When the German playwright Bertolt Brecht wrote that, "All power comes from the people," he went on to ask the rather important question, "But where does it go?"
Liberal democracy's signal achievement in the half-century after World War II was to answer that question in a way that promoted social consensus and solidarity. Although governments were chosen by majorities of equal citizens, they worked within a constitutional order based on the rule of law, democratic institutions, and accepted values and rights. And they governed with the consent of a minority that they respected.
By the end of the 1980s, some believed that this system of governance, which engendered economic success and political stability, had won the day against any alternative. Communist and fascist authoritarianism were discredited. A mood of triumphalism set in, breeding complacency. But things look a lot less rosy for liberal democrats today.
For starters, the boom and bust of the first decade of this century took its toll. So, too, did the encouragement of an unrestrained form of globalization that took little account of the social consequences of lower comparative labor costs in developing countries for workers in developed countries. Freer trade and more open exchange were not accompanied by labor-market and social-security policies to mitigate their negative effects. Moreover, China, now the world's largest economy in purchasing-power-parity terms, distorted international market rules to its own advantage.
Two other issues further discredited democratic governments. First, social inequity grew alarmingly in many countries, most notably the United States, leading citizens to question whether they lived in fair societies. Second, migration from poorer to richer countries, fueled by poverty and demographic factors, created tensions in developed economies. Living standards were squeezed, and people postponed their hopes for a better quality of life.
Some now see a clash between illiberal democracy and undemocratic liberalism. Elites are thought to want to curb what they see as the irrational and undeliverable hopes of the majority, while the majority fights to overturn the checks and balances that moderate the popular will.
The growing disillusion with democratic government is evident in the rise of leaders such as Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and, of course, Donald Trump. The US president appears reckless in his attitude to the Constitution, the rule of law, freedom of the press, and civil political debate. America used to be the standard bearer for liberal democracy and human rights. But the Trump administration prefers tough-guy authoritarians to democrats, and even attacks democratic US allies.
Others indulge in their own forms of populism. In Britain, the Conservative Party's rejection of close ties with Europe is accompanied by threats to assault institutions that have hitherto restrained executive power. These include Britain's independent courts and judges, its world-class public-service broadcaster, the BBC, and any civil-society organization likely to disagree with the executive.
There is no need to exaggerate; we have not written the last act in the history of liberal democracy. But there are enough signs of trouble to make sensible Americans and Europeans recall Europe's slide into tyranny in the 1930s, and to resolve to act now to prevent anything like that from happening again. While crying wolf is rarely recommended, sometimes there really is a wolf skulking through the wood.
As if the West's apparent connivance in the destabilization of its own system of governance were not bad enough, liberal democracies also must cope with external threats.
For example, Russian President Vladimir Putin finds it difficult to resist trying to stir up trouble in European democracies, and – despite Trump's disavowal of the evidence – in America, too. By funding nationalist and populist political parties, trying to dissolve the glue of the values that hold the European Union together, and employing dark and devious high-tech banditry, Putin relentlessly continues his efforts to alter Europe's political map.
Putin wants to return Europe to being a continent dominated by spheres of influence rather than self-determination. But Russia, a ramshackle state with hydrocarbons and rockets, lacks the economic clout to mount a fundamental assault on liberal-democratic values. So, although the Kremlin's menacing behavior must be watched and firmly repulsed, the threat it poses seems unlikely to become existential.
China is a different matter. The country's remarkable and mostly welcome rejuvenation as a major economic power has given it considerable global and regional influence. But the intrinsic weaknesses of China's flawed system of authoritarian government mean that its communist leaders worry about how to maintain absolute control in the face of technological, demographic, and economic change.
The ruling Communist Party, government, and armed forces therefore have been instructed (for example, in the leaked "Communiqué on the Current State of the Ideological Sphere") to attack the promotion of Western constitutional democracy, universal values, civil society, and independent journalism. This offensive also targets any historical scholarship that tries to discover what actually happened in the past, rather than simply accepting the party's version of events. Every means is to be used to try to destroy these dangerous tendencies, whether mobilizing the Chinese diaspora through the United Front, influencing overseas universities, or using commercial pressure in order to "create dependencies and induce self-censorship."
The toughest variant of this approach is known as "wolf diplomacy," featuring often-bogus promises of trade deals or investment for countries that toe the line. Indeed, China's efforts have produced the sort of pre-emptive cringing in the West that itself erodes liberal-democratic values.
Some apologists for China's behavior counsel caution, arguing that past Western failings offset those of the communist regime in Beijing. And their advice that we must both engage with China and deter its worst behavior may sound balanced and wise.
But engagement must be on terms that are fair to both sides. And deterrence needs to be real when necessary – at which point the wise apostles of engagement tend to make their excuses and leave. If liberals continue to be so weak-minded, it will be at our own peril.
Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong and a former EU commissioner for external affairs, is Chancellor of the University of Oxford