This piece is adapted from the Manhattan Institute’s Wriston Lecture, which Mr. Roberts delivered in New York City on October 27, 2016.
There’s a competition in the world between state corporatism and democracy, and the American political system needs to shape up or lose.
The American primary system, which has thrown up two presidential candidates who are despised by 60% of Americans, is broken and urgently needs to be reformed. The only rational response to the choice of Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump is that of Henry Kissinger on the Iran-Iraq War: “A pity they both can’t lose.” For a non-American who defends the U.S. at every opportunity, I must ask: Are you deliberately trying to make it more difficult for me this year?
For all the undoubted genius of your Constitution, in 2016 it is no longer sustainable for Americans to say they have the best democratic system in the world. There have been many types of democracy—the Athenian agora model of direct participation, the Westminster-based constitutional monarchy, the Swiss referendum and cantonal model, Indian mass democracy, and so on. But it is impossible any more to suggest that the finest one is that which has thrown up Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump as the final choice for 320 million Americans.
When Chinese GDP is overtaking America’s, we are engaged in a vital ideological struggle over which political system delivers the best results: the state corporatism of the Beijing model, where there is no free speech and no democracy, or the democratic model of the West, whose leading democracy today presents its people with a choice between a preposterous, petulant monster of self-regard with deep, dark psychological flaws on one side, and on the other a proven failure whose views float with the polling data and whose word of honor cannot be relied upon.
I’m not for a moment suggesting that democracy is under threat in America. With your Constitution, Bill of Rights, First Amendment, Congress, separation of powers—and the sublime instincts of the American people—democracy is under no threat whatsoever here, for all your president’s absurd hyperbole. But the concept of democratic values as worthy aspirations for modern society certainly is under serious threat globally from a totalitarian state-capitalist model that is dangerously attractive in what it is producing for its populations, while American democracy is offering a choice between a crook and a clown.
So what is to be done?
First, the Republicans need party leaders and candidates who confront people like Mr. Trump seriously from the start and do not coddle him in the vain hope that if you’re nice you inherit his supporters when he collapses. Second, it is ludicrous to have debates controlled by TV channels that want the GOP to split and the Democrats to win, and which frame their questions accordingly.
Third, the talking down of America, even in an election year, has gone too far and is likely to be misinterpreted abroad. Newt Gingrich has said that if Mrs. Clinton wins, America will go the way of Venezuela. No it won’t. When Adam Smith was brought the news of Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga, and was told that Britain was ruined forever, he replied. “There’s a great deal of ruin in a nation.”
If we in Britain got over losing America and went on to become the largest empire in history, you can get over four years of Mrs. Clinton. The word “again” in “Make America great again” is a terrible libel on your country, which is still great...
Andrew Roberts is an historian, professor of war studies at King’s College London, and the author of many books, including “Napoleon: A Life” (Viking, 2014).
Photo by Getty Images / Ethan Miller