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A concrete vision of the liberal democratic future
The free societies must once again show what kind of world they want to build.
The other day, I saw a very interesting interview segment with the investor and conservative political activist Peter Thiel. In it, he says that the future has to be a tangible thing in order for people to embrace it, and that — as things stand right now — the only tangible futures that have been put forward are Chinese techno-totalitarianism, Islamism, and West Europe style environmentalism:
Now, I disagree with Thiel on a couple of major points here, which I’ll get to in a bit. But the basic idea is compelling. The point that our vision of the future must be concrete and tangible, rather than vague and abstract, is also the thesis of Brad DeLong and Stephen S. Cohen’s excellent book Concrete Economics. And in the similarly excellent book Freedom’s Forge, Arthur Herman described how New Deal America, with its progressive vision of industrialist prosperity and democracy, provided a compelling alternative to the futures offered by fascism and communism.
Thiel wants the “conservative or libertarian side” to offer its own competing vision. In fact, I think that’s a good idea; too many people on the right look backward, to sanitized images of 1950s backyard barbecues and housewives in heels, and they could afford to think more about the future. But personally, the ideology I want to triumph is liberal democracy — not too different from what the New Dealers envisioned. And I worry that in recent decades, liberal democracy has defined itself too much in terms of what it’s against, without offering a picture of what kind of world it wants to build. There are some promising pieces of that picture, but nothing yet that’s nearly as comprehensive as I’d like.
But first, let’s talk about the alternative visions Thiel mentions.
Islamism, environmentalism, and Chinese techno-totalitarianism
Islamism seemed like a major competitor to liberal democracy in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. In fact, the book Jihad vs. McWorld had come out five years earlier, and the Iranian Revolution and was already more than two decades old. The vision was of radical Islam as the ultimate paragon of all that was parochial and traditional — a backlash against the sexualized, globalized, materialistic, post-national consumerism that America had offered up in the wake of the Cold War. And the series of wars in the Middle East that began after 9/11 and intensified after the Arab Spring gave Islamists a chance to implement their vision in the chaos of regime collapse.
But Islamism generally failed. The Shia flavor of Islamism, represented by the Iranian regime, steadily turned Iranians off of religion and eventually led to the massive anti-regime protests of recent years. And although the Sunni flavor managed to take over Afghanistan, it was continuously roiled by the emergence of ever-more-extreme factions. Al-Qaeda and ISIS, the apotheosis of hardline medievalist Islamism, never really managed to gain much territory or win any widespread popular support. ISIS’ would-be caliphate did clearly demonstrate and embody an Islamist future, except no one wanted it, and ISIS collapsed. Meanwhile, the Taliban themselves are fighting more radical Islamist groups who want to overthrow them. Keen observers of the Muslim world, like Murtaza Hussain, argue that Islamism is becoming a spent force, and it seems hard to disagree.
How about radical environmentalism? Here, I think Thiel is envisioning some sort of mashup of degrowth ideology and over-regulated Eurosclerosis. But when it comes to the major environmental threat we face — climate change — the solution will be the opposite of degrowth. The price of renewable technologies (solar, wind, batteries, and electrolyzers) has come down so far, so fast, that decarbonizing our economy will actually lead to increased profits, increased growth, and abundant energy. Of course the government will help this transition along, but thanks to learning curves, this will only make energy cheaper and decarbonization more profitable. Given that growth, profit, and decarbonization are now aligned, it seems unlikely that even European countries will embrace the voluntary impoverishment of a faux-green neo-pastoralist future.
That leaves Chinese techno-totalitarianism. There is no doubt that China is actively working on some approximation of Big Brother. Zero Covid has served as an excuse to accelerate the transition. And emerging technologies — AI to analyze surveillance data, social media that records everything you do online, cell phones that track your movement, miniaturized cameras and sensors, etc. — have made this sort of state a lot more technologically feasible. In fact, about two years ago I wrote a post outlining the terrifying scenario of a world in which only this sort of massive top-down social control can maintain a society in the face of constant social-media-driven protests and disruptions:
When combined with China’s drive for a manufacturing-centric economy, this does present a coherent and compelling vision of the future. It’s a future where everyone drives on a massive highway, rides a bullet-train, lives in a superblock high-rise, carries the latest cell phone, whose life is constantly and minutely surveilled by the entire built environment around them, and whose speech and actions are controlled and rectified by the government and its machines. A world where individual choice and voice are exchanged for order, moderate prosperity, and (at least in China’s case) national greatness. It’s a quintessentially 20th-century vision with 21st century technology.
I personally doubt that people in general will embrace this vision of the future — even in China. But the fact that this vision is still attractive to many people, and has not yet been conclusively proven non-viable, underscores the importance of presenting a liberal democratic alternative.
