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“Western liberalism is under siege”

A conversation between Edward Luce and David Frum about the uncertain future of Western-style democracy.

Erik Freeland/Corbis via Getty Images

“Western liberalism is under siege,” Financial Times columnist Edward Luce warns in his new book, The Retreat of Western Liberalism. Written in the wake of Brexit in the UK and Trump’s election to the presidency in the US, the book argues that elite complacency and contempt for the disadvantaged have weakened democracy to a point where it is “far closer to collapse than we may wish to believe.”

How do the recent elections in France and Britain complicate Luce’s warning? And if his concerns about the future of Western liberalism are founded, is there any way to fight back?

In a recent conversation at Vox’s Washington, DC offices, David Frum, a former George W. Bush speechwriter and current editor at the Atlantic, asked Luce these questions, and more. Here’s an edited and condensed transcript of their talk.

The problem

David Frum

Since you've finished writing, there's been an election in France in which there was a surge for a centrist party. It’s now in command of both the presidency and a big majority in the French parliament.

At the same time, there has been a stunningly surprising British election, which has brought within easy reach of power the most radical British Labour leader ever, despised by his own party until the day before yesterday, and laid low the post-Brexit Tories.

Do you want to revise and amend any of the remarks in the book?

Edward Luce

I delivered the manuscript on February 7. And so, yes, of course a lot has changed, not just on the ground in places like France, but also mood-wise across the Western world. I think if anything, the picture in the United States is more troubling, and we can talk about Trump later.

But to France and Britain, [Emmanuel] Macron is a fascinating and what I would definitely describe as a “glass of champagne half-full event.” It's neither a proof nor disproof of my thesis of concern about the future of Western liberalism.

On the one hand you have an outsider, with a party that didn't exist 14 months ago, smashing all the established parties, from Front National on the right to the communists on the left, but particularly the socialists and the Gaullists in between. A party that didn’t exist a year ago has a majority of the French Assembly.

And yet Macron is also a consummate insider. The guy is a Rothschild investment banker. He served in [François] Hollande’s government. His party was elected on the lowest turnout by far in French history, so he has a thin mandate. Yet he is planning to embark on a Thatcherite program of labor reforms, of extending the working week, and so on. France is a country where anti-politics politics is how opponents of change stop things from happening and unions can paralyze government and prevent legislation in France like no other country. So where that goes, I don't know.

The British election is fascinating. There are so many unexpected little stories to emerge out of what is a complete mess for Theresa May from a macro level. But the one I think that grabs people her the most, and also in Britain, is that the young voted. We can no longer make jokes about millennials in the same way in Britain as we were after Brexit, when famously, probably apocryphally, everybody the day after was Googling, “What is the EU?”

So these are complex, fascinating events. In a very unpredictable political climate.

EU Leaders Meet Before G20 Summit
French President Emmanuel Macron after a meeting of European Union leaders on June 29, 2017, in Berlin, Germany.
Photo by Michele Tantussi/Getty Images

David Frum

Well, here's the revision and amendment to propose. Can we after the events of the spring, the summer, and the likely outcome of the German election in the fall, maybe think the book should be retitled The Retreat of Anglo-American Liberalism?

Because in the major Western European countries, and maybe this is thanks to Donald Trump, the parties to the center suddenly are looking quite healthy. France, big centrist victory. Germany on its way to something that looks very much continuous with German politics. Populist parties on the retreat in Italy, and apparently in Spain, as well. On the European fringe, Hungary remains the problem child, but that's a different category of thing.

Even in the English-speaking world, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand are exempt. We're talking about England and America, aren't we?

Edward Luce

To a large extent. But don't forget that a postmodern neo-Nazi very nearly won the Austrian presidency last year. So I think that our bar is quite low for celebrating what constitutes the health of liberal democracy nowadays. Let's also not forget that Marine Le Pen got 11 million votes in May. Her dad in 2002 got 5 million votes, and if Macron's technocratic program fails, she's there to pick up the pieces. So the glass of champagne is definitely half full on the continent.

But to your point about the big English-speaking democracies, America and Britain: Of course it was what happened in those two countries in 2016 that prompted me to write this book. And I think there is a good reason why the English-speaking democracies are more vulnerable to populism than others. And that is, they have been the most triumphalist about their economic model and their political model, really for the entire post–Cold War period. Their political classes have therefore been more complacent.

Remember also that America and Britain are the only major Western democracies that were not occupied or invaded by Nazis, Bolsheviks, or whatever, or subject to revolution, or any really great political disruption in the 20th century, way beyond living memory.

There's a complacency that breeds populism. And I also think, finally, America and Britain are more vulnerable because the state has withdrawn furthest in these two countries, from its traditional role of providing some insurance against the economic vicissitudes of the changing labor market. And the labor market really has been changing quite dramatically.

David Frum

In your title, you speak of liberal democracy in its crisis. But as one reads the nuances of what you're saying, I perceive that we really have two stories: a retreat from liberalism in the lower part of society, the poor part, the less educated; and a retreat from democracy in the fancier part.

Edward Luce

It's a very fair way of stating it.

You see it throughout history: The rich get more afraid of the mob, and the richer they get, the greater the inequality. This is a pattern you can trace back to ancient Greece, so it's not a surprise that wealthier people in the West, who are doing better than they've ever done before, are feeling way more demophobic.

There's a wonderful word that was coined recently: oikophobia. It’s the opposite of xenophobia — it’s fear of people near you, and I think we all have this.

David Frum

And “oik” is a term of British slang, isn't it?

Edward Luce

It's a term of British slang. Oik is like a rube.

David Frum

Let's talk about some of the drivers of the changing of society. I see three. You talk a lot about two, and less about the third.

The first is this giant question about the future of work — what is happening to the economic situation of people who don't own capital or have internationally traded skills.

The second is immigration and ethnic diversity.

And the third, which you allude to at various points but I don't think you address directly, is the gender question. One of the effects of this changing world of work is to devalue the work of men, specifically, and therefore to upset the family bargain, and thus to in a very intimate way change what people expect.

Edward Luce

I think the third, the gender question, is just inseparable from the first, the future of work. As you say, work is feminizing, has been for a long time.

And can I just give a real-time illustration of this? Trump came to victory partly by appealing to the more muscular, blue-collar jobs of old: the coal miners, the steelworkers, etc. America has 77,000 steel jobs left. Some of these are postgraduate degrees. These are highly skilled jobs, but it's a very capital-intensive industry.

David Frum

A way to put that in context: Who knows how many yoga instructors there are? But there are about 75,000 people in the United States who actually have a license from a state licensing board to teach yoga.

Edward Luce

There's just no realistic economic way in which even a dramatically more competitive US steel sector is going to employ more people. It will get more competitive by employing fewer.

Coal, for different reasons with 65,000 people employed, is shrinking. Again, not sure why we would want to preserve jobs that cause black lung disease, and that involve going down mines, and the kinds of atmospheric pollution that miners are subjected to.

Retail employs 15.5 million people, a majority of whom are female. And the retail sector, again because of technological change, is shrinking. We saw just the other day with the Amazon takeover of Whole Foods, another big blow there: a disruption in the retail sector. Retail has lost 100,000 jobs almost since Trump was elected, and not a word about that. No conception of how to retrain and equip those who are likely to be redundant and made obsolete in the retail sector, for how they can be gainfully reemployed.

And again, the kinds of jobs that Amazon is generating, it's a bit like the steel sector. Some of these are really well-paid, great jobs, but there are just fewer of them.

So the future of work is integrally bound up with gender politics. Men are just used to more, and they are used to having higher expectations and venting their spleen when those expectations aren't met. I think that is part of the reason why Trump won, and I also think it's part of the reason he's not addressing the future of work. He's telling fairy tales about bringing back the past of work.

Donald Trump Sign Bill Eliminating Regulations On The Mining Industry
A coal miner shakes hands with Donald Trump.
Photo by Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images

David Frum

We’re moving to a world in which, except at the very top of society, women tend to make more than men, because as you said, the jobs that paid men a lot are vanishing faster than the jobs that pay women something.

This is where I want to separate the “future of work” questions. Is one of the things that is going on, one of the reasons there is so much instability and so many eruptions of casual violence of the terrorist kind in Europe, of the mass shooting kind in the United States, because one of the casualties of this change is a displacement of the role of men who are not at the top of society?

Edward Luce

I think it's a key, key part of it.

What happened in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union was a collapse in morale. There were all these people who'd been pretending to work, as the saying went, and the state pretended to pay them, and that was how it was done. You had status, you had dignity. That model collapsed like a house of cards after 1991.

And it wasn't just the economics of the male Soviet worker that collapsed. With it, the morale, the life expectancy, the propensity to alcoholism, to domestic violence, and to complete social breakdown.

So there is a dignity, a social dignity, gender dimension, to what we talk about very abstractly in sort of economical, statistical terms. I think that is central to what's going on.

And I'll mention one other relevant factoid here, which is that Gallup asks Americans, do you define yourself as lower class, middle class, upper class. It's been asking that question for decades. In 2000, 31 percent of Americans said lower class. And in 2016, at peak Trump, it was up at 49 percent.

A lot of that rise occurred way before Trump came on the scene, and even before Obama did. This is deep, structural, and very profound, and not just an economic problem. It's a gender problem, as you rightly highlight. It's a self-respect problem amongst a large section of the population. But it is driven by men.

