Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Creeping Illiberalism

In the wake of the 2016 presidential election and Brexit I wrote an article and talked about the backlash to the liberal consensus. Among popular culture and political discourse there is a greater acceptance of illiberal practices and ideas.

 Europe might be the front line of this conflict. As I shared in a recent Worth Reading, some observers fear that the centre cannot hold, as it were. In recent years many European countries have been governed by centrist coalitions to keep the far right and the far left out of power. This strategy will eventually falter and allow one of the extremists to take power. These coalitions could leave voters feeling cheated. If the socialists and conservatives keep climbing into bed to keep out nationalists, individuals among all parties will feel cheated. For North Americans we saw an example of this in the presidential election with the rejection of so-called establishment politics and rise of less conventional, more radical alternatives. While I am too uninformed to know if it fits within the trend, apparently South America is swinging towards the right after a decade under mostly leftist parties.

As I write this we are only 10 days away from the inauguration of Donald Trump. While America is not the whole world I can only imagine how Trump’s anti-liberal rhetoric will embody and magnify this global trend. A trend that embraces authoritarianism, scoffs at globalism, acceptance of weaker democratic institutions, and has a lukewarm attitude towards equality and rights.

Perhaps ironically this trend is self-reinforcing. This move creates instability on the global stage and pushes people to conclude that greater global involvement is to their disadvantage. I think this partially explains the rise of anti-EU sentiment in Europe. The instability of the PIIGS contributed to Brexit which seems to be fueling separatist movements in Italy, France and Holland.

To me this trend feels a bit like a singularity point, a point beyond which we cannot see. I don’t think that we are inevitably heading towards World War III or trade wars. I believe we are in the midst of a pendulum swing. The liberal consensus/neo-liberalism took several decades to become the established order of things, how long this reaction will be and the extent of the roll back is unclear.

What troubles me is the comfort people seem to have with the retreat of democracy around the world and at home. No country is perfectly democratic, nor would I recommend that, but a liberal democracy has been a highly successful form of government that seems to be eroding. I suppose if I’m trying to draw to a conclusion it would be this: be mindful of the changes government is making and how it will dictate your freedoms and rights. How are governments minimizing their own accountability or bending policy to their own institutional benefit over those they serve. I would be very content to be paranoid and alarmist on this topic.



3 comments:

Capt Beefheart said...

I occasionally follow your blog because as a conservative I value the marketplace of ideas and enjoy reading opinions that challenge my own. Not for me the so-called ‘echo chamber’ that both extremes are allegedly living in today.

I detect throughout your post that, in effect, your starting point is that ‘I’ am normal, and politics are changing all around me. Perhaps you should re-examine some base assumptions. I would argue that in the past 20+ years there has been a drift towards the left in our politics.

So, as a (true blue) Tory, here is my take on events:

Firstly, with all due respect, dry your eyes. Setbacks and disappointments are what life is about; deal with it, it is not the end of the world or democracy as we know it. I recommend reading through Kipling’s poem, ‘If’ a few times. Resilience my dear boy, is your shield in the arena of politics.

Secondly, classical liberalism is the foundation of Western democracy, is under no threat and is here to stay - full stop. Modern liberalism and conservatism both have their root in classical liberalism and each adheres and deviates from its tenets (in different respects) in equal measure.

Here is the crucial point: you must discriminate between principle and policy. Voters may have rejected the latter in 2016, but the former stands fast. Democracy is in good health, the people were offered choices and they made choices. In the case of Brexit, it was the choice the liberal establishment did not want. In the case of Clinton it was the choice the liberal, and to a certain extent conservative, establishment did not want. Can you see the linkage? Rejection of the liberal establishment’s policies is not rejection of liberal ideals, far from it.

Capt Beefheart said...

Are we regressing to 1930s fascism? In the immortal words of Joan Rivers: pul-eease! Democracy is in good health. The ballot box is, as someone once said, the shock absorber of democracy. But be in no doubt, if there are difficult issues that mainstream parties won’t address then non-mainstream parties will be empowered. The AfD, ‘Alternativ fur Deutschland’, has been absolutely empowered since Angela Merkel’s decision to open the borders in 2015. The establishment’s position at the time was that Germany would take any refugee that came, but that decision was not universally welcome. What legitimate recourse does a voter have who doesn’t believe in mass migration? For the most part, the racists, extremists and fruit-cakes have been marginalised in politics – that is good. However, it may be that extreme left of centre policies may give them a life they never had. Because who ultimately is responsible for AfD’s rise, disaffected voters or Merkel’s tin ear?


This encapsulates the problem in contemporary Western politics. The drift of the self-congratulatory (and at times self-righteous) Left establishment, is leading to unease amongst increasing number of voters. There are many issues where the gap between the governing and the governed is increasing. Witness the collapse of the UK Labour Party’s support amongst working class voters. In the contest over which political ground to be contested, it was trendy ‘progressive’ left wing social activists who won out: Labour’s traditional working constituency has defected to UKIP, an anti-EU party.

Brexit and Trump are the 2 shocks of 2016 and you found similarities and trends in both, but beware of making linkages where none exist. I studied the UK’s relations with the EU in the 1990s and there were significant strains even back then. Here is the crux, there were many people unhappy with policies that directly affected them but over which they had no ability to change. The normal electoral route could not effect change because EU policy was beyond reform, so the referendum was the only offer. Mass migration, something Canada has not experienced, was an important issue among several (polls indicate regaining sovereignty was top). England has experience demographic change in the past decade unprecedented in a millennium but the electorate was not consulted. In fact the electorate was insulted and browbeaten by left wing politicians in thrall to progressive pieties. What many (except UKIP) overlooked is that migration and immigration is about more than economics, it is about culture and belonging. A cautious level of immigration is good for both migrant and native: assimilation, acceptance and belonging are more likely to occur.

As for Justin Trudeau’s post-national country malarkey, please, may I keep my country? I quite like Canada and wish to pass it on to my children and theirs. Not turn it into some non-descript, no name brand international SJW homeland. It is a real country, it deserves the respect of a real country.

So, as I first mentioned you may wish to reassess your position. If there seems to be a right-ward drift in politics it may be because, as I suspect, we are in fact moving from a starting position from the left, not the centre. Please, drop the hyperbole.

SJL said...

I put off replying to the comments here because the snarky, dismissive tone made me mad every time I read them. However, I'm trying to clear old e-mails so here we are.

I think it's pretty clear that Capt Beefheart doesn't actually understand the terms that I use as I used them. Liberal democracy doesn't have to do with being left-wing. Conservatives can proudly function within liberal democracies. Liberalism is different from the Liberal Party.

In the months since the I wrote this post I wonder who has the better case of democracy being in no danger or my contention that there are grounds for measured concern.

Reading this pair of comments I find I'm sifting through rhetoric that I'm exhausted with parsing. I don't see much value in contesting this point by point especially since the responder has misinterpreted my initial post.