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