Steve Lafleur: Hear me out. Maybe things are going to be okay?
It’s hard not to feel like I’m tempting fate, but I’m calling the bottom here. I am long Western Civilization.
By: Steve Lafleur
I’ve been a bit cynical for the last seven years. Probably longer than that. I mean, I saw this whole MAGA thing coming a decade ago. I just didn’t think it would amount to much. I certainly didn’t think it would lead to a gameshow host serving as president of the United States during a global pandemic while Vladimir Putin was gearing up for war on the West. In some ways I was too optimistic. I sincerely apologize for that.
Now, this piece isn’t about what a cynical bastard I am. I’ve been optimistic about the long-term future of the West for most of my adult life. But let’s be honest: the last seven years didn’t go so well. And, frankly, things could have gone much worse under the circumstances. So, yeah – I got cynical!
I’m a product of the Cold War. My earliest memories are from a military base in West Germany. So forgive me if I romanticize the West. I was still a child when the Berlin Wall came down. For most of my adult life, I felt secure in the notion that history was over — liberal-democratic capitalism had won. Sure, it’s not perfect. But it beat the alternatives.
I had a rude awakening in 2016. I was not prepared for the idea that progress could roll back. And I really wasn’t prepared for the idea that Americans might decide to just give up on the American-led post-war international order. For a moment there, it felt like they had. But it’s starting to seem like we are getting back to something like normal. I feel like I have no choice but to be optimistic.
Flipping the calendar hasn’t augured well lately. We rang in the new decade with a global pandemic; 2021 started with a failed coup d’état in the United States (technically, an autogolpe); and in February of 2022 Russian forces invaded Ukraine. Thus far in 2023 Brazil got its own version of January 6th. But other than that, so far 2023 is seeming a bit more normal [knock on wood].
I’m wary of making concrete predictions. The Universe has a way of surprising us. We just lived through a president who always seemed to be a tweet away from starting the Third World War, a once-in-a-century pandemic, a shooting war in Europe, and a historic bout of inflation. It’s hard not to feel like I’m tempting fate, but I’m calling the bottom here. I am long Western Civilization.
The last few years have been a white-knuckle ride. I was still pretty cynical until the results of the 2022 midterm elections. Not because I’m wild about the Democratic agenda. But because even with surging inflation and a general malaise about the economy, the American people were willing to punish Trump endorsed candidates. His “star” recruits cost Republicans the Senate and limited their gains in the House. If you needed a sign that Americans are done with Donald Trump, that was probably it.
The real inflection point for me was when Volodymyr Zelensky addressed a joint session of Congress last December. Knowing that many Republicans have been skeptical of Ukrainian aid, I expected a mixed reception. I was wrong. He was met with a bipartisan chorus of applause. Here stood the man who turned the tide against global authoritarianism. And he received the hero’s welcome he deserved. How very 2015! It felt like America was healing in front of my eyes. It’s nice to know that your neighbours are sort of getting along again. Especially when they’ve got a bunch of nukes.
There are a lot of reasons for optimism other than the fact that we’ve probably avoided civilizational collapse. The West has an amazing long-term track record of wealth creation and social advancement. There are all kinds of narratives about economic stagnation and inequality that overshadow how much material wellbeing has improved not only in the West, but throughout the world over the past few centuries, even the past few decades where growth has slowed. We may not have flying cars, but we’re healthier, wealthier and more harmonious than we were in the good old days.
We’ve got some major policy challenges throughout the West, including Canada. Housing and health care in particular. But a lot of things are trending in the right direction. COVID cases and deaths are way down. Supply chain bottlenecks are easing. Inflation seems to be abating. Central banks may well engineer a soft landing where they bring down inflation without creating a painful recession. And who knows — maybe Vladmir Putin will fall out of a window.
Liberal-democratic capitalism may not be perfect in any of its forms (not even Denmark). But you’d have to be a fool to bet against it. We’ve got an unmatched track record. Lest you think that, perhaps, there’s another better model out there, consider how our two chief rivals have fared lately.
Take Russia. It wasn’t long ago that American populists would unironically worship Vladimir Putin’s bare-chested manliness. The West, in their telling, was irredeemably decadent. Their “woke” military wouldn’t stand a chance against the manly Russian army! Elements of the American conservative movement were so enthralled with Eastern alternatives to traditional American liberal democracy that the influential Conservative Political Action Conference was recently held in Hungary. Fox News personalities like Tucker Carlson fawned over Hungary’s authoritarian President Victor Orban.
The mood has changed since the Russian invasion. The Ukrainian people have defied expectations and held back the Russian war machine. Women fashioning Molotov cocktails and untrained men taking up arms have inflicted heavy losses on the Russian armed forces. It turned out that unwoke Russian military wasn’t so effective after all. You might have noticed Fox News isn’t so quick to praise the Russian or Hungarian governments anymore.
Then there’s the utter humiliation of the Chinese Communist Party. Early in the pandemic, many praised the Chinese government’s efforts to suppress COVID transmission. For a while, it looked like they had things under control while decadent Westerners failed to do what was necessary to stop transmission. That wasn’t entirely incorrect. But their approach was merciless, and unsustainable. You can only nail people’s doors shut for so long. Moreover, they refuse to buy more effective vaccines from the West. That led them to lock down longer and harder. And their reopening is not going especially well.
Three years of lockdowns didn’t buy them enough time to achieve what the West achieved in a year with far less stringent measures. You probably won’t hear much about the competent Chinese Communist Party anytime soon.
The alternatives to liberal-democratic capitalism, it turns out, aren’t very good. It’s unfortunate that it took a series of overlapping catastrophes to remind us of that.
That isn’t to say that we should be complacent. Matt Gurney likes to say that our expectations may be a problem. I generally agree. We often assume things will be fine, even if that means averting our eyes from obvious problems. But sometimes we overcorrect. I think right now we may be at a point where a lot of people are too negative. And I say this as someone who lost years’ worth of sleep over the various madmen in Pyongyang, Moscow and Washington threatening to end organized human existence.
I’m also not going to sit here and tell you that things can’t go wrong. They absolutely can. China could invade Taiwan, with unpredictable consequences. A worse variant of COVID could emerge. Donald Trump could become president again. Vladimir Putin could light the world on fire as the walls close in. Maybe we’ll be enslaved by aliens or Terminators? Or maybe we really did let carbon emissions get too far and we’ll have hell to pay. I don’t know. But from a purely probabilistic perspective, I think we’ll be fine. After all, we’ve survived all of this!
Rather than getting bogged down in negativity, let’s think about the concrete things we can fix. And if aliens or Vladimir Putin or a robotic Arnold Schwarzenegger gets us, I guess I’ll owe you all an apology. But for now, pending any further disasters, I’m starting 2023 an optimist.
Steve Lafleur is a public policy analyst and columnist with a over a decade of experience working at Canadian think tanks.
The Line is Canada’s last, best hope for irreverent commentary. We reject bullshit. We love lively writing. Please consider supporting us by subscribing. Follow us on Twitter, we guess, @the_lineca. Fight with us on Facebook. Pitch us something: email@example.com