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The Retreat of Western Liberalism

November 9, 2017

Edward Luce, Financial Times Columnist and author, The Retreat of Western Liberalism
Sheri Berman, Barnard College Professor of Political Science
Matthias Matthijs, Assistant Professor of International Political Economy

Financial Times columnist and author Edward Luce visited the Johns Hopkins SAIS community to discuss his recent book, The Retreat of Western Liberalism. Professor Matthias Matthijs and Barnard College Professor Sheri Berman joined Luce to share insights on geopolitical developments.

Luce summarized his book explaining Western liberalism’s ongoing crisis. Amid Brexit and populist movements including the election of Donald Trump, Luce examined the long-building trends behind today’s lack of trust in the political establishment. He argued that even though liberal democracies claimed victory after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, liberal trends have been reversing, with increasingly authoritative regimes appearing in multiple countries.

Luce argued that the West’s response to terrorism has diluted domestic constitutional rights while failing to achieve its stated goal of fostering democratic regimes in the Middle East. The prolonged effect of the 2008 financial crisis and relative shifting of power toward China and India has eroded public faith in liberal democracy. With the specter of American decline, the polarization of economic trends has also triggered a polarization of politics. According to Luce, the US has faced median wage stagnation, a poorer middle class today compared to the early 2000s, and a decline in income mobility. He said that in order to restore trust, elites need to the fix mistakes that have been ignored for the last two decades.

Professor Sheri Berman contended that Western democracies have brought their political crises on themselves, through elites’ blind embrace of globalization and massive immigration, and their systematic dismissal of populist concerns. She suggested elites should broaden their perspectives to relate to constituents and promote a revival of partisan participation by including populist preoccupations in political discourse. Professor Matthias Mattijs noted the decline in institutions that once favored the left as an additional factor in the weakening of traditional parties. Questions from the audience touched on the role of media and technology, including foreign interference in the democratic process, the role of money and donors, and the need for an alternative model of work

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