The profession of doom-monger has flourished since the earliest days of the United States. The founding fathers themselves knew enough European history to realise that the odds against the success of a republican form of government were high. Every republic tended to slide into tyranny, usually because the people threw in their lot with a demagogue.
“It is only to consult the history of nations,” Alexander Hamilton wrote in 1795, “to perceive that every country, at all times, is cursed by the existence of men who, actuated by an irregular ambition, scruple nothing which they imagine will contribute to their own advancement and importance.” In republics, the danger came from “fawning or turbulent demagogues, worshipping still the idol — power — wherever placed . . . and trafficking in the weaknesses, vices, frailties, or prejudices” of the people.
Most of my friends in academia believe this can be read as prophesying the rise of Donald Trump. In The People vs Democracy, Harvard’s Yascha Mounk argues that Trump’s populism is part of a worldwide backlash against liberal values. “Liberalism”, Mounk writes, is “now under concerted attack from the Trump administration, which has declared war on independent institutions such as the FBI and has used the president’s pulpit to bully ethnic and religious minorities”.
In a similar vein, my Stanford colleague Larry Diamond has written of a global “democratic recession”. In a New York Times column he warned that Trump’s appeal was especially strong to voters who want a “strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with elections or Congress”.
The Yale historian Timothy Snyder has a new book entitled The Road to Unfreedom, which makes the argument that Trump’s election (along with the result of the Brexit referendum) was just part of a vast Russian conspiracy to destroy democracy.
Paradoxically, a surprisingly large number of western intellectuals are attracted to China’s overtly authoritarian system of government. Tsinghua University’s Daniel Bell argues in his book The China Model that the Chinese Communist Party is a meritocracy that governs more competently than a democracy. My old friend Martin Jacques, the author of When China Rules the World (2009), portrays China’s economic management as far superior to the West’s.
Trump is undermining America. China’s rise is unstoppable. The inevitable inference is that when the United States and China collide, as history suggests is quite likely, Beijing will come out on top.
What if all this is wrong? Let’s start with the theory that democracy is suffering a global “recession”. Really? Twenty-one years ago Fareed Zakaria published an influential article, “The rise of illiberal democracy”. In it he cited statistics from Freedom House showing that 42% of the world’s countries were “free” (that is, true liberal democracies), 31% were “partly free” and 27% were “not free”. Fast-forward to the 2017 data. Free: 45%. Partly free: 30%. Not free: 25%.
This is not to deny that there have been setbacks for political and civil rights in many countries, which Freedom House is right to document. But I just don’t see compelling evidence for the rise of illiberalism predicted by Zakaria. Tell me all the “democracy in crisis” stories you like, but you’ll struggle to fit India into your theory — the most populous democracy in the world, where 79% of voters say they are satisfied with the way democracy is working. The riposte that “Narendra Modi, the prime minister, is no liberal” gives the game away. If democracy is in crisis just because liberals aren’t in power, then this debate is not serious.
If democracy is in a real crisis, why would millions of people rather live in democracies than in the unfree countries where they are born? According to a recent survey by Gallup, as many as 147m people would like to emigrate to America. The next most popular destinations were Germany, Canada, the UK and France. Only 1% of those surveyed said China was the land of their dreams.
True, the recent surge of immigration to democracies has generated a populist backlash. But, looking at 25 European countries for which I have data, I see populists in government in just six: Austria, the Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Italy and Poland. I see only 11 populist parties with the support of more than 20% of voters. And I see only two countries — Hungary and Poland — where populists in power are meaningfully reducing individual liberty.
Might Trump prove to be the Viktor Orban of the US? No doubt the two men share many political preferences. But America isn’t Hungary. Precisely because the founders foresaw that a populist demagogue would one day become president, they created checks and balances in their constitution.
To put it simply, a key strength of the US system is that it’s decentralised. Sure, Trump is president and his party currently controls Congress, but the Republicans seem likely to lose their majority in the House of Representatives in November. Moreover, Republicans control only half of the nation’s 50 states. Just 14 of the mayors of the 50 biggest cities are Republicans.
Alexis de Tocqueville made the point in the 19th century that decentralised political systems were better protectors of individual liberties. Friedrich Hayek argued in the 20th century that centralised planned economies were less responsive to market signals. And modern network scientists observe that decentralised networks are more resilient than hierarchical ones. Why should these insights not be applicable to today’s rivalry between the United States and China?
The US system is self-correcting. If you hate Trump, you’re in good company. More than half (53%) of voters disapprove of the president. They get to vote against his party in November and against him in 2020.
By contrast, China can course-correct only if the great helmsman, President Xi Jinping, decides to do so. It’s easy to be impressed by the huge infrastructure projects that the centralised Chinese government can undertake. But look at the other side of the balance sheet and you’ll find a mountain of dodgy debts.
Of course, Trump is no stranger to dodgy debt, and his administration has thrown fiscal caution to the wind with its recent tax cuts. But there’s little doubt that the current trade war is hurting China more than it is hurting America. Imposing tariffs on Chinese exports may be lousy economics, but it’s proving to be a serious political stress-test for Xi.
The fashion for worrying about the decline of democracy began in the mid-1990s, when America’s victory in the Cold War was starting to seem too good to be true. But 10 years earlier the doom-mongers had been warning that Ronald Reagan’s defence build-up would bankrupt America, and this would clear the way for the rise of . . . Japan.
Perhaps one of the secrets of American success is precisely that some doomster is always predicting the decline and fall of the republic. “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you” has been New York wisdom since the Seventies. Yes — and maybe just by being paranoid we make sure they never quite catch us.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford