The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion It’s time to take the idea of the West back from the populists

Then-French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet in Moscow on March 24. (Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)
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Michael Kimmage is a history professor at the Catholic University of America and a Bosch Public Policy Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

The current wave of populism in the United States and Europe is often equated with mere nationalism. Populists from Marine Le Pen to President Trump claim to uphold the nation and its people against elites besotted by international, transnational and supranational commitments. Hence the need “to put America first” or to declare, as Le Pen’s supporters were urged to do, that it is the French who are properly at home in France.

Hidden within this populist-nationalist wave, however, is a curiously nonnational affiliation. It is with “Western civilization,” a Cold War rallying cry that had faded away in the 1990s. During the Cold War, “the West” was a ubiquitous phrase, signifying everything from NATO to the Enlightenment, from the Christian faith to the free market. The West was all that the Soviet East was not.

For Le Pen, Trump, Viktor Orban and their fellow travelers, the West is narrower and thinner. Theirs is the West of counterterrorist anxiety and therefore a West that must be saved from the wrong kinds of immigration — as well as from post-national elites. The populists’ West is deliberately exclusionary, marking the border between Islam and Christendom and describing a European inheritance that approximates European descent. It is tacitly — or not so tacitly — a white West.

It is also a West no longer synonymous with NATO, which in Turkey included a majority-Muslim, non-European Middle Eastern state from the outset. In fact, with its weakness for humanitarian intervention, NATO may be part of the globalist problem for a president who is conspicuously reserved about the responsibilities this alliance imposes. Vladimir Putin’s Russia – a European state that affirms ethnos, nation and church – might be a better object of populist emulation than multinational NATO, not to mention the European Union. Whether of the West or not, Putin demonstrates, for some, how a West that has forgotten its identity might rise up and assert itself once again.

In the past year, the hunger for a chauvinistic West has grown from marginal to mainstream. It promises to be a near-permanent fixture of the electoral landscape in Europe and the United States, and it has also gone largely unchallenged. Traditionalist conservatives are on the defensive, while liberals are more comfortable speaking in bland tones about the liberal international order than they are about the West. This is a concept that has been ceded to the populists.

One reason is academic. American higher education has long neglected the West out of disgust with Western misdeeds, out of a desire to shed the constraints of nation and civilization and to breathe the pure air of cosmopolitan openness, out of an accelerating disinterest in the humanities. Over the past few decades this neglect has become systematic, leaving educated young Americans either unschooled in Western ideas or inclined to reduce these ideas to the crimes of Western imperialism. Along the way, the West has been largely abandoned to the demagogues.

Only now are we beginning to understand just what a serious mistake this has been. One can acknowledge the many dark chapters in Western history and still embrace the core principles contained within the Western idea: the separation of church and state; limited government and the balancing of executive with judicial and legislative power; the rule of law; and the attribution of constitutionally protected rights to citizenship.

These principles have nothing to do with ethnicity or race. They are not limited by geography, culture or religion. If they gained an early impulse from the French and American revolutions, their roots lie in antiquity. Their adherents can be found across the globe.

Meanwhile, the very populists who happily speak in the name of the West have proven to be the most immediate threat to Western political principles, a threat from within. Those seeking to counter them should revisit and revitalize the Western political tradition, with its reverence for liberty and contempt for tyranny. From 1776 to 1989, there is a wealth of philosophical wisdom and riveting historical example on which to draw.

If reclaiming Western principles sounds old-fashioned in the second decade of the 21st century, it also has its advantages.

It can rescue us from the disease of partisanship, for Western principles are neither conservative nor liberal. The greatest Democratic and Republican presidents have all been gifted evangelists for the Western political idea. Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman and John F. Kennedy made their contributions as Democrats. Truman labeled the plight of European Jews after World War II a “challenge to Western civilization.” Civis Romanus sum, Kennedy reminded his audience in West Berlin, right before saying “Ich bin ein Berliner.” Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan pitched in as Republicans. Eisenhower characterized the Cold War as “the last remaining chance for the survival of Western civilization,” while Reagan enjoyed rhapsodizing about “the community of Western democracies.”

A tip of the hat to Western tradition is a bipartisan legacy, in which the guiding norms of American politics have flourished. They found their most enduring form in a minimalist speech given after the battle of Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln’s perfect homage to the rigors of self-government.

At Gettysburg, Lincoln made abstract and complicated ideas accessible. He applied these ideas to the political exigencies of his time, and he did so with an eye to history and an eye to the future. In the final sentence of his address, Lincoln repeats the word “people” three times. A populist of sorts, he used his speech to subtly redefine the concept of “the American people,” enlarging and expanding it in a spirit of civic generosity.

Lincoln was the first Republican president. His genius for expressing the best idea of the West is an example to which Democrats and Republicans alike should be turning in the ominous summer of 2017. It is the salient and necessary alternative to the populist’s selective and liberty-endangering West.