Part 1: E Pluribus Unum
“I don't see much future for the Americans…it's a decayed country. And they have their racial problem, and the problem of social inequalities…half Judaised, and the other half negrified. How can one expect a State like that to hold together?” — Hitler
The biggest reason that a liberal democratic vision hasn’t emerged, I think, is that the democratic world is deeply divided. By the late 1930s, the U.S. had mostly quieted down — or at least, papered over — many of the conflicts of the turbulent 1910s and 1920s. The Roosevelt administration, enjoying a broad popular mandate, sought to unite the entire country with an inclusive agenda in which the Depression was the only enemy. In contrast, the U.S. is now only just starting to recover from the social ructions and turbulence of the 2010s, and a disputed election in 2024 might kill even that fragile healing process. Liberals and conservatives are at each other’s throats, and this makes it harder to present a united vision of liberal democracy that can compete with the dark visions being put out by the New Axis.
Liberals in the democratic nations have spent much of their time rebelling against the (real or perceived) injustices of their societies. But one concrete vision of the future they’ve offered is diversity. Increased media representation of minorities — racial, gender, and others — has been one of the main animating liberal causes over the past decade. In many cases, this has had explicitly patriotic overtones, such as the musical Hamilton, or the singer Lizzo playing James Madison’s crystal flute:
Liberal diversity should thus not be seen simply as a fight for representation, but as a way of redefining nationalism to be more inclusive. Many people believe that a nation belongs to its “founding stock” — to people descended, or at least racially similar, to its founders. Liberal nationalism rejects this idea, and consciously tries to transfer ownership of the nation’s culture, institutions, and national mythology to a more diverse set of inheritors. This was even part of the idea behind the 1619 Project.
This isn’t a new idea, either — the idea of crafting a unified national identity out of people of diverse backgrounds was part of New Deal liberalism as well. Check out the song “Ballad for Americans”, written in 1939 and sung at multiple political conventions (including the Republican convention). Go to 7:51 in the song to see what I’m talking about:
In FDR’s America, this effort would have come from the top down, and carried the force of the New Deal’s popularity, the President’s electoral mandate, and — eventually — the patriotism of WW2. Today, however, this attempt at broadening the core American polity has been hotly contested — Hamilton is hated by conservatives, Lizzo’s flute-playing has ignited a culture-war debate, and the 1619 Project is of course wildly controversial. And these divisions have been exploited adroitly by our illiberal enemies, as when Vladimir Putin cynically accuses America of racist colonialism while simultaneously railing against trans people and atheists.
But somehow, diversity is going to have to be part of the vision that liberal democracy sells to the world, because America is simply a very diverse place, and other democracies — even in East Asia — are increasingly diverse as well. If we can’t put together a functioning, unified nation out of a disparate array of races, religions, national origins, etc., then our country is destined for failure. Fortunately, I believe we can do it, and that the successes of the 20th century — though certainly incomplete — offer reasons for optimism.
Part 2: Better cities, better suburbs
The second concrete vision that liberals have started to offer is urbanism. Many of the world’s liberal democracies — Japan, the Netherlands, Taiwan, Germany — have some of the world’s nicest big cities, as well as surprisingly livable but dense suburbs. Tokyo, Taipei, and Seoul are much nicer places to live than Shanghai, Shenzhen, or Chengdu. As for the U.S., our sprawling car-centric suburban development pattern isn’t ideal from an environmental or maintenance cost standpoint, but it also has many elements that people like (as evidenced by the fact that Americans keep moving to the ‘burbs and foreigners keep moving to America).
Now, a bunch of American urbanists are trying to create a new vision for what the cities of the future will look like. I wrote about some of these attempts in a post last year:
These urbanists don’t want to turn the whole world into Manhattan, or even Amsterdam. Instead, their visions are of somewhat-built-up suburbs that offer more transit options (trains, buses, e-bikes), are more environmentally friendly, and combine multi-family housing with single-family housing. The person I know who has done the best job of drawing pictures of what this might look like is the architect and artist Alfred Twu:
In other words, liberal democracies can already sell two types of urbanism that appeal to people in developing nations, or in authoritarian countries like China and Russia. But now we’re adding a third type, which may be the best of all: densified green suburbs.
Part 3: The BTS Army and the They/Them Army
If there’s one thing you can’t do in the techno-totalitarian Chinese future, it’s express yourself. During the Cold War, the desire of people in the communist bloc to express their individuality — entangled with a desire for Western higher standards of living — manifested as a love of blue jeans and rock & roll. Today rock isn’t as popular and blue jeans are accompanied by a wider variety of trouser options, but the principle is the same — pop culture is a stand-in for the freedom of speech that people in liberal democracies enjoy.
