In the meantime here is a long-form Q & A on the book, its main themes, and why I wrote it.
Q. Why did you decide to write this book?
We lack a serious history of the western democracies that brings the story of the past century up to the present. This was my first motivation. Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes, Mark Mazower’s Dark Continent, and Tony Judt’s Postwar, are all remarkable works of big picture history. Each provided a model of sorts. But even the most recent of those books (Postwar) was written in 2005 and only properly covered events up to the early 1990s: at which point Judt probably felt on safe ground placing his chips, as he does at the end of that book, on the renewal of social democracy. From the perspective of today’s welter of crises, that already seems a rather dated view.
I had also been teaching a class on the contemporary post-9/11 world to my students since 2010 and it struck me that another type of history would have to be written: one that reckoned with liberal democracy’s flaws as well as its achievements (how else could you account for something like Guantanamo Bay?) and that was resolutely trans-national in focus (how else to account for the profound significance of globalization). This is something a geographer like myself is well equipped to contribute to the standard toolkit of historical writing.
Q. Why did you take on such a broad sweep of time and territory, both geographical and intellectual?
I never set out to. When I started the book, in 2011, very few people were interested in talking about “democracy”: it was assumed that democracy was just a fixed part of modern western life. The day I really began to think about it in earnest was the day my wife and I returned to Oslo from our honeymoon (which was great: Greece, Italy, Spain – an Alfa Romeo Spider). Driving back from the airport a large plume of smoke could be seen rising up from downtown Oslo, which is lower than the approach. We returned home to the unfolding horror of Anders Behring Breivik’s act of murder and terror. A week later I was among the first journalists to travel out to the island where he had massacred 69 youths at a summer camp. It left me in no doubt that this book had to tell the full story of how this could come to be: not Breivik himself, per se, but what had become of liberalism and its democratic values (its moeurs as Tocqueville would say).
At that point I had the book largely marked up in my mind as a geopolitical story: “what happened to the dreams of 1989?” et cetera. But the scope of the enquiry soon spread to cover political economy and social trends too. In part it simply had to. The change was prompted as well by my having moved to Norway from the UK, from which vantage point it also struck me just how different countries within “the West” actually are. This needed to be accounted for, and above all the story needed to be told as a singular historical narrative. The relationship between the ideas which drive history forward, and the institutions and individuals through which those ideas get articulated, could never be made sufficiently concrete otherwise. All that remained was to identify the relevant starting point. And while to begin with I had assumed, as I think we all do, that 1989 was the obvious place to begin, it soon became apparent that the changes to have most profoundly shaped the western experience in our lifetimes set in somewhat earlier; at the start of the 1970s. That was when the post-war Golden Age came to an end and our own era began.
Q. Why do you see the late 1960s and early 1970s as such a key turning point? What were the main features of the postwar democratic consensus, and how did it begin to unravel during that time?
One of the main arguments I try to convey in this book is that an awful lot can change in society short of actual wars and revolutions. That’s one reason I resist the whole notion that a single date can ever satisfactorily constitute a broad-spectrum turning point. Much continues, and what changes in part depends both on who you are and where you stand. That being said, the early 1970s provided something of a set of major changes in the basic political structure of western society. Briefly put, a slew of macro-level changes converged: domestically the western liberal democracies (by which I mean the transatlantic world, including Canada, and the antipodes primarily) were experiencing profound social and political upheaval. The postwar era had run adrift. Then came a profound economic crisis (fixed in popular memory on the oil shock but ultimately, and more importantly, involving the breakup of the Bretton Woods international monetary regime). This was compounded, in turn, by a rather sudden stop in the productivity growth that had for long ‘put the glow on the Golden Age’, as one commentator has put it. Then came a rupture in the Cold War geo-political order in the form of Détente, the fallout from Vietnam, and the rise of movements like Eurocommunism on the Continent. In other words, it was a period of quite radical political openness (rather like the current moment): and this provided the starting gun for a widespread series of changes to take shape. There was no singular architect behind any of this. But the consequences are no less dramatic for it.
Q. What happened between the early 1970s and the end of the Cold War with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989? How did the liberal democratic order begin to be reconfigured during that time?
