Over the past two years the increasingly skeptical citizenry of the United States and Europe has been treated to a stream of op-eds and television appearances lamenting the looming collapse of the liberal world order, to be accompanied by a surge of illiberalism, nationalism, and fringe politics. Rarely, however, does such hand-wringing stray beyond shopworn comparisons of the “complex interdependence” of the glorious past and the parochialism and narrow-mindedness of the current era. In truth, we are not witnessing a dramatic systemic change driven by conniving external forces, but a meltdown of political authority in the West caused by the relatively straightforward indolence of its political class. Our troubles are less about liberalism’s decline or the ascendancy of left or right politics. Simply put, the citizenry in the West has been frustrated for decades with its elites’ inability to deliver workable solutions to the problems of slow growth, deindustrialization, immigration, and the overall decline of self-confidence across the West.
The legitimacy, and hence stability, of the international system rests to a degree on the ability of the leading powers to deliver at home—or, simply put, to govern. The increasing volatility of international politics is in part a byproduct of systemic dysfunction across the West at the level of domestic politics. Americans and Europeans alike are running out of patience with the governing class. In Europe, the government’s inability to control mass migration or develop effective solutions to domestic terrorism are two important drivers of the growing public discontent. In the United States the middle and working classes have been frustrated for decades with the government’s inability to remedy de-industrialization, urban decay, and declining economic opportunity.
The U.S. and European publics may vary in their reactions to these phenomena—for instance, by electing the non-establishment Emmanuel Macron in France and the anti-establishment Donald Trump in the United States—but the broader drivers of these choices are similar. After the recent German election, the anti-establishment Alternative für Deutschland, a party that did not exist a few years ago, is now the third largest party in the Bundestag, with the CDU/CSU suffering its largest drop in support since 1949 and the SPD forfeiting its chances to recapture its former glory. In this election there was no greater issue for the German public than the wave of MENA migration into Germany since 2015 and popular discontent with the government’s policy of continuing to accept immigrants. Following the shocks delivered to the political establishment earlier in the in Dutch and French elections, the German election says a lot about the public mood in Europe. One of my European interlocutors put it succinctly: “Nothing of importance gets done.”
To further complicate matters, in addition to the explosion of public discontent, we are witnessing a seeming inability in the West to pass the baton of political leadership to a younger generation. In Germany Angela Merkel is poised to become the longest-serving German Chancellor in the Federal Republic’s history, outstripped only by Otto von Bismarck during the era of empire. Even when generational change does take place (Barack Obama in the United States, Emmanuel Macron in France), the star quality of these young new leaders isn’t matched with the executive experience needed to meet popular expectations. And in the United States over the past quarter century we have seen the progressive “dynastization” of political leadership, with the Bush and Clinton families dominating the political landscape.
The increasingly self-selecting, self-contained nature of the political class has been at the center of the systemic dysfunction bedeviling Western democracies. It has led voters in 2016 to view with suspicion anyone connected to politics. Trump’s election is a case in point, as is Brexit, the rise of the AfD in Germany, and the progressive re-nationalization of European politics overall. At the same time, domestic institutions are increasingly characterized by sclerosis throughout the West. It has manifested itself in tandem with the growing crisis of political leadership at home. If unchecked, it will further undermine faith in state institutions, and could even delegitimize democracy itself.
Because Western elites continue to fail to deliver real solutions to problems like immigration and deindustrialization, an irreversible loss of public support for fundamentals like free trade, liberalism, and multilateralism is no longer just a theoretical possibility.