Ronald Reagan Was Right: Freedom Is Never More Than a Generation Away from Extinction

That is the lesson from both India and America

Someone recently asked me what new insights about liberal democracy had I gained over the course of the last few years. That triggered the following thoughts:

I am originally from India. I myself stopped practicing any faith long ago, but I was raised in a deeply observant Hindu family. When I was growing up, India, a relatively young liberal democracy, was an economic basket case. But it was broadminded and committed to liberal values—pluralism, toleration and religious co-existence. In fact, I was taught that these values were also the values of Hinduism.

Then after India got rid of its stultifying License Raj, trade restrictions and other accoutrements of Fabian socialism and liberalized its economy in the 1990s, it became richer and, surprisingly, less tolerant and more fanatical. This was partly because as the country’s 80 percent Hindu population grew wealthier, it spent its discretionary income not just on travel, jewelry and gadgets but also on gurus and religious pursuits. In fact, Hinduism experienced a major revival in post-liberalization India.

 All of this was in complete contradiction to the secularization thesis that Western thinkers of all ideological persuasions—Friedrich Nietzsche (who famously declared that "God is dead") and Max Weber on the right and Karl Marx and Emile Durkheim on the left—subscribed to. This thesis basically held that modernization and wealth diminished the hold of pre-scientific, religious beliefs on a society. Not in India.

As I wrote in a 2014 Reason magazine feature:

Far from posing a threat to Hinduism, India's dominant religion, modernization has given it a major boost…market-led growth has minted a class of mostly Hindu nouveau riche…for whom religion is a consumer good, like ostentatious weddings or fancy cars.

Religious pilgrimages are at an all-time high. Annual visitation to Vaishno Devi, a mountain shrine near Kashmir, increased from 5 million in 2000 to 10 million in 2012. Private choppers now offer luxury trips to devotees who want to avoid the steep hike. Last year's eight-week Maha Kumbh Mela attracted a record 100 million Hindus from across India for a dip in the holy Ganges, twice more than when it was last held in 2001.

Donations to temples have exploded. The famous southern temple of Tirupati has now become the wealthiest and the most visited religious institution in the world, ahead even of the Vatican.

In pre-liberalization India, Hindus had regarded Hinduism as a bit of a loser religion. Now they felt pride bordering on chauvinism.

Starting in the mid-2000s, I started hearing distinct notes of anti-Muslim belligerence among my loved ones and a growing embrace of an aggressive Hindu nationalism. This culminated, to my complete shock and disbelief, in the election of Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist with a terrible record on Muslim persecution. In 2002 when he was Chief Minister of Gujarat, the state became the ground of one of the worst Muslim massacres in post-Partition India. Yet not only did he get elected, he acquired an unshakeable cult following that was impervious to any blunders. Even an unforced error like demonetization (when out of the blue he declared 80 percent of the country’s currency null and void, slashing the national GDP by at least two points) didn’t cost him anything politically; he got re-elected by a landslide.

But I thought that such a figure could never get elected in America. It was a more mature liberal democracy. It was founded on an explicit commitment to rational, Enlightenment principles. These principles were homegrown, not imports. So Americans by and large had an innate attachment to these ideas that insulated them from wholesale illiberal, authoritarian appeals.

And then, lo and behold, Donald “I Could Stand In The Middle of Fifth Avenue and Shoot Somebody and I Wouldn’t Lose Any Voters” Tump got elected. Worse, he was right. He incited a mob attack on the Capitol and the vast majority of his party still stuck with him. The more Trump has pushed normal rules of decency and morality, the more his base has stretched itself to accommodate him, just as was the case with Modi in India.

Observing all this, the last six years have taught me two things:

One, even if we believe that there is an arc of history that is curving in the direction of liberal democracy, it is going to be interrupted with massive setbacks. And these setbacks have a potential to get really nasty. The January 6 insurrection was just a taste of how ugly things can get—by no means the full menu. One really can’t take liberalism’s spectacular track record for granted and expect it to sell itself—that liberalism’s case is in the bank and we don’t really have to worry about ever losing it.

I now firmly believe Ronald Reagan’s observation that freedom is “never more than one generation away from extinction” regardless of whether we are talking about a young liberal democracy like India’s or an established one like America’s. The relative stability and prosperity of the last half-century should not lull us into a false sense of confidence. Civilization always teeters on the edge of barbarity.

My second lesson is that even though liberal democracy is far from secure in America, this country is still its best hope. If liberal democracy falls here, the dominos will fall everywhere. This is not because I believe in mystical notions of American exceptionalism or manifest destiny. It is merely because, as the largest and most successful liberal democracy, America has demonstration effects for the rest of the world. If there were other strong liberal democracies of America’s stature, what happened here would matter less in the world. But there are no other candidates of America’s stature. So if America falls, China’s repressive state capitalism will become relatively attractive and 300 years of Enlightenment-era peace and prosperity might well come to an end.

Photo Credit: Reagan White House Photographs. Wikipedia.