David Frum

A lot of social science suggests that as diversity increases, social trust decreases. One of the reasons why the Anglo-American societies may be less successful, or less willing to mobilize state resources in the way you described at the beginning of our talk, is that they've historically been more immigrant societies. Immigration is continuing and accelerating. The deregulation of labor is both a cause and effect of this mass migration, and this is one of the things that seems to have been such a powerful predictor of who would vote for Donald Trump.

On the flip side, race seems to be a factor of who would vote for Jeremy Corbyn, and as you mentioned, younger people voted for Corbyn in huge numbers. But it's not clear that young people voted for Jeremy Corbyn because they are young, or whether nonwhites in Britain voted for Jeremy Corbyn heavily and nonwhites happened to be more young, but they may still be voting that same way when they are less young.

How do we respond to this, and how should we think about it? One last sentence about that: There's a tendency on the liberal side in commenting on the social forces that bring the Donald Trumps to power, and that seem to drive Brexits, seem to drive the National Front in France to say, if a populist nationalist is upset because his wages have been cut, that's okay, that's legitimate. I mean, we don't agree with him, with his solutions, but we at least respect his motivations.

If, however, they’re doing this because they don't like the cultural changes that are happening to their society, because they don't like the fact that suddenly their kids are in a school where not everyone speaks their own language, that's not legitimate, and that must be squashed and suppressed.

Edward Luce

The uncanny coincidence is that 13 percent of people residing in Britain are foreign-born, and 13 percent of people residing in America are foreign-born, and in both cases, this is peak. In both cases, it's been really surging in the last 15, 20 years. Of course, it's slowed dramatically in America over the last four years or so, but there's I think a delayed reaction effect.

Objectively speaking, I don't think there is downward pressure on wages from immigration, including undocumented migrants, and I just want to state that upfront. I know that's not your question, but objectively speaking, the data actually points to quite dramatic boosts to aggregate income. Quite apart from the fact, as you mentioned that they're also demographically younger, and therefore that's additive to growth, because the labor force increases.

So what I think the surge in immigration has done economically is it's coincided with a reduction of public benefits to people in both countries, simultaneous with a widening of access to them. I think what Trump very, very cleverly caught on to was that this upsets people's sense of fairness. That there is an invisible social compact that says, you've not just been living here — you've been paying into Social Security, or the British National Insurance system. You've been paying in, and then along come these people, and we don't even check their papers. They don't even speak our language.

So although I would argue there is an element of scapegoating here, and there's some really quite diabolically effective politics around it, it's not a figment of people's imagination, and I think there can be nothing more enraging than the Aspen, Tribeca, Hampstead types telling them the economic statistics with which I began this answer. They know that the Aspen types are employing all these people to clean their swimming pools, and to drive them, and to deliver wonderful food at the last minute if they're having a dinner party.

So the hypocrisy that's bound up with this is I think something that Trump also exploited very, very well. But it's there, and it's a very salient fact of both countries, of both America and Britain.

The Supreme Court Hearing Of The Government's Brexit Ruling Challenge Enters It's Final Day
Pro-EU demonstrators protest outside the Supreme Court in London on December 8, 2016.
Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

The solutions (?)

David Frum

Suppose one were a policy minimalist. Now, as a conservative-minded person, you want to reassert the stability of your society. You want to defend liberal democracy and say, "Mr. Luce, you've adumbrated vast social changes beyond anybody's control, beyond even our understanding. We don't know what the effect of robotics and artificial intelligence is, but in the next 18 months we could meet a lot of the concerns you point out by doing just a few things.”

What if we had a somewhat thicker social insurance system? A cut, or pause in immigration, and a somewhat less dynamic labor market, with rather more staid, enforced, implicit contracts, so that it was harder to fire people at will, and that work was a little bit more predictable.

Would that solve 80 percent of what you're talking about?

Edward Luce

It might provide an effective Band-Aid in the short term.

David Frum

Why isn't it more than that?

Edward Luce

I don't think that slowing down the rate of change is going to satisfy people. I think that people out there who have left the labor force are feeling useless. They feel unvalued, unwanted, and that's a far deeper feeling than loss of income, and the statistics back this up. If you've been out of the labor force for more than six months, your income doesn't change in month seven, but your propensity, your vulnerability to all the sorts of dismaying social indicators we were talking about, just start skyrocketing, and we see the opioid numbers.

So for that reason, let me sort of take your policy recommendations for the next 18 months —

David Frum

They're not necessarily mine. My hypothetical, couldn't this work?

Edward Luce

So let me package them as universal basic income.

David Frum

No, no, no. I didn't say that. Universal income is money for free. It means no work, for free.

I’m talking about three things.

Thicker social insurance, so less fear.

Less dynamic labor markets, with a view to actually having more stable employment rather than maximizing aggregate output as your top goal. Basically what unions used to do, but in a world without unions.

And less immigration. Do those three things. How close are we to a solution?

