By Chris Patten*
It may shock some Americans to learn that democratic leaders and publics in Europe and elsewhere are more concerned about the prospect of Donald Trump winning their country’s 2024 presidential election than any other world event, including crucial elections in their own countries. To be sure, there is no shortage of global threats. As the effects of climate change become increasingly visible, I wonder what kind of world we will leave to our children and grandchildren.
More immediately, the intensifying war between Israel and Hamas poses a significant threat to stability in the Middle East. The United States’ unwavering support for Israel’s forceful response to the October 7 massacre of Israeli citizens by Hamas evokes the “blank check” that German Kaiser Wilhelm II offered to Austria-Hungary in dealing with Serbia, which set the stage for World War I. Israel’s American allies might want to reflect on the outcomes of that war – which resulted in 40 million deaths and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian, German, and Russian empires – and reconsider what true friendship means in such situations.
Another Trump presidency, however, represents the greatest threat to global stability, because the fate of liberal democracy would be entrusted to a leader who attacks its fundamental principles. Trump’s disdain for the rule of law, unwillingness to accept electoral defeat, and affinity for autocrats like Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping are anathema to free and open societies. How could NATO operate effectively under a US president who seeks to undermine it? How could European countries trust a US administration that fails to support Ukraine against Russia?
While European countries have relied too heavily on US security guarantees, America has been the greatest beneficiary of the post-war political and economic order. By persuading much of the world to embrace the principles of liberal democracy (at least rhetorically), the US expanded its global influence and established itself as the world’s “shining city on a hill.” Given China and Russia’s growing assertiveness, it is not an exaggeration to say that the rules-based international order might not survive a second Trump term.
Moreover, a Trump victory would exacerbate divisions within democratic countries. Historically, Western electorates have been divided between left-wing parties advocating solidarity and social equity and right-wing parties that place greater emphasis on continuity and individual responsibility. But today’s electorates are increasingly characterized by an unwillingness to recognize the legitimacy of opposing views and values.
Right-wing populists like Trump have been the primary beneficiaries of political polarization. This can be partly attributed to the disconnect between the left and the working class. Traditionally, leftist parties have appealed to lower-income voters by championing government-led solutions to social injustice, offering the promise that increased public spending, progressive taxation, and social-welfare programs would lead to a fairer, more comfortable, and safer world for everyone. Yet, even amid surging inequality in most developed countries – including my own, the United Kingdom – center-left parties have struggled to win the support of blue-collar workers.
A key reason for the rise of far-right demagogues is leftists’ frequent disregard for the right’s emphasis on continuity and community. In the UK and elsewhere, working-class voters often view center-left politicians as condescending and dismissive of their political preferences, particularly when it comes to immigration control and law enforcement. Why, then, would working-class voters support policies that clash with their views and values?
In the UK, Labour Party leader Keir Starmer seems to have recognized this issue, acknowledging that the party cannot overlook voters’ concerns about losing their sense of identity and community. Consequently, some critics have rebukedhim for being too risk-averse. But Starmer’s pragmatic approach may render him more electable than conventional left-wing leaders.
Right-wing parties, which have traditionally emphasized the importance of familial, religious, ethnic, and national identities, face a similar challenge. Center-right politicians believe that in democracies, majority opinions must be balanced by a tolerant regard for the preferences (and even prejudices) of minorities. They strongly support governing institutions that uphold the rule of law, an independent judiciary, due process, and freedom of speech, in order to safeguard citizens from democratic excesses. Their intellectual forebears are Cicero, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Edmund Burke.
Given its longstanding commitment to protecting minority rights from the dominance of majority opinion, the center-right should have championed identity politics in a generous and inclusive spirit. Similarly, it should have recognized that national interests often align with international cooperation and that a cohesive society can and must embrace a certain level of diversity. But the global migration crisis has led some right-wing leaders, such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s far-right National Rally, to shift away from the traditional conservative caution toward overt authoritarianism.
While the outlook for the coming year may seem bleak, identifying the threats facing open societies is crucial to saving liberal democracy. The establishment of the rules-based order following the end of World War II represented a huge step toward global cooperation and enlightenment, and we must preserve its achievements. But as the old adage goes, the key to good health is moderation in all things – including moderation itself.
*Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong and a former EU commissioner for external affairs, is Chancellor of the University of Oxford and the author of The Hong Kong Diaries (Allen Lane, 2022).