The story plays out a little differently in each country. To begin with, of course, it seems that the liberal democratic order is doing well in the early 1970s: as Europe’s last remaining fascist and authoritarian regimes (in Portugal, Spain and Greece) return to the liberal democratic fold. But laced into the headline events (Reagan’s triumph over Carter say) a number of more pervasive changes set in. Human rights come of age, for example, underpinning a wider turn to the individual as the primary unit of political society; governments simultaneously begin to cede some of their (moral) responsibilities to NGOs on the one hand and some their (governance) responsibilities to international organisations on the other; international finance grows exponentially and becomes a major force to be reckoned with; credit (including the first MasterCard) becomes a feature of how we organize our lives; the western working class falls apart as a political (though not social) force at the same time as a new trans-national elite emerges; politics becomes less and less about mass movements and the public sphere and minorities and elites alike respond by turning their attention to the courts: a judicialization of politics ensues. Most basically, freedom comes to be prioritized over equality: as recent economic works by the likes of Thomas Piketty have shown, the early 1970s was when inequality first began to creep back up in the western world, after several decades of decline. The consequences of this are unavoidable today: but one of the things my book tries to show is that the growing disenfranchisement of those at the bottom of the pile has been there all along – they have been voiceless spectres at an otherwise comfortable feast and it is time they were brought back into history.
Q. What were the major events between the end of the Cold War and the end of the twentieth century, as the Western democracies sought to reboot the economic prosperity of the earlier post-war era?
Arguably the most important development of these years was not an ‘event’ at all, but the hubris by which we in the West assumed communism’s fall to be a victory for a very specific form of liberal democracy in its new, post-70s guise. It wasn’t, but we acted as if it was. The early 1990s thus did not see democracy exported to the East so much as capitalism being exported there: Russia being a case in point. And yet those same countries were judged by the standards of their democratic ‘progress’ all the same. Those years also saw the failure of Gorbachev’s efforts at social democratic renewal in the USSR prior to 1991: he was thwarted in delivering that programme by the West as much as by his enemies at home, and it was this that ultimately lay the groundwork for the rise of Putin a decade later.
Of course, there are good reasons most of us have forgotten all of this: the early post-Cold War years were when the first Gulf War focused our attention on Iraq and the two Germanies became one country again: two hugely important stories in light of each nation’s past, and the rest of the western world’s future. These were the years of the so-called Clinton Boom, when the rise of the New Democrats in America and of the Third Way in Europe held out the promise that the old Left-Right divide was now a thing of the past. The 1990s were also the heyday of late 20thcentury globalization: when the world was coming together so quickly that it even seemed ‘flat’ to some commentators. They were when the modern European Union was born at Maastricht, bringing some nations closer together even as others broke apart violently in the former Yugoslavia. Culturally the 1990s might be remembered with a certain justification as a decade of little importance; politically they are anything but. The roots of America’s current polarization began, after all, in the mid terms of 1994 and Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America.
Q. How did two critical events just after the turn of the millennium—the terrorist attacks of 2001 on the United States and the Great Recession—contribute to the crisis of democracy that we are seeing today throughout the Western world?
There is a certain element of serendipity here of course (you may by now have noticed I really do NOT like determinative histories that simplify everything into one causal explanation). But they did have an effect, and that was to accelerate some of the developments already underway. Both are such major events, however, that they seem to have sucked all explanation into them like a black hole: as if they could not also have importance alongside other developments, or in relationship to each other. That is what my narrative adds. Of course, both appeared at the time – the Twin Towers most obviously, but the collapse of Lehman’s too – as bolts from the blue. But each was decades in the making, and both are properly speaking products of the geopolitical and political-economic changes of this longer post-70s era that I write about. It was also ultimately the responseto 9/11 in the West, and the United States in particular, that proved more transformative than the event itself. Long-cherished civil liberties were struck down and multiculturalism began to fray. Public spaces were boarded up. We can acknowledge all this without denying the tragedy of the event itself.
