Throughout the West, the triumphalism of the 1990s has given way to deep anxiety. The particulars differ from country to country, of course. But beneath these differences is the shared fear that an epoch is coming to an end.
The policies and institutions that far-sighted statesmen put in place after World War II enabled Europe and Japan to rise from the ashes of war, embrace democracy, and preside over the greatest period of liberty, broad-based prosperity, and peace in human history. But the continuing effectiveness of these institutions is in doubt. The Great Recession shattered complacent assumptions on both sides of the Atlantic. Two decades of economic stagnation, now exacerbated by demographic decline, have left Japan wondering about its future. (Prime Minister Abe’s economic renewal program represents a last throw of the dice for the Land of the Rising Sun.) At the same time, the startling rise of China and equally startling success of Singapore offer alternative models of state capitalism decoupled from democratic governance. As a result, the West has become uncertain of its future.
At first glance, this mood reflects the economic situation rather than broader misgivings about liberal democracy. No doubt the economy is an important part of the story. But the centrality of economic well-being in our politics reflects long-held assumptions about the purposes of our politics. If economic growth and well-being are in jeopardy, so are our political arrangements.
We have known since Aristotle that stable constitutional democracy rests on a large, self-confident middle class in an economic order not riven by extremes of wealth and poverty. For Aristotle, these conditions were a matter of chance good fortune. In modernity, they have become objectives of economic and social policy.