Looking back at human history, the liberal democratic experiment - with its Enlightenment-derived belief in the capacity of individuals possessed of certain inalienable rights to shape their destinies in liberty through the exercise of their will — is but a brief interlude. Far more lasting have been the eras of infallible sovereignty, absolute power derived from God, domination and serfdom, and subjection to what Isaiah Berlin called “the forces of anti-rational mystical bigotry.”I'm not as worried as Cohen; liberal democracy may be strained in the U.S. and Europe, and put off in China, but I still think it dominates the thinking world. Other systems may have emotional appeal, especially in times of crisis, but nobody has a clue how to defend them intellectually, and I think that matters.
Such anti-rational forces are everywhere these days — in Donald Trump’s America, in Marine Le Pen’s France, in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, throughout much of the Middle East, in North Korea. Representative government under the rule of law has proved to be insipid fare for an age that traffics in heady images of power and violence through solipsistic social media and online games. . . .
Liberty, however, requires certain things. Liberalism demands acceptance of our human differences and the ability to mediate them through democratic institutions. It demands acceptance of multiple, perhaps incompatible truths. In an age of declamation and shouting, of polarization and vilification, of politics-for-sale and the insidious submersion of politics in fact-lite entertainment, the emergence of Trump is as unsurprising as it is menacing.
But Cohen is right that there is nothing inevitable about liberalism. Our system is a recent invention compared to monarchy, aristocracy and thuggery, and it has always had enemies. It survives mainly because other systems have failed to deliver decent lives to most people to anything like the same degree.
And that, right now, is its vulnerability. People are frustrated with the lack of economic progress, and frustrated people want answers, not sermons about the Enlightenment. We ought to be focused on how to make the system work for ordinary people, because if we don't there is going to be hell to pay.