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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