I. The rise of right-wing populism
The development process in Western democratic countries has progressed in three stages since the close of the 1920s. The first stage, beginning with the Great Depression in 1929 and continuing through the 1960s, encompasses the economic crisis that began the period and also the massive losses brought about by the Second World War. In this stage, all countries in the West threw their weight behind economic development, especially during the period of postwar economic recovery, but there was also an emphasis on economic equality, as well the reduction of social inequality through social welfare and other like policies.
The second development stage began in the 1970s and ended with the 2008 financial crisis. This stage was marked by the dominance of what we now refer to as neoliberalism. In contrast to the former conception of liberalism represented by the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration, neoliberal regimes placed economic freedom above all else, advocated tax cuts and deregulation, and attached significantly less importance to problems of social inequality.
The third stage started with the 2008 financial crisis and continues to the present. This stage has seen a number of major political events, including the beginning of the Tea Party movement in 2009, Occupy Wall Street in 2011, and Brexit and the election of Donald Trump in 2016. One of the characteristics of this stage is the rise of populist parties in Europe and their victories in local legislative bodies and in the European Parliament. These movements are all populist, but they must be differentiated into left and right. The left includes the Bernie Sanders phenomenon, Occupy Wall Street, and left-wing parties in Greece and Spain; on the right, there is Front National in France, and the phenomenon of Donald Trump in the United States. Surveying the general situation at present, it appears that right-wing populism has completely overwhelmed left-wing populism. I believe this stage of development could continue for ten or twenty more years.
What accounts for the present popularity of right-wing populism in Western democratic countries? This has a lot to do with economics, specifically widening disparity in wealth distribution in these societies. French economist Thomas Picketty's 2014 Capital in the Twenty-First Century contains a detailed description of this phenomenon of economic inequality in Western countries.3 The present consensus in Western academia is that the wealth gap can be attributed in no small part to neoliberalism, which includes the assault on the domestic working classes of these countries by globalization and free trade.
II. The tragedy of identity politics
Another explanation for the appearance of right-wing populism is as a response to the rise of identity politics, or, perhaps more accurately, as a fierce revolt against the gradual shift since the 1970s toward what has been called "post-materialist values." To summarize this idea briefly, two decades of postwar economic prosperity led many young people in the West to place less importance on material stability than the expression of their values. These post-materialist values include personal liberty, freedom to choose one's own sexual orientation, civil rights crusades, political correctness, protecting the environment, promoting human rights, and so forth. In the United States, the Democratic Party has become a bastion for identity politics, with the majority of their supporters being drawn from ethnic and sexual minority groups.
The tragedy of identity politics is that it prioritizes calls for respect and self-expression over demands for more conventional economic redistribution. The reality is that the vast majority of average citizens care more about their economic interests than the right of a small minority to use a certain bathroom. A backlash against these values and rising economic inequality combined to cause a surge in right-wing populism, and it also contributed to the Democratic Party's electoral loss in 2016.
To put it simply, there has been an intense reaction in the United States and other Western countries against the brand of identity politics advocated by what has been called the "white left," or baizuo. Another example is the Trump administration’s promotion administration of a new concept: the nation-state. In a speech Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave some time ago, he advised that America must once again become a nation-state. The American political elite, whether left or right, rarely use the term “nation-state” to describe their country. The term “nationalism” is rarely used to describe attitudes in the United States, either. They would prefer to describe flag-waving as “patriotism.” For them, “patriotism” is a positive description, while “nationalism” is a pejorative term. Americans view their country as exceptional: they don’t consider it a nation-state4 in the traditional sense of the term, but as a nation of immigrants. So, the question is, what does it mean to suddenly begin referring to America as a nation-state?
In fact, this goes back to Samuel Huntington's challenge to American identity: “Who are we?”5 If the United States can absorb all the cultures of the world, is it still America? For opponents of identity politics inside the United States, the answer is no. A pluralistic America is not America at all. [For them] multiculturalism has transformed the United States into the United Nations. The opponents of identity politics don't believe in abandoning the distinctly Western identity of the United States, or in replacing core Anglo-Saxon cultural values.
III. From the end of history to the return of history
As human history entered the twenty-first century, three major events occurred in global politics: the financial crisis in 2008, the rise of China, and growth of populism in the West. While all Western economies are depressed, China’s development momentum is strong. This can be traced back to the idea of political decay proposed by Francis Fukuyama.6 One of the key characteristics of China is an effective state. Many of the challenges facing the West at present seem to stem from the lack of an effective state.
