The West in crisis

Dr Oliver Hartwich
Insights Newsletter
5 July, 2024

Recent events across the Western world paint a troubling picture. The unsettling Trump-Biden debate, the rise of populist parties in Europe, and a surge in Euroscepticism all point to a system in distress. Each development forms part of a broader pattern.

Are we witnessing a temporary stumble in Western liberal democracy, or symptoms of a systemic malaise?

History teaches us that great civilisations often appear stable until collapse is imminent. The Roman Empire maintained a façade of strength for centuries before its rapid disintegration. Similarly, the Soviet Union seemed an immovable colossus until its spectacular downfall in 1991.

Today’s West bears disquieting resemblances to these fallen empires. There are multiple signs of decay.

Fault lines of mounting public debt, economic stagnation and a ruling class seemingly detached from citizens’ concerns are all exacerbated by eroding social cohesion. The foundations of Western societies – strong families, civic engagement and a sense of shared values – are crumbling at an alarming rate.

The West’s crisis of confidence manifests across various institutions. Educational establishments prioritise ideological conformity over the pursuit of truth, while much of the media has abandoned factual reporting for activism. The result is a populace ill-equipped to address the complex challenges facing their societies.

These institutional failings have created fertile ground for political upheaval. Populist parties surge across Europe and beyond, capitalising on discontent over issues like migration. Meanwhile, traditional centrist parties struggle to address voters’ concerns.

Alarmingly, our current situation also mirrors aspects of George Orwell’s 1984. From mass surveillance to information manipulation, Western societies exhibit traits Orwell warned against.

In New Zealand the politicisation of the courts is undermining democratic governance, adding yet another layer to this multifaceted crisis. When judges shape policy rather than interpret law, the delicate balance of powers is threatened.

These interlinked challenges paint a stark picture of Western decline. But the crucial question remains: Are these the death throes of a lost civilisation? Or is there a chance of a renaissance of the liberal-democratic order?

We must take the latter to be an article of faith. The West must reconnect with its foundational values: individual liberty, the rule of law and the pursuit of knowledge and truth. It must come to grips with its challenges through open debate and a return to its foundational values.

Our response to this moment will determine whether future historians mark it as a turning point towards renewal or the beginning of a long twilight for Western democracy.

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