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Liberal Overreach and the Misinterpretation of 1989

September 13, 2019
13 min read
Photo Credit: turtix / Shutterstock

Editor's Note: This piece is part of a full report, "Reassessing 1989," which looks at the major events of that year, including the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Tiananmen Square protests, and the breakup of Yugoslavia

When the Berlin Wall fell 30 years ago, many in the West dreamt of a Europe whole and free and at peace. This was back when the nations of Europe and North America agreed on the Paris Charter and its fairy-tale ending, a “new age of democracy, freedom and unity” for Europe, and implicitly, for the entire world. It turned out somewhat differently.

Three decades later, Europeans are neither unified nor do they all live in peace and democracy. In the rest of the world things do not look any more promising. Instead, the types of government that get by without too much liberal democracy have been making a comeback. A new nationalism is tightening its grip on Western countries. Its target is no less than the idea of an international cooperation that is built on norms, rules, and values. As German historian Andreas Roedder writes, today we are confronted with “the ruins of our expectations.”1

What went wrong? What has led to the recession of democracy, the resurgence of authoritarianism, and ultimately the weakening of the liberal international order?

The small cohort of “populism experts” have placed the sources of the crisis in the domestic domain of Western democracies. They offer two related explanations, an economic one and a cultural one.

Globalization has made borders porous or even eliminated them, and has created uncontrolled migration, thereby undermining the status of the nation state and its middle classes. 

According to the economic thesis, an ever-increasing global division of labor has, over decades, prevented middle class incomes in many Western nations from rising. Income stagnation is deemed to be the cause of the feeling of being left behind, which, in turn, has caused anti-elite and anti-internationalist sentiment.2 The other interpretation sees a cultural backlash against a one-world movement at work.3 As this narrative goes, globalization has made borders porous or even eliminated them, and has created uncontrolled migration, thereby undermining the status of the nation state and its middle classes. This development has ultimately resulted a kind of political revolt.

These explanations are not mutually exclusive. However, their mix varies from country to country. For France, the United Kingdom, and particularly the United States, the economic thesis can help to explain what happened. These countries’ industrial production has been exported to China on a broad scale.4 In several regions, this has led to the loss of well-paid jobs and to long-term unemployment.

Especially in the United States, income distribution is significantly more unequal today than several decades ago. Adjusted for inflation, incomes of full-time employees have not increased since 1980. In 1999, the median family income in the United States was at $ 59,039. Seventeen years later, a typical family had just $374 more at its disposal, again adjusted for inflation. The tremendous wealth gains that the innovation boom of the digital age has generated found their way almost exclusively to the bank accounts of the top 10 percent. Their share of the United States’ gross national product has risen from 34 to 47 percent since 1980.5 It should not come as a surprise that people will revolt when they consider themselves the victims of globalization and stand watching a new economic oligarchy develop in their country.

Economic factors simply cannot account for the rise of the populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), given that four out of five AfD voters said they were doing well economically.

The situation looks quite different in Northern and Central Europe. In Sweden, the economy has been growing since 2010, barely interrupted and at healthy rates. Growth rates of up to 6 percent are quite unusual for mature industrial societies. Consequently, the unemployment rate is decreasing seemingly without end. Germany has been enjoying its second economic miracle. Entire regions of the country report nearly full employment. The gains have not been all in precarious employments, either, as critics like to insinuate. In eastern Germany unemployment rates have been falling continuously, even if they are still higher than in western Germany. And inequality is not rising at levels comparable to the United States. Compared with other Western countries, inequality is below average in Germany and has not increased significantly since 2005. Though recent data shows newly rising levels, this could be a transitory phenomenon. The German Economic Research Institute states that “net incomes have been increasing significantly for large portions of society.”6 When labor shortage is the most significant problem of the labor market, it is hard to argue that victimization from globalization and economic marginalization are at the heart of the anti-liberal revolt. As British historian Timothy Garton Ash put it at an event in Berlin, with regard to Germany “it’s not the economy, stupid!”7 He points out that economic factors simply cannot account for the rise of the populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), given that four out of five AfD voters said they were doing well or even very well economically.

Inequality of Attention

This leaves the cultural thesis and the sentiment of cultural alienation and uprooting. It is remarkable how little attention has been paid to this phenomenon for years. According to Garton Ash, the ruling liberal majorities – in Germany as in other Western countries – have not only been ignoring dissenting opinions on migration and identity politics, they have also delegitimized such views. Whoever voiced what did not fall into the mainstream of liberal thinking was easily maligned as “sexist, racist, or fascist,” he says. Garton Ash attributes this behavior to an “illiberal liberalism” that will only tolerate liberal views, thereby turning liberalism on its head.