The huge costs of running the war on terror, and the vast security infrastructure it gave rise to, were among the economic pressures leading to the financial crisis of 2007/8 (think of all those bollarded downtown areas), along with the near total de-coupling of international finance from the tapestry of national regulatory structures that was supposed to exercise oversight. Ultimately the full force of the two events is seen together, therefore. Because to a fraying multicultural consensus after 2001 was then further added, after 2008, a biting austerity that further ignited social tensions across the western democracies. Anti-immigrant parties, like Australia’s One Nation, or France’s National Front, might have been products of the 1990s (again!) but now they had a constituency that was growing. We’re living the consequences of all this very directly still today.
Q. How has the rise of globalization and immensely powerful private financial institutions—facilitated by neoliberal ideology—weakened the foundations of democracy?
Of course, the financial crisis is the most concrete example of this. Billions of dollars of public money were required to ‘fix’ the global financial system (or at least hold it together). And the costs of that, as Adam Tooze has shown in his masterful history of the financial crisis, Crashed, but as I also explore in Empire of Democracy, were further rips in the social fabric. In America many homeowners lost the roof over their heads; yet the banks were ‘bailed out’ as one bubble (in mortgages) was laid to rest and others (in assets) built up in its place. This was one of a series of factors that have contributed to declining levels of public trust in institutions and governments alike. But the ideology of neoliberalism, as you refer to it, ultimately predates the financial crisis, as does its impact upon the foundations of democracy. Neoliberalism, of course, is a strand of liberal political thinking whose roots lie in the interwar period of the early 20thcentury. But neoliberalism, as a governmental rationality, made a profound comeback amidst the upheavals of the 1970s, at which point one of the primary concerns among western political elites was precisely about there being too much democracy (there were influential reports written on precisely this topic by the likes of Samuel Huntington).
The 70s was a fear-ridden era, not all that unlike our own. At the time governments were genuinely concerned that ‘people’ would run their own countries into the ground by demanding too much in the form of wages (there was a major recession, recall). The appeal of neoliberalism was thus precisely that it insisted on the need to insulate the market from such democratic pressures. It was an earlier version of some of the same arguments we hear today about “populism” (though as I show in the book there are crucial differences as well). Above all, what neoliberalism promised was a rejection of the Keynesian idea that governments may at times be required to correct market activity and a correlative demand for creating smaller ‘social’ states in place of the ‘big state’ of old (welfare payments were growing and in the context of recession had come to be seen as liabilities). The result of this struggle was an historic victory for capital over labor in the course of the 1970s and 1980s: it being decided that wages not profits would be squeezed to save the system – the effects of which, people in deindustrialized parts of the west have been living with for years. Right up to the present neoliberalism has done pervasive harm to western democracy by contributing to the idea that political discipline in the name of free markets is more important than political discipline in the name of positive social outcomes, such as equality. The damage that is done to democracy has thus been a long and gnawing process and we shall have to work hard for many years to reverse it.
Q. Why are many people across the Western world simultaneously losing faith in democracy and feeling less of a sense of personal obligation to their societies?
They are resentful. I’ve already mentioned some of the pressures that have forced governments to act in ways that accord with what market actors (corporations, say) want, rather than in accordance with what individual citizens want (or need). But there are other factors too. When people consistently see that their voice is not being heard they tend to do two things. First, they lose faith in public institutions, setting up a vicious cycle whereby the one thing people need is the one thing they are losing most quickly of all: trust. Second, their resentment at this sooner or later turns into frustration and then anger. At this point they search for something or someone to blame: and if politicians are in office prepared to deflect their frustrations on to vulnerable groups then we end up with just the sort of outbursts that have characterized the US social and political landscape of the past few years (and, it pains me to point out, that also characterized Europe in the interwar period).
Q. Many people see similarities in the period between the two world wars and our own time, with a declining faith in democracy and the rise of authoritarian populist movements characterizing both eras. Are they correct?
It depends what sort of comparison they are trying to make. As I have alluded to above, the similarities of the two moments are not inconsiderable: economic crisis, political polarization, the rise of public anger and ‘mass’ movements taking to the streets. But the sources of interwar fascism are quite distinct to the problems of our own time, and the attendant crises of democracy in each era perforce resolve in different ways. Moreover, the rebuilding of democracy in the aftermath of the Second World War was not without value. What Germans call streitbare Demokratie– “militant democracy”, literally speaking, which means such things today as “no platforming” (putting your foot down to protect democratic principles) – was one of only several institutional reforms intended to make democracy more “resilient”. Many of these were also given legal bite by writing them in to constitutions, ensuring democracy was never as vulnerable to legislative gerrymandering, such as “emergency decrees”, as it was in Weimar Germany. Post-9/11 legislation has undone some of this of course.
