December 2016 marks the end of tomsbooks’ fifth year. On January 22, 2012, a time when I barely knew what a blog was, I posted a review of John McWhorter’s Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care. That was the first of 93 postings over the next five years, reviewing 102 books (had I been counting, I probably would have paused last month to observe the 100th book reviewed, David Maraniss’ Once In a Great City: A Detroit Story, a work on my home town during my senior year in high school). The year-by-year tally of reviews is as follows:
Year Reviews Books Reviewed
2012 25 32
2013 19 20
2014 9 9
2015 21 22
2016 19 19
From the beginning, my goal has been to point general, well educated but non-specialist readers to works unlikely to make best-seller lists but, in most cases, worthy of their consideration and reading time — works often overlooked in major publications like The New York Times Book Review, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, The New York Review of Books or The London Review of Books. Most of the books reviewed here fit into a rubric of “modern history, politics, and political theory,” with McWhorter’s work being perhaps one of the few exceptions.
Earlier this month, I sought to refine that rubric through an index by specific subject matter of the five years of reviews, now completed and available upon request. Currently, I have 37 different categories (e.g. “French History,” “Thinkers,” “Biography/Autobiography,” “Cold War,”), with much overlap; almost all reviews fit into more than one category. Looking at the index makes clear that my overall focus has most frequently been on either the United States or Europe, in many cases both. But if America and Europe is my comfort zone, I have ventured outside of it on more than a few occasions to review books rooted in other areas. My most recent review was on sub-Saharan Africa, and I have reviewed books on Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Pakistan, plus several books on Islam (e.g., here, here and here).
While producing 1-2 reviews per month over the past five years, I gradually came to the realization that I have also been refining the rubric of “modern history, politics, and political theory” in another, more substantive way. I now see that almost all the books reviewed here explore in one way or another the concept of modern liberal democracy, a concept you can define in different ways. The word “liberal” should not be equated with that term as used in everyday political discourse in the United States; it’s more like the “liberal” in “liberal arts.” For me, broadly stated, liberal democracy is the system of representative government we’ve come to take for granted in the West, a system that seeks to maximize both individual liberty and equality among citizens, through free and fair elections, the rule of law, free but regulated markets, and respect for human rights. Liberal democracy is also decidedly pluralist, seeking to provide a channel for as many voices as possible to compete for influence in a free and orderly, if at times cacophonous, process.
There is no single category for “democracy” or “liberal democracy” among the 37 specific categories in my index, and I can think of only one book reviewed here that addresses the subject head on, Timothy Ferris’ The Science of Liberty: Democracy, Reason, and the Laws of Nature, reviewed in May 2012 (and categorized in the index under “Political Theory,” and “Intellectual History’). But just about every book reviewed here necessarily addresses, however indirectly, some aspect of the subject of liberal democracy, raising issues pertinent to its story in modern times: what is it; where does it come from; where is it going; how should it work; how does it work; what are its strengths and weaknesses, it successes and failures. Of course, this includes books on instances where liberal democracy has “gone off the rails,” most notably in Nazi Germany and Bolshevik Russia. By my count, I have reviewed 13 books on the Nazi period in Germany and 6 on communist rule in the Soviet Union, along with 10 on “totalitarianism,” the antithesis of liberal democracy.
Winston Churchill once famously described democracy as the worst possible system of government, except for all the others (and he could have said “liberal democracy”). It may be difficult to disagree with Churchill’s quirky formulation, but I think a more generous one is warranted. I consider modern liberal democracy to be among the most uplifting and powerful ideas that our collective human civilization has put into practice over the last three centuries, providing unparalleled opportunity for high quality of life for individuals fortunate to live in liberal democratic states. But no one has to tell me that these are dispiriting times for liberal democracy in much of the world, starting very close to home.
* * *
I trace liberal democracy’s modern roots principally to Great Britain, the United States and France, three countries I have been lucky enough to live, work and study in. Perhaps because of this happy coincidence, the history and politics of these three countries are the starting point for my bookish interests. But in each today, in different ways, liberal democracy seems to be on the defensive, facing rising xenophobia, ethnic nationalism and raging populism. In the “Brexit” campaign tinged with no small doses of anti-immigrant sentiment, Great Britain notoriously elected in June of this year to pull out of the European Union, arguably the most critical multi-national liberal democracy project of the post-World War II era. The United States in November elected as its next President a man who seems at best indifferent to the ideals of liberal democracy, often hostile. In France, the National Front party, xenophobic, anti-immigrant, and anti-European, has what looks at this juncture like better than a 50-50 chance that its leader will reach the final round for the French presidency, in elections scheduled for May 2017.
Beyond this core, the outlook for liberal democracy at the end of 2016 appears at least equally bleak. Anti-immigrant and anti-liberal parties are gaining elsewhere across Europe, in countries as diverse as the Netherlands, Austria, Hungary and Poland (although an insurgent anti-immigrant party in Austria recently suffered a setback in its bid for the country’s presidency). On Europe’s periphery, both Russia and Turkey have overtly embraced authoritarian, anti-democratic rule, sometimes explicitly referred to as “illiberal democracy.” Meanwhile China, the world’s newest economic behemoth, continues the oddest of combinations, a form of free market capitalism coupled with strict control over individuals’ lives and the absence of the most basic political freedoms.
I wistfully recall the optimism of the 1990s, when the Berlin Wall had fallen, the Soviet Union had collapsed, and apartheid had been consigned to the dustbin of South African history. Liberal democracy seemed to be on the march throughout the world. It was then described as the world’s “default option,” with one commentator famously declaring the “end of history.” In the second half of the 21st century’s second decade, this seems like a quaint, bygone era, far longer ago than a quarter of a century. Today, our global civilization appears to be heading into the darkest and most difficult period for liberal democracy since the 1930s. We can only hope that a catastrophe analogous to the world war that erupted at the end of that decade can be averted.
Despite the multiple reasons for concern if not outright alarm about the near future, I remain “cautiously optimistic,” as the diplomats say, about the future of liberal democracy throughout the world. It is quite simply too powerful an idea to be bottled up over the long term. While older and more rural populations may favor authoritarian rulers who promise to restore some type of mythological past, the future is not with these demographic groups. Liberal democracy will continue to find strong and often courageous support among well-educated young people and in urban centers throughout the world — in Cairo and Teheran, Moscow and Ankara, as well as Paris, London and New York.
A spate of books on the future of liberal democracy is likely to flood the market in the months and years ahead, including works analyzing the previously unimaginable rise to power in the United States of an authoritarian leader with no apparent attachment to America’s abiding democratic principles. Occasionally, I may elect to review such works, but I suspect that such instances will be rare. Rather, I envision continuing to address liberal democracy less directly, through reviews of serious works on history and politics which, often unintentionally, contain some insight, broad or narrow, about the perils and possibilities of liberal democracy. I hope you will stay with me for what looks like a bumpy ride ahead over the next months and years.
Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
December 24, 2016