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Opinion | Will the Ukraine War End the Age of Populism?

None of this should be surprising: It’s always been the case that a liberal society depends for unity and vigor on not entirely liberal forces — religious piety, nationalist pride, a sense of providential mission, a certain degree of ethnic solidarity and, of course, the fear of some external adversary. Liberalism at its best works to guide and channel these forces; liberalism at its worst veers between ignoring them and being overwhelmed by them.

Among the optimistic liberals of the current moment, you can see how that veering happens. “A Russian defeat will make possible a ‘new birth of freedom,’” Francis Fukuyama wrote last week, “and get us out of our funk about the declining state of global democracy. The spirit of 1989 will live on.” Following up in an interview with The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent, Fukuyama framed the current moment as an opportunity for Westerners and Americans to choose liberalism anew, out of a recognition that the nationalist alternative is “pretty awful.”

But one of the key lessons of recent years is that the spirit of 1989 was itself as much a spirit of revived Eastern European nationalism as of liberalism alone. Which is one reason countries like Poland and Hungary have sorely disappointed liberals in their subsequent development … up until now, of course, when Polish nationalism is suddenly a crucial bulwark for the liberal democratic West.

So liberals watching the floundering of populism need a balanced understanding of their own position, their dependence on nationalism and particularism and even chauvinism, their obligation to sift those forces so that the good (admiration for the patriotism of Ukrainians and the heroic masculinity of Volodymyr Zelensky) outweighs the bad (boycotts of a Russian piano prodigy, a rush toward nuclear war).

And they also need to avoid the delusion that Putin’s wicked and incompetent invasion means that all complaints about the West’s internal problems can safely be dismissed as empty, false, self-hating.

Last week, for instance, the Russia scholar Stephen Kotkin told The New Yorker’s David Remnick that Putin’s invasion disproves “all the nonsense about how the West is decadent, the West is over, the West is in decline, how it’s a multipolar world and the rise of China.” With the West rallying to a resilient Ukraine, “all of that turned out to be bunk.”

What was bunk was the idea that Putin’s Russia represents some kind of efficient postliberal or traditionalist alternative to the problems of the West, and one whose military could simply steamroller Eastern Europe. But all those Western problems remain: American power is in relative decline, China’s power has dramatically increased, and none of what I, as a self-appointed expert on the subject, would classify as the key problems of American decadence — demographic decline, economic disappointment and stagnation, a social fabric increasingly shadowed by drugs and depression and suicide — have somehow gone away just because Moscow’s military is failing outside Kyiv.

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