What does all this mean? It means that our modern democracies are today incredibly sophisticated entities if only we are prepared to make full use of them. And yet some problems do seem relatively common. For example, citizens in Europe and America alike have been encouraged to believe that modern life is notfundamentally ‘political’, and that we can somehow do away with overt struggles and awkward public debates in favour of the exercise of privately settled, market-mediated ‘preferences’. This is the downside of basing democracy, practically speaking, on the middle class. Political scientists and development economists always tell us that a strong middle class is the secret to success, but one of its problem, from a structural point of view, is the stasis and value it accords to quiet, private lives. Private space and the freedoms of the individual are hugely important: but protecting them does not justify complete non-engagement. One simply cannot be an individual outside of society – Thatcher was wrong in claiming one could. The result of several decades believing that you can operate apart from society and the public freedoms it bestows is that we are not very good acting as activedemocratic citizens any more. At least part of the impetus to writing this book was to provide a basic education in re-learning this fact. And perhaps I needn’t worry. Seen more positively, the populist surge onto the streets of recent years is symptomatic of a wider collective awakening here; though I do not, by any means, think it is the solution. It is a sign, rather, that people are reaching once more for the language of active citizenship.
Q. You write about Donald Trump as both cause and symptom of democracy’s current problems. What do you see as his impact so far?
The destructive power of Trump is not that he will institute some brand of American fascism. It lies instead with the longer-term effects of his destroying, inter alia, the bases of international cooperation (the Iran deal, North Korea, the Paris Agreement), of his setting backthe clock on the time-critical action we need to be take on the environment, and perhaps more basically still his unignorable status as the worst possible role model for our children. I was in New York the day of the election. I will never forget the sense of shell-shocked despair that descended the morning after. Yet Trump happened for a reason (even if the likes of Hillary, Bernie, and Joe still seem not to have grasped this). Yet the warning signs were there with the Tea Party before him, which the metropolitan elite refused to take seriously: “the Tea Party Death Star”, as Rolling Stone mordantly dubbed it – while overlooking its significance. The warning signs were there before even that with the likes of Pat Buchanan in the 1990s.
Trump’s own impact thus far, I would say, is to have put US democratic institutions through a good deal of “stress testing” and to have given voice to a segment of the population that had been feeling excluded since the beginnings of the post-Cold War heyday of globalization. The real impact of Trump, however, will come with the formation of new political coalitions and their own reimaging of what democracy can be. And Trump is showing that he issufficient threat to inspire such movements. So there are reasons for hope here too. But we will have to wait and see. (Meanwhile, I should add, there are some things – like withdrawing from Afghanistan – that will in the fullness of time quite possibly emerge as positive things from his period in office, if perhaps for all the wrong reasons).
Q. How does Brexit fit into your analysis?
As with Trump my book tries to explain the set of conditions that made Brexit thinkable, and there are so many “hey what’s the deal with Brexit and Trump books” out now that I am happy to take a different approach. It’s hard to say even today whether Brexit was intended, or whether it was all just something that ‘happened’ in a particular moment. Either way it happened for a reason – one that has become more not less apparent since 2016. As I tell it in the book that reason is Britain’s need to come to terms with its post-imperial loss of status and with its post-Thatcherite legacy of class alienation. Both these factors are popularly repressed in British political discourse, yet they give on to, and resurface through, a proxy debate over immigration. Immigration is thus only a problem in the UK to the extent that it has become the language through which we discuss the disenfranchisements, resentments and disappointments that our highly uneven society has carried with it into the twenty-first century. For all the British achievements of a National Health Service and good quality public education it has never managed to create the sense of social unity and purpose that other nations have succeeded in creating.
