- - Tuesday, August 15, 2017

I think it was my old acquaintance George Will who once said that the best thing about being a pessimist is that when you turn out to be wrong it comes as a pleasant surprise. This should serve as a great source of comfort to Financial Times columnist Edward Luce whose latest book views the future of Western civilization — in particular its political and economic underpinnings — through a glass darkly. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Mr. Luce makes Cassandra look like Pollyanna.

Readers should bear in mind that the “western liberalism” that he admires and sees retreating into decline is not identical with what many Americans have in mind when they use the word liberal, usually in an uncomplimentary way as in “knee-jerk liberal,” “bleeding heart liberal” or “liberal elitist.” He does, however, embrace many aspects of the welfare state and cultural liberalism that are a big part of that package. But he doesn’t miss the point entirely. “Sometime during the 1960s,” he writes, “the Western left abandoned the politics of solidarity to embrace one of personal liberation.”

Personal liberation is, by its very nature, a plaything of the affluent and the idle. And it is a goal open only to the privileged, whether their privilege is anchored to family wealth or to subsidized, unearned food and shelter that enable them to do their own thing rather than earn their own way. It’s the free circus that accompanies the free bread in an affluent but decadent society. Part of Mr. Luce seems to understand this even as another part of him is pulled in the opposite direction.

The result is a work that is thoughtful but not always well thought-out in a coherent way. To do him credit, though, the author correctly diagnoses what can fairly be described as a crisis in Western civilization’s belief in itself and its political ideals. If you skipped the first 202 pages of his book and just read the next-to-last page you would find his best thinking distilled into four short sentences:

“People have lost faith that their systems can deliver. More and more are looking backwards to a golden age that can never be regained. When a culture stops looking to the future, it loses its vital force. The search for Eden always ends in tears.”

Yet it is Western liberalism run amok that has contributed much to the angst and nostalgia contaminating political life today. Post-World War II prosperity — and post-World War II welfare states in almost all of Western Europe — created a Ponzi scheme mentality on the part of politicians who thought they could buy more and more votes by underwriting more and more “free stuff” for ever and ever.

Meanwhile, in America, a popular culture that once reinforced a shared, unifying social ethos became its enemy, spawning the drug culture and the weakening of family and community, and dragging down educational standards from kindergarten to grad school.

Rebuilding a primary and secondary public education system that can restore literacy to the urban underclass and lower-income Americans in economically stagnant parts of the heartland — and that can provide skilled training for the modern workplace — is one of the keys to restoring social confidence and cohesion. And it is more likely to come from conservative reformers than from the nominally “liberal” education lobby and teachers’ unions that so vehemently opposed Donald Trump.

The sustained dumbing down and debasing of the popular press, network programming, pop music and art — not to mention social manners and daily discourse — were not the work of white nationalists or reactionary populists. They were the crowning triumph of the “personal liberation” ethos Mr. Luce cited in passing before focusing most of his fire elsewhere:

“There is no precise measure of the health of liberal democracy. But we can be sure that America will not become great again under Trump. There will be a lethal mood of betrayal and frustration when he fails. Who knows where that will lead?”

The answer, of course, is nobody. But it is always unwise to predict the failure of a president based on the first few weeks or months of his presidency. And it is even more foolish to assume that the battle between vitality and decline in a country as vast and dynamic as America will be won or lost in a strange little place called Washington, D.C.

Politicians don’t make waves. They just try to ride them.

• Aram Bakshian Jr., an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, writes widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

• • •

By Edward Luce
Atlantic Monthly Press, $24, 234 pages

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