Crisis of confidence roiling liberal democracies?


In the wake of the recent Group of 20 summit, some commentators claimed that the chief threat to liberal democracy was not from the aggressively illiberal despots of Russia, North Korea, China or the Islamic theocracies, but came from within, notes analyst Sebastian Mallaby. This intellectual bandwagon needs to be stopped. Liberalism faces two challenges — on the one hand, external enemies; on the other, an internal crisis of self-confidence — and it is time we all acknowledged that the external threat is more severe, he writes for The Washington Post:

As Edmund Fawcett has argued in his magisterial history of liberalism, the creed originated as a set of principles for managing bewildering change. For most of human history, economic growth and social evolution proceeded at a snail’s pace, but between 1776 and the first decades of the 19th century, revolutions both political and industrial caused everything to speed up. Liberalism — skeptical of central power, respectful of diverse beliefs, comfortable with vigorous disagreement — offered a means of handling the resulting tumult. If headlong technological and economic dislocation made political conflict unavoidable, humanity needed a way to contain it, civilize it — a way to hang on to timeless standards of humanity while providing an escape valve for argument and change.

“In its long history of facilitating clamorous argument, liberalism has succumbed, unsurprisingly, to repeated neuroses,” Mallaby adds. “But pessimists should note that liberalism emerged robustly from those moments of self-doubt.”

But increasingly corrosive and tribalist partisanship does represent an genuine internal threat to democracy, observers insist. “This just shows the degree to which partisan identity and loyalty to a political leader go deeper than a commitment to any particular values,” said Harvard University’s Yascha Mounk, a contributor to the NED’s Journal of Democracy.

With populist movements gaining momentum throughout Europe, Mounk’s “European Disunion” sheds light on the growing shift in the belief that “democratic de-consolidation” is the governmental standard, TNR claims.

Viktor Orban’s campaign of vilification against George Soros, the billionaire investor and philanthropist, disinters anti-Semitic tropes from the dark side of Europe’s history, notes FT analyst Phillip Stephens:

Orban seems to imagine himself a pocket-sized version of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. His ruling Fidesz party has removed constitutional checks and balances and seized control of state media and the judiciary. Mr Orban champions illiberalism over the pluralist values of the EU — even as he holds out a hand for hefty aid cheques from Brussels.

Poland is also reportedly abandoning the EU’s community of values, prompting calls for Brussels to use the power of the purse to reinforce liberal democratic norms.

“Making the rule of law and the respect of fundamental rights an ex ante condition in accessing EU funds would be a strong message not only to national governments, but also to European citizens,” analyst Klára Hajdu writes for Open Democracy.

The Trump administration’s America First foreign policy vision is “grounded in American values — values that not only strengthen America but also drive progress throughout the world,” according to the National Economic Council’s Gary D. Cohn and national security adviser. Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster.

“America champions the dignity of every person, affirms the equality of women, celebrates innovation, protects freedom of speech and of religion, and supports free and fair markets,” they write for The New York Times.

Former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt insisted that people with visions should see a doctor, but FT analyst Martin Wolf is more concerned at McMaster and Cohn’s claim, in an earlier article, that: “The world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, non-governmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage.” Taken in conjunction with the president’s recent Warsaw speech, the doctrine suggests that “the world has moved into a dangerous era,” he fears:

If the west is asked to unite for a war of civilisations, it will fracture, as it did over the Iraq war. It is easy to agree that what Mr Trump calls “radical Islamist terrorism” is a concern. But to judge it an overriding existential threat is ludicrous. Nazism was an existential threat. So was Soviet communism. Terrorism is just a nuisance. The great danger is that of overreaction. This could poison relations with 1.6bn Muslims worldwide. We must beware the self-fulfilling prophecy of a clash of civilisations, not just because it is untrue, but because we have to co-operate.

“The ideal of a global community is not airy-fairy. It reflects today’s reality,” Wolf insists. “Technology and economic development have made humans masters of the planet and dependent upon one another. Interdependence does not stop at national borders.”

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