The end of the liberal democratic experiment

This is how it ends.

Like the fall of the Soviet Union, the liberal democratic order collapsed noiselessly in an afternoon. Western democracies, unlike the USSR, might stagger on but they lack confidence and influence. Leaders and citizens no longer believe in their system and are turning inwards. The quasi-liberal democratic global order will gradually be subsumed by rules imposed by Beijing and its allies.

In any case the era of US world leadership is over. The new president might wield hard power but will carry little authority, even should he be interested in influencing events.

We are on the downward trajectory of one of the great human experiments. The USA was founded as an Enlightenment project: a human-centred, reason-based social order with institutions that restrain the powerful and protect individual rights.

That’s over. US democracy has been ailing for some time. Pick your villains: the security state, the unfair electoral college, money politics, the power of lobbyists and Wall Street, craven click-chasing media, GOP derangement and cynicism, congressional gerrymanders, racism, rampant inequality, voter suppression and the uncompleted working-out of the disasters of the Iraq War and the financial crash.

The president-elect lied every day of the campaign and won on a platform of sending his opponent to jail and with the intervention of the FBI. He encouraged violence against reporters and protesters and advocated legal restraints on the press. He prevaricated on whether he would accept the election outcome. (As it was the loser actually won the popular vote. We are left to guess the response if that had happened to the GOP candidate.)

Those are all repudiations of liberal democratic practice. The poll result is an endorsement of that wilful destruction. American voters knew what they were buying.

After 18 months shredding democratic values, the new incumbent predictably is now calling for unity.  Even if this weren’t scripted pabulum, no matter: the rancorous politics of nativist resentment are here to stay.

Democracy is based on trust between citizens and a shared faith that the process is equal and binding on all parties. Those are gone and from Washington to Moscow to Beijing a bullying populism of various degrees prevails.

The result is a stunning personal victory for Putin, who blames the US for the demise of the USSR, and also manages the unusual feat of making the Chinese more palatable. They may be paranoid Leninist megalomaniacs, but when not talking issues of power and politics they are constrain themselves by facts. By contrast the incoming president speaks a bag of nonsense.

As well as abandoning the norms of democratic process the GOP candidate and running mate have laid to waste the other Enlightment ideal of reason. Not just through the continual stream of falsehoods and the embrace of fantasists like Alex Jones. They have found a ready enemy in science. Naturally they reject arguments for human-driven climate change. The vice-president-elect is a militant cultural warrior, a creationist and an advocate of gay conversion therapy who denies that tobacco is lethal.

Seen from Asia, the election of these two – the narcissistic clown and the rock-ribbed reactionary – tells the world the US is no longer a serious country and puts in the final nail in the coffin of the faltering Asia ‘pivot’. The US may have the military heft to balance against China but no longer has the credibility. Allies will look past the White House incumbent and see a country hostile to foreign trade and alliances.  China will be here in 100 years. Who believes the US is committed to the region beyond even the next generation? 

But if liberal democracy has a future anywhere, it may be here in Asia. Citizens here increasingly see the rule of law and the democratic process as protections against crony capitalism and one-party lawlessnes as well as against rabble-rousing con-men.

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