In such ways Brexit is a probable outcome of the direction British democracy has actually been heading in for years. Yes, Brexit is also about some legitimate concerns with the political institutions of the EU. But it was not about those in the first instance: not least because most people did not know much about those institutions until the famous spike in googling “what is the EU?” the day after the Brexit vote. This is the height of irony. The British are today only belatedly waking up to the fact that the UK was relatively immune from most of the EU’s travails before it voted to leave (the UK has Sterling still, not the Euro, and it enjoyed a whole host of opt outs and special arrangements – not to mention it was in the privileged position of serving as a bridge between Europe and America). Now Britain’s travails make the EU’s look manageable by comparison. Brexit is costing the UK around £350 million a week, which is precisely the saving (for the NHS) we were falsely told we would win back by leaving the EU. Another one of our era’s tragic ironies.
Q. Have some nations handled the challenges of democracy better than others over the past five decades? Where and how?
One of the things I try hard to do in the book is to give full recognition of the individual experience of different countries: this despite the fact that the narrative, as a whole, draws together the most important over-arching trends. Take Spain, for example, which began the period with its own transition to democracy, and which under the direction of the long-dominant Spanish socialists (PSOE) was one of the leading “new” social democracies of the New Europe well into the 1990s. Spain in some senses encapsulated the “third way” social democracy that by the middle decades of the period, had pushed back the earlier conservative wave of the 1970s and 1980s. Or at least it had done so at the level of political parties in power.
Like many of the other ‘new’ social democrats, however, PSOE’s success was not achieved by resisting the increasingly dominant model of Anglo-American neoliberalism (which had by now forced even the likes of Mitterrand in France to follow suit) but by repackaging its forms of market discipline in more socially convivial ways. Spain thus modernized rapidly during the 1990s by encouraging a widespread equality of opportunity funded on the back of a housing boom. Spaniards, like their counterparts in Britain and America, were given as much equality as credit could buy, in effect. When market conditions turned less favourable, into the new millennium, the old distributional struggles returned and the hopes (and limits) of the ‘new’ social democracy became apparent. Each country has its own particularities, then, but they each play out in relation to more fundamental trends.
As to which countries have fared better and why, the answer – at least in terms of metrics such as life expectancy, satisfaction, social protection, working conditions, and living standards – points fairly unambiguously towards the ‘old’ social democracies of Scandinavia and the Nordic regions. There are important achievements to have come out of other nations too here. Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand is a figure most would probably acknowledge as embodying some of these changes. And Canada too has done a reasonable job of combining Anglo- commitments to so-called “negative liberties” (freedoms ‘from’ intrusion, etc.) with continental commitments to “positive liberties” (such as the freedom ‘to’ enjoy quality and affordable healthcare).
Q. What is your outlook on the future of democracy? Are you optimistic, pessimistic, or somewhere in between?
I am optimistic in the short term: I think most of the problems we see today have emerged in the shadows of democratic institutions that were neglected rather than rejected. There are some rather worrying signs at the level of global opinion surveys. More than half of those surveyed in a recent Pew poll said that they were “dissatisfied” with how democracy is working in their country. Clearly we cannot take democracy for granted. At the same time, much of this dissatisfaction boils down to the way in which democratic norms and institutions are failing to respond to current crises: not that they are the wrong norms and institutions with which to counter them.
Q. What signs of democratic renewal do you see at work today?
I see signs of renewal and reform in countries right across the Western world. In the US alone, the impact that something like MeToo is having is historic. The former has put the structural terms of gender inequality (a theme that runs throughout my book) on the front page of newspapers and at the forefront of institutional decision-making. It has done away with the neoliberal elitism of “lean in” feminism and made way for a more inclusive brand of intersectional “new wave” feminism. We are picking up a debate here that began in earnest (as I show) in the early 1970s: and it is high time we did so. On this front, then, there are signs for optimism. But I do worry about what our continued failure to address the extent of inequality that has been perhaps the greatest legacy of this period the book covers, and I worry about whether the renewal of democratic commitments and institutions we are beginning to see around us today will take shape fast enough to address the coming crisis of the next generation: climate change.
