What’s driving the anti-liberal revolt? And what should we do about it?

Trump Kampagne
Foto: Shutterstock.com

The rapid pace of moderni­sa­tion renders people suscep­tible to populism. For the cosmopolitan milieus, this came as a surprise. Yet the warning signs had long been apparent.

We live in a period of turbulent change. America’s crisis and the rise of author­i­tarian powers are increasing inter­na­tional uncer­tainty. The global inte­gra­tion of markets is inten­si­fying the pressure to compete, a challenge that is acutely felt by the working and middle classes. The digital revo­lu­tion is having a profound effect on the world of work and our daily lives. Global migration is dissolving the buffer between us and the others. The eman­ci­pa­tion of women and equality for sexual minori­ties are toppling the patri­archy from its pedestal. All of these changes are happening simul­ta­ne­ously and at a rapid pace.

For the well-educated portion of our society, this accel­er­ated modernity holds out bright prospects, despite all the concomi­tant stress. The “Erasmus gener­a­tion” feels at home in a border-free Europe. For cosmopolitan Americans — the “Bobos in Paradise” — open borders and immigrant neigh­bours are core to the American dream. For them, the doors to the world stand open. The multi­cul­tural mix enriches their lives. Glob­al­i­sa­tion multi­plies their options. When a move would bring advance­ment, or when love calls, this gener­a­tion feels bound to neither place nor language.

It is these elites in the spheres of science, business, politics and media who shaped the liberal cosmopolitan consensus that has been shaken by the Brexit refer­endum, the election of Donald Trump and the buoyant rise of nation­alist parties.

For many in that sphere, the anti-liberal revolt came like a bolt from the blue. Yet signs of its approach had been apparent for some time — at least since the onset of the 2007 financial crisis, which dramat­i­cally shook the public’s confi­dence in the ruling elites and demo­c­ratic institutions.

Since then, the sense that control has been lost has predom­i­nated. It is no accident that the battle-cry of Brex­i­teers in the United Kingdom was “take back control” — circling the wagons, the retreat to a national fortress promising safety from the threats of global migration and free trade. Trump rode the same wave into the White House.

For liberals, one hopes that the recent success of the anti-liberal revolt also marked its zenith. We have seen a defiant demo­c­ratic reaction since then. The Trump agenda is losing support, as demon­strated compre­hen­sively in the November 7 Virginia elections. Right-wing populists were thwarted in the Nether­lands and France. The 12.6 percent for the Alter­na­tive for Germany (AfD) is a warning sign, but not yet a threat to the democracy.

It would be dangerous to sound the all-clear though. Author­i­tarian regimes are gaining ground from China to Turkey. In the European Union, too, the spirit of “illiberal democracy” is stirring.

The Threat of Change

Those reacting against the liber­alism of the last few decades see change as threat, not oppor­tu­nity. They are afraid of losing social status and they defiantly defend tradi­tional gender roles and national self-images. For them, the future seems darker than an idealized past. This is fertile ground for “iden­ti­tarian” tendencies.

Iden­ti­tar­ians promise security by way of with­drawal back into a closed world view and a closed society. Ethnic nation­alism is one version of this, Islamism is another. In their aversion to the open society, these two have more in common than would appear at first glance.

The question is how liberal democracy will respond. We cannot shield our societies from the changes happening in our times; we have to accept them and take up the task of shaping them. The job of policy-makers is to steer changes, not merely to manage them.

Expe­ri­encing global compe­ti­tion, the digital revo­lu­tion or the huge influx of people from other areas of the world as simply natural phenomena — events beyond control that descend upon us — destroys the legit­i­macy of liberal democracies.

Winners and Losers in a Liberal World

Since the “neolib­eral” swing in economic policies, the paradigm of free markets, dereg­u­la­tion and priva­ti­za­tion dominated over political regu­la­tion and govern­ment inter­ven­tion — in part an ideo­log­ical choice and in part a reflec­tion of the widening gap between economic glob­al­iza­tion and national gover­nance. The flip side of global compe­ti­tion and free flow of capital needs to be urgently addressed. The growing inequality of wealth, income and oppor­tu­nity within our societies is no longer polit­i­cally sustainable.

