A young writer in Australia recently sent me an essay that ended with an arresting sentence: “I am twenty-seven years old and hope to live to see the end of the twentieth century.” I sympathize. We have reached a series of dead ends in the West. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Americans thought the world stage had been cleared for our benevolent power to lift others to the broad, sunlit uplands of liberal democracy and free-market prosperity. The European Union moved from strength to strength, heralding an era of international cooperation and soft power. But the hoped-for utopias have not come about, and what we once thought the ideal and even inevitable future now brings frustration, disgruntlement, and incipient rebellion, not just from non-Western forces that resist our triumphalism, but within our own countries and among our own people. For good and for ill, the last century is finally ending.
One sure sign is the eclipse of the classic structure of modern Western politics. Since the Industrial Revolution, the fault line running through partisan politics has been the diverging interests of labor and capital. This is no longer the case. In Europe, establishment parties on the left and right frequently cooperate to fend off anti-establishment challengers—not always successfully, as recent votes for Brexit and against Italian constitutional reform indicate. The American constitutional system stands in the way of coalition governments, but our last presidential election featured an anti-Trump consensus among elites that transcended traditional left vs. right distinctions—here, too, the establishment consensus failed to carry the day. The wheel of history seems to be turning.
In this changing political environment, the central and divisive issue is almost always the role and future of the nation. Will we enter into the shining future of a prosperous, globalized world without borders, managed by experts and guided by the high ideals of human rights? Or will we return to the dark days of racism, nationalism, war, and concentration camps?
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