Garton Ash does not primarily focus on inequality of incomes but on inequality of attention and, as he calls it, an “asymmetry of respect.” It is precisely this respect – the acknowledgment and consideration of their views – that populist rebels want to regain. The semi-authoritarian nationalists from Poland’s Law and Justice Party (PiS) have developed a battle cry from this observation: they promise the “redistribution of dignity.” They want to grant attention to all those who see themselves as victims. What sounds like an emancipatory agenda for an ignored middle class, is in fact something entirely different: it is PiS’s justification for a massive critique of the elites that – according to its playbook – shall result in a change of elites. As PiS has demonstrated when handling personnel issues in the judiciary, the public media, and cultural and educational institutions, the gloves come off when it comes to putting a new ideologically aligned elite in place.

Whatever the mix of cultural and economic drivers for the rise of populism in different Western countries, the two theories are quite similar on one important count: they are both variants of a critique of globalization. Whether people consider themselves to be economically disadvantaged or culturally marginalized, they assume that the source of their oppression originates outside their country’s borders, either from migrants or from a global cosmopolitan elite to whom the national elite is falsely loyal . It this therefore paramount for them to regain control over their own fate by controlling these forces.

The Path to Liberal Overreach

The battle between those who prefer the economic explanation over the cultural explanation is – while intellectually engaging – a bit of a distraction for there is something else that has not been sufficiently considered in the discussion. It could be called the internationalists’ original sin: the self-serving and lazy interpretation of the events of 1989 and their consequences for the international order.

A belief in a glorious democratic future and a tremendous sense of entitlement promulgated throughout the West

In retrospect it is evident that after the end of the Cold War Western countries settled into a naive optimism about the future of the world. It was commonly believed that the triumph of capitalism over communism would translate into the global triumph of the Western model of organizing society. Governing elites in Western countries proved themselves to be willing students of the U.S. scholar Francis Fukuyama. They adopted, repeated, and trivialized his thesis about “the end of history” and his expectation of a lasting democratic peace. Unintended by Fukuyama, his theory became the blueprint of Western triumphalism. For it was not just optimism that won out, but a belief in democratic determinism.8 Hope for a better future turned into certainty about the course of history. Yale University historian Timothy Snyder identifies the “politics of inevitability” as a major consequence of this view, leading to a course of action that tolerated no alternatives and left individuals with a profound sense of a lack of agency.9

Since the goal of all politics was predetermined, according to the teleology of the times, it seemed as if the package of liberal democracy, economic freedom, uninhibited trade, and international cooperation no longer had to be fought for, justified, or exemplified. Some even seemed to believe that it was okay to take liberties with principles, values, and rules, and that they could allow themselves double standards and even pure recklessness. The only fitting word for this behavior is hubris.

Gradually, liberal overreach emerged: a belief in a glorious democratic future and a tremendous sense of entitlement promulgated throughout the West. At the same time, the will and the means to implement the necessary policies remained limited. The liberal world no longer knew adversaries (apart from some terrorists), only partners who were on course to become like-minded friends. This new world allowed its inhabitants to indulge in self-deception when listening to sermons on Western values on Sundays, while tolerating free riders and rule breakers during the work week.

It was easy to turn a blind eye to the fact that there were players within the international system who only pretended to play along. There was China, for whom economic opening meant that it would eventually adopt participatory governance, perhaps even some version of democracy. Western elites repeated this narrative until it was impossible to overlook that the country’s leadership considers international rules merely a product of Western self-assurance that can to be taken advantage of, can be bent, and can be broken whenever it serves the cause of the rise of dictatorial China.

Secondly, there was Russia, which seemed to be on course to become a normal, perhaps even democratic nation in Europe. According to this theory, reforms would be adopted to modernize the country and move it closer to the rest of Europe. Whenever Russia strayed from liberal orthodoxy, Western mainstream thinking was more than willing to call for more patience with it. Only a couple of military interventions later did even the staunchest believers have to own up to the fact that Russia’s leadership does not intend to place the country on a path toward the peaceful liberal democratic land of plenty.

And finally, there were the Central Eastern European countries. They were especially important because they were considered to have permanently moored in the harbor of liberal democracy (which is why most of them became members the EU and NATO). But as Branko Milanovic, former chief economist at the World Bank, asserts, 1989 was not just a triumph of Western values in the countries of Central Eastern Europe, but primarily a “revolution of national emancipation” – an emancipation from Soviet imperialism.10

For centuries, Central Europeans have fought for their own nation states. Finally, almost homogeneous national states had emerged. After 1989, their citizens were ready to accept market economy and democracy, but not ethnic heterogeneity. That contradicted their spirit of national self-liberation, no matter how strongly Western Europeans insisted that ethnic heterogeneity was the natural consequence of freedom of movement and ultimately, an open society.

