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What’s Breaking Democracy?

The internationalization of economic and financial relationships has undermined the authority of the nation-state and created the conditions for today’s confluence of global crises. Worse, the unraveling of neoliberalism has led not to a progressive revival, but to something more politically contingent and uncertain.

CAMBRIDGE – My colleagues Gary Gerstle and Helen Thompson share an academic home at the University of Cambridge, and their new books share a common purpose: how to understand the dysfunctionality that has beset Western democracies. They explore that question in very different but complementary ways, offering deep insights into the disequilibrium dynamics of democratic capitalism. When read together, one sees clearly how the dissolution of Gerstle’s Neoliberal Order has stoked the disorder that Thompson analyzes.

The contrast between the two books owes much to the authors’ backgrounds. Gerstle, a historian of political ideas, ideologies, and cultures, writes from an American perspective. In The Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Order: America and the World in the Free Market Era, he tracks how initially radical political programs become institutionalized as all-encompassing “orders” when the opposition accepts their terms. Thus, the New Deal Order was established when the Republican Eisenhower administration chose not to try to repeal the Democratic Roosevelt administration’s central institutional reforms.

Neoliberal Order

Similarly, after its failed attempt to renew the New Deal Order through health-care reform, the Clinton administration embraced the liberated markets of the Reagan Revolution and thereby extended the Neoliberal Order until its demise in the post-2001 “forever wars” and the 2008 financial crisis. Gerstle presents Donald Trump’s ethno-populist appeal as signaling the exhaustion of the Neoliberal Order, the disintegration of which has left the United States polarized and paralyzed in the face of longstanding racial issues and the inescapable challenge of climate change.

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