This leads me to another issue. The challenges faced by China and the West are not the same. Some scholars focused on Southern Europe have come up with the concept of modernization without development. This means, basically, that even though these countries have urbanized, employment opportunities in their urban areas are scarce or unstable. The challenge faced by China might be the opposite—development without modernization. Why do I say that? Forty years on from Reform and Opening, China's economy has soared. This is obvious to everyone in the world. [It is something which] every normal Chinese citizen has firsthand experience with. Wherever you go in China, you can see this development. But we have many deficiencies in national governance that require further modernization.
Fukuyama suggested “the end of history,” and I would like to propose “the return of history.”7 What does that mean? In the twenty-first century, there has been a significant increase in the political influence of China, Russia, India, and Turkey. These four countries possess both a long history and claims to a distinct civilization, but they all experienced decline. These countries were colonized or humiliated by Western powers.8 Now, they have returned to the world stage.
I don't believe the rise of CRIT—an acronym based on their English names—signifies a “clash of civilizations” but rather “the return of history” This represents its own stage in the cycle of historical development. The majority of the American elite, however, believe that the liberal democratic character of the United States means that its hegemony is completely different from past forms of hegemony (that it is exceptional, if you will)—they don’t believe it will ever decline. But to everything there is a season. All tides that rise must fall. All living men must age, sicken, and die. Therefore, the United States must accept that the day will come where it too will fall into decline. For now, most of the American elite is unwilling to accept the realities of this historical cycle. This is the reason why the Sino-American relationship is at its lowest ebb since Richard Nixon's visit in 1972.
3 The reference is to Thomas Picketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014).
4 Xie references then Secretary of State Michael Pompeo’ December 4th address at the German Marshall Fund in Brussels, “Restoring the Role of the Nation-State in the Liberal International Order." In this speech Pompeo spoke at length about the need to "reassert our [American] sovereignty.” Pompeo argued that
Multilateralism has too often become viewed as an end unto itself. The more treaties we sign, the safer we supposedly are. The more bureaucrats we have, the better the job gets done. Every nation – every nation – must honestly acknowledge its responsibilities to its citizens and ask if the current international order serves the good of its people as well as it could.... nothing can replace the nation-state as the guarantor of democratic freedoms and national interests.
5 The reference is to the title of Samuel Huntington's 2004 Who Are We? The Challenges to America's National Identity (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004). Huntington argued that the American cultural and political traditions were distinctive outgrowths of America's protestant heritage and the colonial English experience. Huntingon worried that immigration and globalization would dilute American identity and fracture American politics; his warnings about the perils posed by a denationalized economic elite both presaged Trump's electoral platform and is a clear inspiration for Xie's own argument.
6 In his Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalisation of Democracy (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014), Fukuyama characterizes the government of the United States as a “vetocracy” incapable of effective governance. Fukuyama postulates that a constitution of checks and balances, a heritage of small government distrust, the advent of adversarial legalism, and poor bureaucratic design keeps the U.S. political system in a permanent state of paralysis.
7 Fukuyama originally introduced this concept in his famous article “The End of History?,” The National Interest, No. 16 (Summer 1989), pp. 3-18. Contrary to common misconceptions, Fukuyama did not argue that the end of the Cold War meant that nationalism, civil war, or strong man politics would be removed from the face of the Earth, or even the democratic portion of that Earth. Rather, he argued that with the collapse of Communism there was no other aspirational model for political life. Liberal democracy would remain the stick against which all polities would be measured, regardless of how well they measured up to them. Though Xie is clearly familiar with Fuuyama's work, he chooses to engage here with the Fukuyama of stereotype, not the more nuanced Fukuyama of reality.
8 In putting humiliation on par with colonization, Xie follows the standard interpretation of modern Chinese history current in mainland China, which laments the hundred years or so years between the Opium Wars and the founding of the People’s Republic of China as “a century of national humiliation.” China was never colonized in the fashion of the Indian Raj, but it was forced to allow foreign troops and gunships a permanent presence on its territory, concede extraterritorial rights to foreign citizens, and give away parts its territory (Macau, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Outer Mongolia, and the Amur River Basin) in exchange for peace. For more on this, see the glossary entry CENTURY OF NATIONAL HUMILIATION.