The human race, to which so many of my readers belong, has been playing at children’s games from the beginning, and will probably do it till the end, which is a nuisance for the few people who grow up. And one of the few games to which it is most attached is called… ‘Cheat the Prophet.’ The players listen very carefully and respectfully to all that the clever men have to say about what is going to happen in the next generation. The players then wait until all the clever men are dead, and bury them nicely. Then they go and do something else. —GK Chesterton, The Napoleon of Notting Hill
Last week, it struck me, as I walked around Villanova University’s campus, how radically the American people’s outlook on the world seemed to have changed when I was a student there from 2015 to 2019. Looking back, it becomes apparent that mankind had, in those years, resumed its game of “Cheat the Prophet.” Humanity began undermining the predictors of perpetual liberal enlightenment and took the first step into the long 21st Century.
The “long century,” is a philosophic notion which suggests time can be, and perhaps ought to be, defined according to thematic epochs rather than simple dates. As such, the “Long Nineteenth Century” is often defined as the period between the French Revolution in 1789 and the start of the First World War in 1914. Thinking along these lines, I suspect, the end of the 20th Century was not 1991 with the collapse of the communist world, as many epochally inclined historians suppose, but around the year 2016 with high-water mark of the liberal order and the beginning of its decline.
The term “liberal,” in this article, does not refer to the Democratic Party, its voters, nor does it particularly apply to those who, in plain speech, we typically call ‘liberals,’ but rather to the enlightenment-inspired political philosophy that grew to be nearly universal in the Western world between 1789 and 1919. Liberalism, so defined, won out over fascism and communism in the 20th Century, reaching its ideological tentacles far beyond Europe and the United States to Asia, Africa, and South America. Until very recently, virtually all political parties in virtually every Western nation, have embraced the liberal world values embodied by post-war institutions such as the Bretton Woods System, United Nations, European Union, and even NATO—to some degree. The prophets of this order foresaw perpetual economic prosperity, lasting peace between world powers ensured by an integrated international economy, and the effective dissolution of national borders in favor of a global community comprised of global citizens. Western citizens and experts clung feverishly to the liberal dream for decades, and by 2000, considered themselves vindicated. Even in successive years, when terrorism and wars in the Middle East plagued the West, Americans and Europeans—individuals both supportive of and against war—sought and defined themselves on liberal principles. They either supported war on grounds that liberty must reign around the world and that murderers must be brough to justice, or opposed war suggesting Iraqis and Afghanis must not be deprived of their sovereignty by foreign forces that might exploit them. Liberal ideals such as these are waning and no longer define American politics or the sentiment of the American people.
The ordinary men and women coming of age in this new century have been beneficiaries of the liberal order’s promises and see around them a prosperous land replete with depressed and suicidal drug addicts who indulge hedonic impulses, finding their lives otherwise meaningless. Unsurprisingly, such people are growing tired of the liberal world view and are increasingly unwilling to pay the cost of the progress and prosperity it has to offer.
According to a 2022 Gallup study, the majority of Americans are dissatisfied with the current level of immigration in the United States and according a poll by the Coalition for a Prosperous America, 73% of American voters support trade policies intended to protect US industry from China. These Americans, whether they know it consciously or not, actively repudiate the path charted by the “enlightened” thinkers of the 20th Century. They have decided the economic prosperity and increases in GDP that do truly result from open trade and open border policies are not worth the social costs borne by themselves and their children. In this, they are rejecting some of the fundamental tenets of the liberal order. Another discussion may be had on the virtues of this change in heart, but essentially, liberal values are no longer synonymous with American values. This changing attitude is perhaps most clear in the American people’s view of war.
The withdrawal of American fighting men from Afghanistan and the Russian invasion of Ukraine are illustrative of both the switch to a less idealistic political attitude and the ultimate weakening of remaining proponents of liberal order. Taking Afghanistan first, the striking fact is how little concern was shown for ideals by men and women on both sides of the withdrawal debate. The arguments for leaving tended not to cite the rights of the Afghani people to govern themselves, but rather the pointlessness of remaining, and opponents of withdrawal did not oppose it in order to ensure the safety of democracy, but because of pragmatic concern for international trust in American promises to protect important assets as well as a general unwillingness to give up a country that cost so many lives to tame.
By contrast, in the Ukraine conflict, one can observe a slightly more dynamic reaction which reveals the nuances of national sentiment. On one hand, the United States did not take decisive action against Russia upon the commencement of invasion, despite a 1994 agreement, under the auspices of the United Nations Security Council, in which Russia, the United Kingdom, and United States committed themselves to respecting the sovereignty and borders of Ukraine. This shows the overall lack of national will to make war on Russia over the sovereignty of a former Soviet Republic. It points to the percentage of Americans that feel the war is simply not America’s to fight and believe if anyone is bound to involvement, it is the European countries on whose borders the conflict is occurring. Such people tend to believe American lives and treasure ought not be eagerly expended in other country’s wars when an entire continent has enjoyed the fruit of American peace for nearly 80 years and can afford to defend itself against a single aggressor, the economy of which is smaller than that of Texas.
On the other hand, there are the liberal order holdouts, comprised of Republicans, Democrats, and most media outlets, that believe the fate of the free-world is at stake. They appear to be somewhat shocked that war could occur between two European countries in this century. Perhaps they forget that the century in which they (and most people alive today) were born was defined by “the war to end all wars” and the second—bloodier—war 20 years after that. Aside from the obvious goal of gaining ratings, I do not think it would be wrong to say the mainstream media’s reaction to the war in Ukraine is largely the result of genuine, if apoplectic, disbelief that the prophets of ever-advancing progress could have been wrong. They cannot fathom that nations are behaving as they did before the establishment of international organizations intended to ensure peace and prosperity. In essence they cannot believe the worldview they in some senses embody has been smashed to pieces. Herein lies what I think is a crucial marker of the end of the 20th Century epoch.
For the purposes of this article, I am not interested in debating the merits of President Trump, but I do believe his election in 2016 is a good indicator of the shift. His election displayed both a popular support for policies that are antithetical to the liberal order, as well as support for rhetoric that is openly disdainful of that order. The disbelieving response his electoral victory elicited from the media and mainstream politicians demonstrates the scale of departure from the previous acceptance of how the world operates. Opponents of Trump were (and still are) genuinely horrified because their model of the world is genuinely breaking apart. Supporters, by contrast, were jubilant (remarkably so) because their realpolitik intuitions of how the world actually works were given credence and voice. At this time too, both sides tended, to a large degree, to abandon arguing on the basis of enlightenment ideals, in favor of direct appeals to the betterment of voters.
With the idealistic prophets dead and buried, our civilization seems poised to do exactly what they had never suspected. It seems poised to return to patterns of the past. It seems poised to again be entangled in European dominance struggles, openly self-interested national policies, and fractured systems of power. But these large-scale changes, I suspect, go part and parcel with a Western identity crisis that touches the core (pre)suppositions of our civilization.
Frank J. Connor is the author of The Ridiculous Man and The Progressive Reports. He is a former Fox News journalist and worked as an analyst at a prominent bond rating agency. After years of discernment, he responded to a call to the Catholic priesthood and is currently in religious formation.