Doubtful. Very doubtful. Charles Kenny, author of the seminal New Optimist book, Getting Better: Why Global Development Is Succeeding--and How We Can Improve the World Even More, explains:
Already, both Trump’s election and Brexit are looking a little less apocalyptic than a few months ago. The incompetence of the U.S. Administration has blunted its impact. Courts have reined in some of Trump’s immigration restrictions, Congress is restraining some of his cuts and is providing cover to independent investigators. And it is still possible that Brexit will not happen—at least opinion has turned against a “hard Brexit” that would have meant no access agreements with the European Union. Even with such an exit, predictions are that it will shave a few percentage points from the UK GDP. Not good, but not a civilizational collapse. That is to say nothing of the thumping victories of Emmanuel Macron in France and Justin Trudeau in Canada, or the recent defeat of extremist parties in Austria and the Netherlands.
And the idea of liberalism remains in reasonable shape worldwide....The World Values Survey of attitudes across the planet suggests we are slowly converging toward common opinions on liberal values. Take the statement “democracy may have its problems, but it’s better than any other form of government.” World Values Surveys responses in favor of that statement ranged from 81 percent in the former Soviet Union to 92 percent in the West in the middle of the last decade. Since the turn of the millennium, progress toward democratic governance has indeed flat-lined according to most available measures, but we are still close to the all-time peak, far higher than during the Cold War.
It isn’t just about the ability to vote, either: There is growing global commitment to liberal values of equality as well. Take views toward homosexuality: Again according to the World Values Survey, the proportion of people who thought homosexuality was never justifiable has dropped from an average of 59 percent to 34 percent between the early 1990s and the turn of the last decade. That matches heartening worldwide progress over the past twenty years toward legal recognition of gay rights, including in North America and Europe, but also in Uruguay, Taiwan, and South Africa. Globally, we do still face an immense amount of homophobia, sexism, racism, and nativism. Illiberal democracy is strong. But the long-term trends toward inclusion are positive, not negative.
And while Luce worries that support for democracy has “plummeted across the West since the fall of the Berlin Wall,” that might be overselling things. Take attitudes toward having a strong leader who does not have to answer to parliament or elections: According to the World Values Survey, 80 percent of Germans thought this was a bad idea at the turn of the millennium, although that number dropped five percentage points by this decade. In the United States during the mid-1990s, 71 percent opposed, now that number is 63 percent. A worrying decline to be sure, but hardly a plummet. And there has never been a time with more widespread equality of rights and treatment in the country—compare that to the Jim Crow era, or before the Equal Pay and Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s, the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, or even before the 2015 Supreme Court decision that declared same-sex marriage the law of the land.
Legal changes, once again, reflect broader changes in attitudes. Take racism: Support for interracial marriage in the United States only crossed the 50 percent barrier in 1997. It is now at 87 percent. Hate crimes in the country fell by almost half between 1994 and 2015. The percentage of Americans who think immigrants strengthen the country through hard work and talents has climbed from 31 percent in 1994 to 59 percent in 2016 (although the uptick in support is concentrated amongst Democrats).
This last statistic suggests that anti-immigrant views aren’t quite the inevitable mass response to the growing challenge of inequality that the media might have us believe. Indeed, data for the United States and the UK illustrate the fact that these are the attitudes of an aging and shrinking minority. Fifty-five percent of retirement-age voters supported Donald Trump—that compared to 31 percent of those aged 18 to 29 (the old in America have long been more right-wing, but this demographic gap is growing). Brexit votes similarly skewed toward the elderly. And as Emmott points out, retirees cannot justify their move to the political extremes as resulting from increased dispossession—they are a group cosseted with guaranteed pensions and free health care. Nativist pandering isn’t aimed at the left-behind, and most of those left behind know it won’t help them.
More positive attitudes toward liberal values—especially among the young—might, in part, reflect material circumstances that are not quite as grim as suggested by The Retreat. Globally, the last twenty years have seen the fastest reduction in absolute poverty ever. Economic performance in Europe and America, meanwhile, has lagged. But while Luce points to stagnation in incomes for most people in the West over the past three decades, it is perhaps better seen as a slowdown from historically unprecedented growth of the post-war period. Economists Branko Milanovic and Christoph Lakner look at the incomes of those in the 81st to 90th percentiles of global income distribution in 1988, a group predominantly made up of the poorer half of Western countries and former communist nations. Income growth for that group was about 1 percent a year over the subsequent 20 years. That is a cumulative total of around 20 percent between 1988 and 2008—less improvement than the bulk of those below them in the global income distribution as well as the world’s richest ten percent, but not nothing. (U.S. median household income in particular did decline in the fourteen years between 1998 and 2012, but it has largely recovered since then.)
This somewhat more positive view extends to a number of other measures of the quality of life. Luce notes that, since 1985 in the United States, the cost of higher education and health care has exploded. True, but thanks to the lower cost of food and other manufactured goods, alongside policy reform like the Affordable Care Act, it is also the case that more people can afford them (if accompanied with greater student debt). The percentage without health insurance has fallen from 15 percent to 9 percent between 1997-2016, with the most notable decline coming after 2014. With the failure of Congressional efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, that number should stay depressed. Meanwhile, the percentage of 18-24 year olds in college in the United States climbed from 31 percent in 1989 to 41 percent in 2015.So can everyone just calm down a little bit? Liberal democracy is still in good shape and will likely be with us for a good long time, despite its undeniable and well-documented problems.