Liberal democracy is in decline across the globe. Why? The literature provides many answers, i.e., a decline in the power and gatekeeping role of political parties (Lavinsky and Ziblatt), the role of intellectuals (Applebaum), changes in political campaign financing (Balkin), the anti-liberal influence of Donald Trump (Kendzior), the flaws of “democracy” itself (Mounk), to name just a few. Most scholars, however, neglect the underlying causes of these proximate phenomena. In this essay I take a sociological and social-psychological approach to explore the underlying causes. I focus on liberal democracy’s decline in the Industrial West, particularly the United States. I argue that this decline can be partly attributed to the inherent weaknesses/limitations of liberalism, exacerbated in the 21st century by neo-liberal economic forces and digital technology. I contend that liberal values of equality, tolerance, the rule of law, and rational debate chafe against the sacrosanct entrenchment of the neo-liberal free market and its laissez-faire ideology, as well as the inherent liberal neglect of the human need for status, community, heroes, and the impulse to unleash passionate grievances. This chafing has now opened lesions in liberal institutions, exacerbated by widespread disinformation and obscene inequality, I offer three suggestions to strengthen 21st century liberalism: government regulation of social media to censure hate speech and disinformation, new taxes on wealth to reduce economic inequality, and an expansion of the public realm—parks, libraries, beaches, public schools, etc., where “money doesn’t matter.” This last suggestion is crucial. Because economic inequality and precarity will persist in a liberal democratic society even when taxation is more equitable, expansion of the public realm is needed to reduce the impact of inequality in liberal democratic society.

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