Plato, of course, was not clairvoyant. His analysis of how democracy can turn into tyranny is a complex one more keyed toward ancient societies than our own (and contains more wrinkles and eddies than I can summarize here). His disdain for democratic life was fueled in no small part by the fact that a democracy had executed his mentor, Socrates. And he would, I think, have been astonished at how American democracy has been able to thrive with unprecedented stability over the last couple of centuries even as it has brought more and more people into its embrace. It remains, in my view, a miracle of constitutional craftsmanship and cultural resilience. There is no place I would rather live. But it is not immortal, nor should we assume it is immune to the forces that have endangered democracy so many times in human history. ... Part of American democracy’s stability is owed to the fact that the Founding Fathers had read their Plato. ... Many contend, of course, that American democracy is actually in retreat, close to being destroyed by the vastly more unequal economy of the last quarter-century and the ability of the very rich to purchase political influence. This is Bernie Sanders’s core critique. But the past few presidential elections have demonstrated that, in fact, money from the ultrarich has been mostly a dud. ... The evidence suggests that direct democracy, far from being throttled, is actually intensifying its grip on American politics. ... it is precisely because of the great accomplishments of our democracy that we should be vigilant about its specific, unique vulnerability: its susceptibility, in stressful times, to the appeal of a shameless demagogue.
Think of two significant trend lines in the world today. One is the increasing ambition and activism of the two great revisionist powers, Russia and China. The other is the declining confidence, capacity, and will of the democratic world, and especially of the United States, to maintain the dominant position it has held in the international system since 1945. As those two lines move closer, as the declining will and capacity of the United States and its allies to maintain the present world order meet the increasing desire and capacity of the revisionist powers to change it, we will reach the moment at which the existing order collapses and the world descends into a phase of brutal anarchy, as it has three times in the past two centuries. The cost of that descent, in lives and treasure, in lost freedoms and lost hope, will be staggering. ... Where exactly we are in this classic scenario today, how close the trend lines are to that intersection point is, as always, impossible to know. Are we three years away from a global crisis, or 15? That we are somewhere on that path, however, is unmistakable. ... Both seek to restore the hegemonic dominance they once enjoyed in their respective regions. For China, that means dominance of East Asia, with countries like Japan, South Korea, and the nations of Southeast Asia both acquiescing to Beijing’s will and acting in conformity with China’s strategic, economic, and political preferences. ... For Russia, it means hegemonic influence in Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia, which Moscow has traditionally regarded as either part of its empire or part of its sphere of influence. Both Beijing and Moscow seek to redress what they regard as an unfair distribution of power, influence, and honor in the U.S.-led postwar global order. ... The democratic order has weakened and fractured at its core. Difficult economic conditions, the recrudescence of nationalism and tribalism, weak and uncertain political leadership and unresponsive mainstream political parties, and a new era of communications that seems to strengthen rather than weaken tribalism have together produced a crisis of confidence not only in the democracies but in what might be called the liberal enlightenment project. That project elevated universal principles of individual rights and common humanity over ethnic, racial, religious, national, or tribal differences. It looked to a growing economic interdependence to create common interests across boundaries and to the establishment of international institutions to smooth differences and facilitate cooperation among nations. Instead, the past decade has seen the rise of tribalism and nationalism, an increasing focus on the Other in all societies, and a loss of confidence in government, in the capitalist system, and in democracy. ... Both the crises of the first half of the 20th century and its solution in 1945 have been forgotten. As a consequence, the American public’s patience with the difficulties and costs inherent in playing that global role have worn thin.
- Also: The Atlantic - How to Build an Autocracy 5-15min
- Also: The American Interest - Donald Trump’s New World Order 5-15min
- Repeat: Institutional Investor - The 4 Major Geopolitical Challenges Investors Must Face 5-15min
- Repeat: The National Interest - China: Superpower or Superbust? 5-15min
- Repeat: Bloomberg - Vladimir Putin Just Wants to Be Friends 13min
What’s it like to watch a country implode? To see a democracy destroyed and an economy crater? ... Since 2014, American journalist Hannah Dreier has documented just that in Venezuela, once one of the world’s wealthiest nations and still home to what are believed to be the planet’s largest oil reserves. She wrote for the Associated Press about what it was like to live in a place with the world’s highest murder rate—and the world’s highest rate of inflation. About the breakdown of hospitals and schools, and how the obesity epidemic that plagued a rich country was quickly replaced with people so hungry they were rooting through the garbage on her doorstep. ... Most of the time, few paid attention, at least in part because Dreier was the last U.S. journalist even to get a work visa to live in Venezuela; when she moved there to cover the story, she says, “I felt like I had walked across a bridge as it was burning behind me.”