Q. How does democracy need to be reinvented now? What are the crucial questions that need to be addressed?
I hope to have a proper answer to this in a future book, but I lay out some of the most important aspects in the epilogue to this one: tackling inequality, recovering public trust in the institutions and offices of government, finding ways to re-ground popular sovereignty (not just people’s “voice” but their actual concerns and views) in representative systems, recognizing that with rights come responsibilities – duties we used to call them – to others. Our most immediate tasks are simpler than all these however. They involve learning how to listen to one another and to care for ourselves as social not just private beings. Being both informed and critical about the past and aware that our own, usually nationally-enframed experience, is only one part of the bigger picture – this is where we need to start. I hope my book offers at least a basic education on each of these fronts.
Q. Where does your title come from? What did de Tocqueville mean by this phrase?
My title comes from Alexis de Tocqueville’s 19th century text, Democracy in America: one of the first and greatest pieces of comparative political sociology, since he was writing about America to inform debates in his native France. Tocqueville writes in that book about what are clearly not just his hopes but also his fears that this “empire” of democracy, as he calls it, is now unstoppably careening towards France and the rest of the world from America. Empire is a fraught word and to be used advisedly, of course. I use the phrase here partly to subvert the idea of what I call “democratic progressivism” – the idea that all developments in the name of democracy are necessarily improvements and in the interests of the greater good (something which anyone familiar with America’s, or even Britain’s imperial political systems in the past, or the racial legacy of those systems in the present would no doubt confirm).
I also use the term empire to signal the trans-national character both of my own narrative, and of the way in which democracy has, in fact, developed in the years since Tocqueville was writing. Democracy is not an unchanging thing. It was a near contemporary of Tocqueville, Benjamin Constant, who first drew attention to the very great differences between the “ancient” democracy of antiquity, as he referred to it, and the “modern” (representative) democracy of post-Revolutionary France. The commitment to combining democratic equality with liberal protections of individual freedom itself did not really emerge as a blueprint of any consequence until the early years of the twentieth century. And that blueprint was renewed again already after 1945. Democracy shifted tack once more during the course of the 1970s and, I would argue, it is changing once again amidst the upheavals of the present.
Q: You’ve lived through these decades and in some of the countries whose histories you write about. How have your own experiences shaped your analysis of these times?
That is true, and I hope my book brings a fresh perspective here. Seeing at first hand the different ways in which democracy can be made to work has been one of the most fascinating things about writing this book (and I hope also reading it). Not least, I think anybody will be able to literally open the book up and find that moment when they first became aware of political events and of the “tides of history”, as Fernand Braudel called them, constantly pushing and pulling us from beneath the surface. For me it was the first Gulf War that struck home as a political event. As for the tides of history, it was much later before I discovered that the young boy who was following the Gulf War had by then already grown up under, and been profoundly shaped by, the experience of Thatcherism in Britain: fish and water and all that.
I think geography is also crucial here. I have previously lived in France, in addition to the UK, and now – as I mentioned – I live with my wife and two young boys in social democratic Norway. Mainstream political debate in Norway (though not all political parties) could be located on what, in the US, would be considered the democratic socialist end of the spectrum. Bernie would be just another ageing social democrat in Norway; AOC would be leader of one of the smaller left parties (there are currently two parties to the leftof the Labour Party, Sosialistisk Venstreparti and Rødt, with sitting members of parliament:). It’s impossible not to experience all this and be encouraged to think and write about history with full respect for how different things can actually be; and for how different, from place to place, they actually are. At the end of the day, that diversity might just be the greatest political resource of all: grounds enough, at the very least, for a form of optimistic realism going forward.
Q. What do you hope to achieve with this book? What would you like readers to take away from it?
I hope that readers will gain a fuller understanding of what has happened in and to western democracy over the past half century: so that they will learn not to take democracy for granted and not to try to make sense of its shortcomings and its achievements on the basis of current events alone. I also hope they will have a clearer sense of the institutional and intellectual legacies of the quite distinctive way of ‘doing’ democracy we have contrived for ourselves since the early 1970s.
So much has happened that we’ve scarcely had the time to stop and reflect on it all. That is what I have tried to do for people by writing this book: to stop, to recount, and to reflect. Doing so has given me a much sharper sense of what is at stake in events playing out all around us. And while some of our travails are indeed very new; others are really rather old. Recognising this will, I hope, help all of us to make the right decisions going forward.