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Failures of Liberalism


There is presently a rising tide of right-wing sentiment in Western countries. These aren’t happening in a vacuum–they represent what are, ultimately, failures of liberalism.

Brexit, the Tea Party, Donald Trump, and right-wing movements throughout Europe are reflecting changing attitudes that threaten to upend the established order. It’s easy to dismiss right-wing reactionaries as ignorant, racist xenophobes. Often times, that’s exactly what they are. But when they become numerous enough, when they have enough support, it doesn’t matter whether or not they’re wrong. Democracy doesn’t care about right and wrong–it only cares what most people want.

These movements vary in each country where they occur, and even in different regions within those countries. Nevertheless, they do share some common features. One of the most common features is nostalgia for an idealized past. This is a popular tack in American conservatism, and seems to have been a strong motivator in those who voted for the UK to leave the European Union. Nationalist movements throughout Europe are motivated by similar concerns. Xenophobia is a key element precisely because of this idealized nostalgia: it’s believed that, in the past, there were fewer (or no) immigrants. Thus, the same country of 50 or 60 years ago was both more prosperous and ethnically homogeneous–and these two factors are falsely correlated.

Another factor that sticks out is a taste for authoritarianism. It’s been demonstrated that a preference for authoritarian leadership is a strong predictor of Donald Trump support, and this is true of right-wing movements more generally. Without directly claiming that Donald Trump is Hitler or Mussolini, he ticks the same authoritarian boxes–much of his popularity stems from his strong personality, and the image he projects in which he will effect change regardless of obstacles. This comes from an erroneous belief that political change is primarily a matter of individual willpower, such that one highly-determined individual can institute drastic changes by sheer force of will. While this is arguably true in an environment of limitless executive power, what is less visible is how much damage is necessarily inflicted by such a process. A leader cannot run roughshod over a large portion of the population without resorting to oppression, even violence. This is abundantly clear in Trump’s approach, of course: he wants to build a wall along the border with Mexico, deport millions of documented immigrants (this cannot happen without police-state tactics and, by implication, violence), monitor Muslims and forbid them from entering the country, and so on. In the UK, hate crimes against immigrants and minorities are on the rise in the wake of the Brexit vote, as well. It would be foolish to believe that whatever government forms post-Cameron will not be similarly expected to crack down on “foreigners.”

By themselves, these factors are not enough to give rise to right-wing power. There must be weakness on the other side–at the liberal end of the political spectrum. And that’s exactly what happened. Austerity policies, benefit cuts, and insistence that there’s no money to help people left too many folks adrift and angry. That anger then came to be directed at both immigrants and the liberal governments that allowed them in (or did nothing to stop them coming, at least).

To be clear, the failure here was not in permitting immigration, but failing to sell it as part of a coherent overall policy. The situation in the US is a bit different from the situation in Europe: here, we worry about illegal immigration, while having little to say about legal immigration. In the EU and the UK, concerns over immigration don’t make such a distinction–to some, all “foreigners” are suspect, regardless of their legal status.

I have seen the argument presented that, essentially, since Donald Trump supporters and Brexit voters are motivated primarily by racism and xenophobia, it doesn’t matter what they think–they’re bad people and deserve whatever hardships they get. In a world where moral justice could be so easily assured, I would agree. But what we have instead are shared societies where liberals and progressives must live side-by-side with conservatives who may be openly bigoted and hateful. So long as the latter exist and have access to the political system (and, indeed, there is no way to remove that access and still have a genuinely democratic system) we must find ways to communicate, to bridge those gaps, and address their concerns without actually endorsing or implementing bigoted policies. By no means do I think such a thing would be easy, and the term “bipartisanship” has obviously become something of a joke in the US.

But right-wing reactionaries will never be stopped simply by telling them they’re wrong and hoping they go away. As we have seen, that doesn’t work–they only become louder and angrier. Some even become violent. These groups and individuals cannot be allowed to fester, to grow in their resentment to the point where they seek to upend the political system and even the society around them in order to get what they want. To the extent that they or anyone who supports them have reasonable, cognizable concerns, they should be listened to and addressed. People with something to lose tend not to try to destroy the world around them, and that’s the key. People who feel they have no stake, or who feel betrayed and alienated, are more likely to explode. Without the “safety valve” of a society that gives them something to hold onto, something to lose, attitudes will veer more toward burning everything down.

This may also sound a lot like negotiating with terrorists. It would be easy to frame it that way, I imagine. And there will no doubt be some who can’t be reasoned with at all, and for whom no incentive to behave responsibly will suffice. Our only hope then is that reasonable people will continue to outnumber them. Should the case be otherwise, democracies have few options for curtailing near-total derangement of a society. If the people vote to engulf their country in flames, then a conflagration there shall be.

Photo by Photographing Travis