Part of this will come from America’s continued export of hip-hop music. But part of it will come from our liberal democratic allies, especially South Korea and Japan, which have become cultural superpowers in the last few decades:
China’s government feels so threatened by K-pop and Korean dramas that it’s blocking them on streaming media and cracking down on fan clubs. It also restricts Japanese video games that it feels will endear its citizens to Japanese culture. And Kpop fans themselves, especially the “BTS Army”, often engage in liberal activism.
The fact that China’s leaders are so scared of Korean and Japanese pop culture is a signal that this pop culture is part of a liberal democratic vision of the future — just as rock & roll and blue jeans were part of that vision in the Cold War, and jazz in WW2. Korean and Japanese pop culture suggest a world where people can say what they want, look how they want, and be who they want — a core benefit of liberal democracy.
And it would be remiss not to point out that part of the way young people around the world yearn to express their individuality is through gender. Whether this is done more by bending gender roles (as is common in Japan) or by recognizing new genders (as is common in America), this is definitely threatening to the leaders of the illiberal powers. Vladimir Putin denounced the West for allowing people to be trans, while China banned effeminate men on TV.
In fact, much of the rhetoric and posturing around the Ukraine War has involved Russia and its supporters derisively labeling Ukraine’s armed forces and those of NATO as a “they/them army”, and claiming that Russia will win because it hews to traditional masculinity. Military historian Phillips P. O’Brien has written about how this is going:
The success of the Ukrainian military over the past few months, along with the evolution of the Ukrainian state itself toward a more tolerant, more liberal norm, reveals what makes a better army in the modern world. Brains mean more than brawn, and adaptability means more than mindless aggression. Openness to new ideas and new equipment, along with the ability to learn quickly, is far more important than a simple desire to kill…
Just as the ability to absorb information is better than lunkhead hypermasculinity in a modern army, diversity and societal integration also bring major advantages. As Ukraine has become more diverse and tolerant, its army has benefited. In contrast with Putin’s homophobic military, the Ukrainian armed forces include LGBTQ soldiers who have incorporated “unicorn” insignia into their uniforms. The valor of these soldiers, and the rallying of the Ukrainian people around a vision of a tolerant and diverse society, have led to an overall increase in Ukrainian support for gay rights—and it underscores the belief that everyone has a role to play in the country’s defense.
Conservatives don’t like this sort of liberal culture, but an embrace of this variety of self-expression has become one of the visions that liberal democracies are starting to sell to the world.
Finishing the Puzzle
But I still don’t feel that the piecemeal visions outlined above are sufficient. Liberal democracy’s vision needs two more visions.
The first is a bigger picture of the economic future that liberal democracies are offering. In the World’s Fair in 1940, this vision was obvious — everyone gets a car, anyone gets to start their own business, everyone’s labor gets valued and respected by their employer. Now, however, there’s much more uncertainty about what material benefits the citizens of liberal democracies will enjoy in the future. Urbanism is a start, and an important start, but we need more. Will free enterprise be prized and supported? Will regular workers have good pay and good working conditions? Will we be able to live lavish middle-class developed-country lifestyles and still protect the environment? Will the new technologies invented by liberal democracies enrich regular people instead of threatening them?
I believe the answer to all of these can be, and should be, “yes”. But so far the Abundance Agenda is still just a talking point and a collection of op-eds, while no one is really presenting a coherent future vision of either good jobs or entrepreneurship. The titans of industry have to do their part here, presenting more concrete visions of the future they’re going to sell. The attempt to bring back the World’s Fair (which gave me the art at the top of this post) is a good start, but this is the digital age, and we need a World’s Fair equivalent that can be piped directly to everyone’s TikTok and YouTube and Instagram accounts. And economists and economics pundits need to figure out articulate a vision for the future of labor and entrepreneurship, and do it quickly.
The final thing that the liberal democratic vision needs is a way to accommodate conservatives. The divisions within the democratic world are the primary reason why the autocratic powers are able to make their case at all. But a great many people within any society, including liberal democratic ones, are socially conservative to a greater or lesser degree. If the vision of the future that liberal democracies present is one where conservative values have been wiped from the Earth, then conservatives will feel they have no choice but to embrace reactionary illiberalism. Indeed, Tucker Carlson’s metamorphosis into a shill for the Kremlin is a harbinger of things to come.
To say that ensuring a place for conservatives in a liberal future is “difficult” would be the understatement of the year. Even if the unrest of the 2010s is beginning to ebb, abortion bans and fights over trans rights show that the culture wars won’t be swept under the rug. The rise in the salience of cultural issues since FDR’s day makes it difficult to imagine that we can table those conflicts while we address economic and geopolitical challenges.
So I don’t really have all the answers here. Key pieces of the liberal democratic future vision remain to be filled in, and doing so will be a difficult and fraught process. Not everyone will be happy with the result, either. But it’s something we need to do, or we will leave the future to the people with darker, more dramatic visions that are sure to lead to nowhere good.