment and stagnant incomes (USA, Europe), for years on end. The message coming from governments has been, essentially “be patient; things will get better eventually”. Keynes riposted, in the 1930s, that “in the long run, we are all dead”. The 21st century equivalent would be “in the long run, we’ll have President Trump and President Le Pen”.

To convince voters to back open, liberal solutions, we must, as Jonathan says, be convincing that we are serious about reducing inequality and about breaking up concentrations of political and commercial power. This is not made easier by competition from China, the burdens of demography and fears about technology, but is nevertheless made more necessary by those forces. Inequality, both of wealth and of political voice, between the young and the old is becoming more important, everywhere. Automation represents a huge opportunity for advancement in living standards through productivity growth, but also threatens more inequality.

The greatest storyline of liberalism has always been that of social trust, of equal citizenship, of the sense that “we are all in this together”. What economic and political stresses have done is to hand that line of common destiny and identity over to the populists. What we liberals need to do is to win it back. And fast.


Masayuki Tadokoro photo

Dr. Masayuki Tadokoro
Professor of International Relations at Keio University, Tokyo, Japan. His primary field is international political economy, but he works also on Japanese foreign and security policy. His publications include International Political Economy (Nagoya University Press); The Dollar goes beyond “America” (Chuokoron Shinsha). He also edited with David Welch and Yoshihide Soeya, Japan as a 'Normal Country'? (Toronto U.P.)

Bill Emmott

Bill Emmott
An independent writer, lecturer and consultant on international affairs, based in Oxford and Somerset, write columns for La Stampa in Italy, Nikkei Business in Japan and Project Syndicate worldwide. He was Editor of “The Economist” from 1993 until 2006. He is now the Chairman of The Wake Up Foundation, a charity dedicated to public education about the dangers of decline in western, liberal societies, the UK's communications regulator. His book "The Sun Also Sets: the limits to Japan's economic power" was a bestseller in Japanese, with more than 300,000 copies sold. His new book, "The Fate of the West", will be published in May 2017 by Public Affairs in the US and in July in Japanese translation by Nikkei Books.

Jonathan Rauch

Jonathan Rauch
A senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. He is the author of six books and many articles on public policy, culture, and government. He is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and recipient of the 2005 National Magazine Award, the magazine industry’s equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize. His many Brookings publications include the 2015 ebook "Political Realism: How Hacks, Machines, Big Money, and Back-Room Deals Can Strengthen American Democracy", as well as research on political parties, marijuana legalization, health care, and more.