Liberalism, perhaps the dominant political ideology in the modern world, is under attack everywhere these days. Its core ideas – namely, constituting the political community in a manner that protects fundamental human rights, liberty and equal opportunities for all citizens – are being rudely dismissed. The norms that it cherishes and promotes – for instance, a public sphere that promotes free and open debate and discussion of the great issues of the day in a manner that is respectful of all participants – are being ridiculed by sundry boors, thugs, and loudmouths with megaphones. Within liberal constitutional democracies, the challenge is coming from populists and nativists. Outside these democracies, the challenge is coming from autocracies… a growing band of hard men and maximum rulers. In Africa, for instance, rather than the building of vital and strong institutions we have the saddening return of the Big Men. They win power and refuse to leave, even when they become doddering old fools.
I submit that all this would not matter that much if Liberalism itself were in rude health. But it is in a bad way. The following are some of the reasons why this is the case.
Firstly, Liberalism has become effete and wishy-washy. It has grown too large and too fat and has become too ambitious. Every claim someone has is now declared a fundamental human right. Every sensitivity that is injured is now declared an unforgivable sin. These days, an inartful or ill-phrased tweet can cost you your livelihood once the relevant outrage machine roars like a thousand tigers. Also, these days, people whose views people find challenging are routinely banished from delivering speeches on university campuses in much of the Western world. The robust clash of philosophies in the public arena appears to be a thing of the past.
Secondly, Liberalism is now largely unmoored from its animating values. The great foundational thinkers are no longer widely read. Outside of a few quotes here and there, for instance, not many educated liberals are familiar with the political writings of Immanuel Kant, John Locke, J.S Mill, Benjamin Constant, Jeremy Bentham, Mary Wollstonecraft, Isaiah Berlin, John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin…to name a few of the major names. Classic texts like The Federalist Papers have been reduced to a few out-of-context quotes that people hurl at opponents thoughtlessly. This unfamiliarity with the foundational ideas matters because when Liberalism is challenged it can only be defended when one is familiar with the arguments made on key issues by those whole ideas created the modern world. (For Liberalism is the first child of The Enlightenment…but I digress!)
Thirdly, today Liberalism suffers from a poverty of leadership, particularly of inspiring leadership. We live in a world of the politician-manager-sausage-maker. So-called liberal leaders are often men and women of modest stature and electoral-cycle-sized ambitions. With a few notable exceptions, reminding citizens of the ideals undergirding liberal constitutional democracy, why these ideals and institutional arrangements matter, and why they matter even more today… that is not what the majority of these politicians of limited girth are about. They conduct opinion polls and only then decide what they believe…at least what they will defend in the public sphere.
As a result of these factors, when liberal constitutional democracy is challenged, the defense ranges from tepid to non-existent. Fire is being directed at Liberalism, and there is scant returning fire. What we have is not simply a wishy-washy Liberalism but a diffident, even exhausted force. Yet look around you. The populists and nativists might be making outrageous claims but they are making these claims confidently and vigorously. As a result, they have acquired outsized acreage in the global public sphere, and they know how to threaten, abuse and bully all who disagree with them. For effete liberal cosmopolitans, it is all getting a bit too much. Like the populists, the new autocrats are also getting louder and more confident…promoting the efficiency of one man rule, sanctioning extra-judicial killings of citizens, subverting and weaponing so-called champions of transparency and so on. In response, the leaders of the liberal constitutional democracies seem emasculated by the brazenness of it all.
I know that the picture I paint is dispiriting. It is. I firmly believe that Liberalism needs to re-find its brio, its vivacity…and do so as soon as possible. There needs to be a rediscovery of the animating values and ideals of Liberalism. Within liberal constitutional democracies, a process of re-evangelization is needed. Too many people appear to have forgotten the foundations of their own political communities and are yielding to all kinds of base impulses. Outside the established democracies, advocates of liberal constitutional democracy need renewed faith and confidence. They need to keep pushing for societies that will protect the basic rights and life chances of all citizens no matter their race, color, gender, sexual orientation or religious persuasion.
The good news – for there is good news – is that both populism and authoritarianism are dead-ends.
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