Edward Luce

I think you could be very close to a short-term political solution, at the expense of everybody's long-term viability, which of course is the union problem in the first place. It's why Chicago is close to bankruptcy and Greece in difficulties.

You're not asking me whether this is likely to be put in to practice. You're asking me what would happen if it was put in practice.

I think you're right. I think there would be a growth/stability trade-off —

David Frum

How sustainable do you think that would be?

Edward Luce

Not sustainable.

David Frum

Why not?

Edward Luce

Because dynamism goes everywhere. Water will find a channel.

The technology revolution cannot be stopped in America. It might have started in America. The cutting edge is coming from America. But it's not going to be stopped in America. Look at what China is doing with new technologies.

“There's no Hunger Games that ends well”

David Frum

We talked earlier about the role of elite demophobia as you called it, oikophobia as you called it. The book bears on its cover an endorsement from Larry Summers, and on its back are others of the great and good. This is not written for the talk radio audience. It is written for the Davos inhabitants whom you scorn on the inside of the book.

What is the summons to the people who are doing well in the present dispensation here? What do you think are their responsibilities? How do you persuade them to think in a larger, longer-term way than they seem to be doing right now?

Edward Luce

I totally agree with the supposition of your question, and I've thought about this. I've thought about the fact, well who's my book going to be read by? Who's the Financial Times read by? It's not typically read by the left-behinds. The same goes for Vox and the Atlantic.

But actually, this is the relevant market, and my book is written for what I think are still — in spite of everything that has happened — the complacent elites in our society. One of the pieces of evidence of their complacency is this tendency to talk about the other half as deplorable, and to mark them off. This is not a sign of thinking. It is not a sign of addressing what I think are addressable problems.

So what would I recommend for converting elites to the point of view I'm trying to argue?

To recognize that if you live, as we increasingly do, in a sort of modern-day Versailles, eventually that palace gets burnt down. You cannot wall yourself off from the people in society. There's no Hunger Games that ends well.

And to recognize that your wealth comes from society. It has a social basis, however individually talented you are. You would not be wealthy if it weren't for society. You can fantasize about living in gated communities that have robots as security guards, and drones delivering your goods, and, you know, no humans actually employed. But they're still there, and they're going to make life difficult for you. You're not going to be sleeping well at night.

That's the scare-the-kids version. The better way of putting that is to appeal to people's enlightened self-interest. I continue to believe America is a country that can lead the world in enlightened self-interest. Take the Marshall Plan: America is the country that coined the term pragmatism. That's an American philosophy. I don't think it's dead, but I think it's not something the elites are as familiar with as they should be, and must be.

David Frum

One of the things that distinguishes England and America versus the others is that we have the most polarized political systems, where the kind of appealed, enlightened self-interest that you described founders on the lack of consensus among the people to whom that appeal is directed. There's a collective action problem.

Paul Ryan would say, "I agree with you. I agree with you, and that's why we need to implement the Paul Ryan agenda." And the Hillary Clinton types would say, they'd agree with you even more enthusiastically, and that's why you should implement the 42-point program you so amusingly describe in the book. But they won't work together. They won't make compromises.

Of course, as between the Corbyn Labour Party and the Theresa May Conservative Party, compromise is even more unthinkable.

The State Opening Of Parliament 2017
Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn walk after listening to the Queen's Speech during the state opening of Parliament on June 21, 2017.
Photo by Niklas Halle'n - WPA Pool/Getty Images

Edward Luce

I'd just say two things. One is time is a great educator. I found the recent Iranian elections fascinating. A few years back they had Ahmadinejad, a populist, right-wing, clownish Iranian president. And they're not going back there; they've got recent memory of this. I doubt a Berlusconi would do well in Italy at this point.

So I think we are going to watch the Trump years, and God knows what damage it could do in the meantime, but I don't think we're going to seek the next Trump when Trump walks off the stage. So I don't have a programmatic solution to overcome polarization, except the native sort of wit of humans to learn from experience.

And that is my shorter-term source of optimism, is that we're adjusting to this quicker than we think, and than we know. We're reading non-alternative facts. Newspapers are booming. There is an awakening of interest in what the hell is going on, and why. That actually, to me, is a source of optimism. It is not a plan for overcoming polarization, though. I don't have one.

David Frum

And, well, neither do I!

David Frum is a senior editor at the Atlantic. He is the author of eight books; his ninth, Trumpocracy, will be published by HarperCollins in 2018. In 2001-2002, Frum served as a speechwriter to President George W. Bush.

Edward Luce is the Financial Times's Washington columnist and commentator. Prior to that, he was its Washington bureau chief. He has also served as New Delhi bureau chief and capital markets editor. Between 1999 and 2001, he was a speechwriter for Lawrence Summers, US Treasury secretary. His previous book, Time to Start Thinking: America and the Spectre of Decline, was published in 2011.