September 30, 2017


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.

And in both places, as the “elite” has grown demonstrably less competent and honest, it has also grown visibly more contemptuous of the people it purports to govern. That contempt is, I think, the most poisonous part of the whole equation.