Democracy is in retreat around the world. From Poland and Turkey to Russia and the United States, voters have placed their faith in authoritarian leaders. This should not be surprising. In fact, it is remarkable that the democratic ideal survived so long. Three centuries ago, philosophers of the Enlightenment began telling us that reason is more important than tradition, and that people should shape their own lives rather than submitting to leaders. That was an audacious rebellion against all of previous human history. For a time it seemed to be succeeding.
Today’s cry of protest, though, is a rejection of the Enlightenment. Voters are making clear that they want to be ruled with a strong hand, not rule themselves.
With its emphasis on science, the Enlightenment reshaped the world. Modern prosperity is its legacy — but so is the social upheaval that made prosperity possible. Humanity’s immense material progress has not been matched by moral or political progress. Instead, leadership failures have set off explosions of frustration and discord. Even the two countries where the Enlightenment was born, Britain and France, are being shaken by reactionary movements that reject Enlightenment ideals.