Liberalism: Down but not out

Do not expect populists’ post-liberal world order to last. But liberals need to change to win back power; that will be hard while they predict the end of the world.


Populists celebrate in a golden lift at the seat of power. (Photo: Twitter/Nigel Farage)

Populists celebrate in a golden lift at the seat of power. (Photo: Twitter/Nigel Farage)

Only an ideologue would respond to defeat with dizzying certainty. Only a fool would sketch a flight path of a dart to a board for an event they said was never going to happen. Clairvoyants, stand down.

As the media in Britain and America is made up of either liberal sorts or proudly non-liberal opponents, people have inferred the death knell of a liberal world order from our vote to leave the EU and their election of Donald Trump. Both causes traded on dissatisfaction with the liberal imperium (of free movement of things and people, openness to the world, individualistic society) . Both causes howled that elites were rotten, aloof and replaceable. Both were victorious.

Globalisation is to blame, apparently, even to those who think this year’s democratic verdicts are the worst decisions in the world. This impersonal, unstoppable thing of free markets and open borders has churned up too many victims. As it lacks any tangible substance, we are told globalisation can both cause misery and be whipped away like a magician taking a table cloth from underneath a set of crockery. Something so dominant for so long is only safe while it stays atop Mr Trump’s very thin skin.

Liberals did wo big votes, it is true. But there are too many outlandish assumptions here: the power of avowed intention, the unanimity of voters, the underlying veracity of the anti-globalisation charge, the fragility of the idea. The argument is not wrong as such — events may prove it right — it is just undeserving of the attention. When everyone calms down populism will be seen for what it is: outsized demagogic rage that rose because the alternatives were so bad.

The demos is not liberal, but then it never was. Voters have gone along with the liberal consensus of the past 40 years, rather than chosen it, in the absence of anything better. It represented the least bad option for the median person’s instincts: a bit less control for a bit more prosperity. There has always been talk of community and sovereignty; nationalism and patriotism did not go away anywhere. What has happened is that the median position has shifted by just enough to tip the balance. A Eurosceptic country that can summon nearly half of people to support the slandered European cause in a vote has not just seen a revolution. Nor has a country in which the losing candidate won two million more ballots.

Brexiteers trying out their funereal expressions for the first time, in the aftermath of victory. (Photo: Reuters)

Brexiteers trying out their funereal expressions for the first time, in the aftermath of victory. (Photo: Reuters)

There is not a “mood” that has turned against globalisation or even liberalism. It would be surprising if the average person could give a coherent definition of — or a credible charge sheet for — these cerebral nouns. Real life gets in the way. Elites are under attack, besieged without apology or restraint, but they always are. The thing that is different about this time is that the mood is in favour of causes which would have been balmy not long ago.

Post-liberalism, such as it is, may last or it may not. The point is that we do not know, and if we have learnt anything from recent months it is that prediction is hard. Public opinion is a fickle thing and the trade-off voters did not recognise of relatively lower wages for a more managed population may, if the predictions were right, become lived reality. Maybe we should give it a while before drawing any conclusions about the world order.

Liberals should also not pretend that the hysteria proves they are taking defeat seriously. The truth is better and worse. Populists campaigned on a mix of fatuous slogans and impossible pledges. Britain cannot maintain full free trade with in Europe and get more control over immigration; America cannot force another country to pay for its border security. When reality bites, something has to give. If both ideas are stymied, then by definition continuity will be tolerable. In Britain, two in three people would not forgo any of their wages for less EU immigration, despite het-up opposition to open borders.

An idea does not need sponsorship to survive. Just because something will not be practiced by two important governments, and could conceivably be reversed, does not mean it is “dead”. Ideas can live on. The Labour Party crashed into the electorate last year but some of its policies — a higher minimum wage and neo-corporatist reforms to markets, such as in energy, built on moralising — have been pinched by two successive Tory governments. Ideas that fit the times will survive.

Globalisation and a world order were not rejected at the ballot box. But our liberal bromide elites were. After four decades of public service, including seeing off the threat of communism and taking a holiday from history afterwards, an Everest of hubris built up. The fruits of the liberal zenith did not fall to all citizens — and elites seemed either insouciant or relaxed about it.

This is a plea for calm, not complacency. Yes, fellow liberals, we erred. Despair at losing if you must, but do not push yourselves into a coffin. Some things in the liberal calculus will have to change if there is any hope of another go in power. Working to fix the mistakes that are now exposed would be a good start. It is hard to change, though, when you are predicting the end of the world.

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Dan McGregor
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Dan McGregor

Political Correspondent at Filibuster
Dan McGregor is a 19-year-old student from Nottingham, studying history at the University of Warwick. He is not aligned with any political party, though leans towards whichever is the most liberal on a particular issue. He wants to challenge the idea that young people are apathetic and politically indifferent. He is particularly interested in the EU and democracy and believes that power is best shared and ideas are best debated. Other than writing, he is usually reading or debating, and sometimes arguing.
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