Liberalism, today, resembles Shakespeare’s King Lear. It seems to have lived past its glorious prime and stands expelled from its political castle to face the unkindly winter winds of a new political movement sweeping across Europe, the US and the globe.
Florian Philippot, the chief strategist of the French far-right leader Marine Le Pen, tweeted hours after Trump’s victory, “Their world is crumbing. Ours is building.” Leaders like Marine Le Pen, who were ideologically ostracised as the ‘right fringe’, have mustered unprecedented support. Far right leader Sebastian Kurz have ascended to the Austrian presidency riding on populist wave. Once a political outcast, the extreme right winger, Geert Wilders of Netherlands, is beginning to displace the liberal heavyweights from the political mainstream.
The success of the Five Star Movement in Italy led by the populist leader Beppe Grillo, who espouses anti-establishment and anti-globalism stance, has led to the recent resignation of the Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. Neo-Nazi Parties like the Golden Dawn of Greece and the ultra-right wing forces like the AfD (‘Alternative for Deutschland’) of Germany have been strutting the resurrection of extreme ideologies almost akin to the Fascist era. To top it all, the UK Independent Party (UKIP) led by the far-right leader, Nigel Farage, who claimed to have presided over the Brexit movement, has made the extreme right look politically alluring again.
Amidst all the political upheaval, where is liberalism today? The pangs of the dethroned king are now a public spectacle. Liberalism inescapably involves a prominent element of idealism and lacks the sex-appeal which makes extreme ideologies and unbridled populism attractive to eye of the voter. It is an achievement of major democracies of the world that they have, to a large extent, placed liberalism at a position of pre-eminence. Now that is fast changing and the liberal centre is being beaten by the extreme fringe.
So, what went wrong? Why did it lose favours with the electorate? Why the entire gamut of liberal leaders is being rejected as ‘political elites’, perching on high ivory towers, distant from the masses?
Rise of the Populist
Globalisation has produced winners as well as losers. The losers of globalisation have genuine suspicions for the processes that are changing the basic fabric of their society, demography, culture and economy, without them having a say in the rapid changes. Here lies root of the problem for the liberals. The idealism of the liberals implores them to reject these concerns as inherently divisive in nature that will only breed social acrimony and intolerance. Some of the concerns are mere prejudices dressed as grievance. But others are genuine concerns which liberal fail to recognise and politically articulate.
Arlie Hochschild, renowned American sociologist, has come up with one of the most convincing articulation of the social anxieties ailing the societies that are densely crisscrossed by the forces of globalisation. In her celebrated book, Strangers in their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, Hochschild argues that fear of cultural eclipse with the swift demographic changes, declining economic growth and declining availability of jobs, have caused a simmering discontent that lies latent underneath the veneer of calm and prosperity. The white Americans have lost the social position they enjoyed not more than three decades back and now as they queue up to realise their ‘American dream’ they find that some people are ‘cutting the line’ – the blacks, the immigrants, the minorities. It naturally breeds angst and social jealousies against those who seem to usurp their American dream.
The economic prosperity that globalisation has brought to the west for about a century has forbidden its people to brace themselves for economic hardships, lower (or negative growth) and job losses. Sections of the population are impelled to feel that they are out of their jobs because a better skilled immigrant has usurped their job and that they have the right to throw the immigrant out.
For a long time, the liberal parties chose to ignore these social angsts. Their romance with liberal idealism forced them to simply brush the discontent under the carpet. Now the situation only invites the populists to blow the lid off and ride the surging discontent to scale electoral victories one after another.
During the 2005 general elections in the United Kingdom, Tony Blair said in a speech, “It is the duty of the government to deal with the issues of both asylum and immigration, but they should not be exploited by politics that, in desperation, seeks refuge in them. We never use these issues as a political weapon, an instrument of division and discord.”
The statement reveals reluctance of the liberal politician to politically address the ‘issues’ that concern people and the rejection of these ‘divisive issues’ as too shallow for the high ideals of a liberal politician. No wonder why larges sections today dismiss liberals as ‘political elites’ who sermonise their philosophies from tall ivory towers.
The populist who discarded the idealism, rejected political correctness, embraced the anti-establishment sentiments, reflected the latent prejudices of the society, denounced globalism, espoused conservativism, professed isolationism, endorsed nativism, hyped nationalism, lampooned multiculturalism and evoked public emotions rather than rationality, immediately appealed to the people who had lost confidence in the liberal ‘political elite’.
A new Liberal Manifesto
And today, as we are amidst the throes of surging populism, the question before liberals is how to break their elitist image? How to make themselves electable again?
The obvious first step for the liberal parties is to politically recognise that there exist some genuine problems and discontent against the penetrating forces of unbridled globalism. The next and the more difficult step is to provide liberal answers to the questions thrown up by currents of globalisation. Fomenting prejudice is the answer offered by the illiberal populists of Europe and the US. Liberal answer lies in framing liberal rules that regulate unbridled immigration but not accentuate the prejudices.
Welfarism, which is the panacea of the liberal-left, is not a sufficient answer to job loss and negative growth. Hochschild has called it a ‘great paradox’ in her book that even those who lost their jobs have resented against welfare measures like ‘Obamacare’. In fact, the idea that liberal government supports men on doles and ‘taxes the worker to pay the idle’, has further alienated the liberals from the people. The root of the problem is slowing growth rate on either side of the Atlantic, not poverty. Therefore, the solution lies in GDP growth and not welfare. This should be the new liberal manifesto.
The next step is to sell the manifesto to the voters. Tony Blair, in his recent interview with CBC News, has correctly argued there is a need to convince the people that the centre of the ideological spectrum is the place where the change-makers of the world congregate. One of the biggest reasons of their successive electoral defeats is the monotonous image of the liberals as simply ‘the managers of the status quo’ while the leaders at the extreme right are seen as the real change-makers.
The idea of ‘change’ is fundamental to winning elections because it is fundamental to human nature to want ‘change’. Blair was able to pull off three consecutive Labour victories, first time in hundred-year history of the Labour party, by selling the idea of change – the ‘New Labour’.
Acclaimed American philosopher-writer, Will Durant once wrote that history is but a process of barbarisation, civilisation and re-barbarisation. Modern Liberalism marked one of the peaks of civilisation. As the twenty first century unfolds, shrill chants of ‘Make America Great Again’ seem to bring down that summit. What trajectory history takes from here depends, to a great extent, on asking ‘how to make liberal electable again?’
*Suyash Saxena writes on international affairs and policy issues and has been a research scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University, India. His articles have been published in several Indian and international periodicals.