Over the past years, considerable efforts have been made to re-evaluate how large or small the group of the “Western liberals” in Central and Eastern Europe really was. Back then, it appeared larger and more influential than it really was because in reality it was an alliance of liberals and nationalists. Even die-hard nationalists, as Milanovic writes, talked “the language of democracy because it gave them greater credibility internationally as they appeared to be fighting for an ideal rather than for narrow ethnic interests.” This group included Viktor Orban and Jaroslaw Kaczynski – today the strong men of Hungary and Poland. Their metamorphosis from freedom fighters to anti-liberal nationalists is illustrative, for it did not entail as much of a change as is often assumed. For them, as for others, liberal democracy was not the political system of their dreams but a useful tool.

In 2015, when the refugee crisis swept across Europe, the latent conflict between liberal democrats and nationalists in Central and Eastern Europe erupted. Confronted with a massive critique of their seemingly cold-hearted refugee policy (and sometimes even government-supported xenophobia), citizens argued that their elected representatives were faithfully representing the views of the majority and protecting the values of their country from messianic Western Europeans who preached a form of idealistic universalism that the Central Eastern Europeans were not committed to, did not believe in, and had never signed up to.

The question of how Europe will deal with this schism remains unanswered. Will Western Europeans treat Central and Eastern Europeans like “fallen” democrats? And will Central and Eastern Europeans adopt a posture of victimhood for the long term, thus deepening the divisions within Europe?

Only one thing is clear: in 1989, the number of supporters of a liberal worldview was smaller than assumed. The explanations for the events of 1989 were far too monocausal. The thinking about the possible consequences was too linear.

Pessimistic Determinism

Today, we are confronted with a similar danger: democratic determinism seems to give way to populist determinism – as if it was all but decided that neo-nationalism will dominate political life in several Western countries for years if not decades. In this narrative, the reasons for the rise of right-wing populism will not disappear with the current crop of its leaders. Once they are voted out of office, their successors will toe a similar line because of the unchanged preferences of the electorate. In other words: from the end of history to endless populism. Consequently, books with titles like About Tyranny, The Road to Un- Freedom, or How Democracies Die are flying off the shelves.

The problem with this type of linear thinking is that it extrapolates the future from present trends and tends of overlook countervailing tendencies. The analysis of the new fatalists often ignores that neo-nationalism itself gives birth to an opposition that will eventually lead to populism’s downfall. Crises of nationalism, a loss of voter confidence, ultimately failure – all of that is not in the fatalists’ calculations. Thus, they underestimate the resilience and the self-correcting powers of liberal democracy.

Cultural pessimism is a powerful force that one ought to resist.11 That was Fritz Stern’s warning 40 years ago. He urged Americans and Europeans not to engage in endless jeremiads about the impending decline of their nations, their continent, or the West as a whole. Cultural pessimism, he argued, could easily turn into cultural despair and thus become a destructive political force.

Humankind has always lived through periods of transformation. In fact, periods of stability and self-assuredness such as the past three decades have been rare. What Ian Kershaw observed in his grand history of postwar Europe remains true: “uncertainty will remain a characteristic of modern life.”

This essay is a translated adaptation from the forthcoming book: Die Welt braucht den Westen – Neustart für eine liberale Ordnung. Hamburg, September 2019.


1 Andreas Rödder, “Von historischen Erfahrungen und politischen Erfahrungen,” Speech at the Alfred-Herrhausen-Gesellschaft, September 2016, p.14.
2 Branko Milanovic, “Globalisation, migration, rising inequality, populism...”, Social Europe, December 1, 2017.
3 David Goodheart, “On the Road to Somewhere, The Divide between Elites and the Populists,” National Review, August 21, 2017.
4 David H. Autor, David Dorn, and Gordon H. Hanson, “The China Shock: Learning from Labor-Market Adjustment to Large Changes in Trade,” Annual Review of Economics, August 8, 2016.
5 Kenneth F. Scheve and Matthew J. Slaughter, “How to save Globalization,” Foreign Affairs, November/December 2018. See also the article by Anne Marie Brady in this volume.
6 DIW Berlin, Deutlich zunehmende Realeinkommen bei steigender Einkommensungleichheit, May 7, 2019.
7 See the interview with Garton Ash in this volume and the lecture delivered at the Center For Liberal Modernity, Berlin, November 29, 2018.
8 Damir Marusic, “The Dangers of Democratic Determinism,” American Interest, February 5, 2018.
9 Timothy Snyder, The Road to Unfreedom, London, 2018, p. 7.
10 Branko Milanović, “Democracy of convenience, not of choice: why is Eastern Europe different,” Global Inequality Blog, December 23, 2017.
11 Fritz Stern, Kulturpessimismus als politische Gefahr, Bern und Stuttgart 1963, p. 1-15.