Dark Days Ahead for Liberals

Donald Trump’s victory is the latest in a series of setbacks, but there are still a few places that give liberals hope.

Washington DC at night
Washington DC at night (Pixabay/skeeze)

The light are going out for liberals and globalists around the Western world.

Austria is on the verge of electing its first far-right head of state since the end of the Second World War.

Poland last year switched its centrist, pluralist government for an ultraconservative administration that is threatening the independence of the judiciary and the freedom of the press.

Marine Le Pen, who leads a party that was once unambiguously fascist, is almost certain to make it into the second round of France’s presidential election next year.

Even in the United Kingdom, the homeland of liberalism, there was an atmosphere of isolationism and xenophobia around the vote to leave the European Union in June.

And now America, “the last best hope of Earth,” as Abraham Lincoln once called it, has elected Donald J. Trump.

Many causes

There are many causes for the unraveling of the liberal, internationalist consensus of the past quarter century.

The shift to a footloose and “gig” economy has left many in the old working class behind.

Older, more traditional Westerners — especially men — feel like strangers in their own land as a result of rapid social change, whether it is immigration, the legalization of gay marriage, the emancipation of transgender people or the empowerment of women.

In some countries, like the United States, there is a racial component to this.

On both sides of the Atlantic, Islamic terrorism has aggravated the othering of Muslims.

Trust in institutions and leaders still hasn’t recovered from an Iraq War that was the result of internationalist hubris.

A liberal bias in the academy and the media hasn’t helped. Elites have for too long been inattentive to the cultural and economic anxieties of the unskilled and the unsophisticated, dismissing their fears of “progress” as misogynist, racist or xenophobic.

There is plenty of that, for sure — and it would be a mistake to wish it away.

But there are also plenty of decent people who are confused, scared or feel belittled, and who think voting for someone like Trump is their only recourse.

History

This phenomenon has been some time in the making.

Pim Fortuyn, before he was assassinated, nearly rose to power in the Netherlands in 2002 on a platform not too dissimilar from Trump’s.

Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s sexist businessman-turned-politician, was already in power by then.

Nigel Farage started agitating against the European Union and its supposedly corrosive effect on national sovereignty around the same time.

Peasants’ revolts against the effeminate, urban elite are nothing new; they go back centuries.

Nor was the liberal consensus ever uncontroversial. The self-proclaimed heirs of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher would do well to remember it were their standard-bearers who liberalized global trade and took away the comforts of the big state they now long for.

Progressives, for their part, may want to bear in mind it were their ideological predecessors who refused to link economic to individual liberty.

This should give us pause — and hope.

It shows that history is not a one-way street. Nor is politics ever winner-takes-all. People change sides and the contours of the debate shift all the time. We take two steps forward and one back.

Hope

The light of liberal democracy shines less brightly today, but it hasn’t been extinguished.

The Dutch and Scandinavians are keeping the barbarians at the gate and populism has actually been in retreat across South America.

Hugo Chávez is dead and his brute of a successor, Nicolás Maduro, is losing grip on Venezuela.

Argentinians finally rejected the self-destructive economic nationalism of the Kirchners in an election last year.

Brazilians, tired of corruption and cronyism, threw out Dilma Rousseff by parliamentary means this year.

In Germany, the center still holds.

In a congratulatory note to Trump, Chancellor Angela Merkel offered her close cooperation with his administration “on the basis of” shared values: “democracy, freedom, respect for the law and the dignity of every person, irrespective of origin, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation or political attitude.”

For a German leader to condition the future of the transatlantic relationship on liberal principles is unheard of.

In the years to come, the countries that do not succumb to economic and political ideas disproven by history will prosper and serve as a beacon to the rest.

Who would have thought that South America and Germany, of all places, would have to carry the torch of liberal democracy forward in the twenty-first century?

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