The founding fathers of the social market economy recog­nised the impor­tance of a regu­la­tory framework for the free interplay of forces. As the reach of national policies is reduced, more pan-European and global regu­la­tion is needed: on economics, immi­gra­tion, climate, and host of other issues that can neither be dealt with by the nation state alone, nor be left to the forces of the market.

We also need to equip indi­vid­uals with the ability to keep pace with tech­no­log­ical and social changes. Education and occu­pa­tional qual­i­fi­ca­tions are no longer a guarantee of a successful career path, but they remain the best option for ensuring a produc­tive and stable society.

Coun­ter­acting the dichotomy between winners and losers is core to the defence of liberal democracy.

Between Freedom and Belonging

When growing uncer­tainty meets growing inequality, an explosive situation results. Populism — from the left and right — warns that something is brewing in Western societies that we must address.

The freedom of the indi­vidual is both the starting point and the objective of political liber­alism. But liberals should not ignore the need for a sense of belonging either. We must show that we can success­fully combine liberty with community; diversity with societal cohesion; change with stability.

One of Emmanuel Macron’s key campaign slogans was “a Europe that protects”: no one should left to bear the brunt of economic and social upheaval without protec­tion, everyone has a right to soli­darity and participation.

Jeremy Corbyn, the unex­pected star of the British Labour Party, taps into the same sentiment with his slogan “a society for the many not the few”. While Corbyn’s is a retro-socialism of the 70s rather than a new departure, the younger gener­a­tion flocks to his banner. He embodies the left-wing version of a longing for a cohesive, caring community, a progres­sive alter­na­tive to the vision of the nation­alist community from the right.

And so, what are liberals to do?

Those who seek to defend liberal democracy must think again about what the concept of “well-fortified democracy” means.

First, there is the state’s classic function of protec­tion against violence and arbitrary acts, whether internal or external. In an era of ideo­log­i­cally charged terrorism, the return of political extremism, and organised crime, the issue of internal security has taken on new relevance.

Second is the issue of what psychol­o­gists call “ego-strength”: the ability of indi­vid­uals to act with confi­dence. The rapidity of compre­hen­sive tech­no­log­ical, social, and cultural change presents a challenge to individual’s iden­ti­ties and their sense of worth in a community. Ego-strength is fostered through the expe­ri­ence of self-efficacy. Education and upbringing play a key role here. It is imper­a­tive that our education system be geared towards strength­ening the internal security of children and young people so that they are able to meet change with confi­dence rather than fear.

Third, freedom from fear is a key require­ment for the freedom of the indi­vidual. What kinds of safety nets do people need if they are to meet occu­pa­tional and cultural changes? Will our current social security systems suffice, or do we need new concepts of social partic­i­pa­tion for the digital society?

We should not restrict our imag­i­na­tion to the pros and cons of an uncon­di­tional basic income, the policy response that seems to have dominated discourse in this area. Equally important is a right to education and training; partic­i­pa­tion of broad sections of the popu­la­tion in produc­tive capacity, and raising the status of non-commer­cial work.

Fourth, we need a new perspec­tive on the central role of public insti­tu­tions as stabi­lizers in times of radical funda­mental change. The “provision of public services” is not the only purpose served by the public education system, the vast network of museums, theaters, libraries and concert halls, the public-service broad­casters, the public utilities or public transit operators. They are also repub­lican insti­tu­tions, symbolic repre­sen­ta­tions of the demo­c­ratic polity, which convey a sense of having a part and being a part of something.

Over the past 25 years, the consol­i­da­tion of public budgets has been effected primarily through curtail­ment of invest­ment. The conse­quences are now palpable every­where, from the dismal state of many schools to disin­te­grating bridges. This trend must be reversed. Invest­ments in public insti­tu­tions are invest­ments in democracy.

This article was published at Out of Order, an outlet of the platform of The German Marshall Fund of the United States.


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