A recent speech by George W. Bush made headlines showed an understanding of the grave stakes that challenge the United States and other Western democracies, liberal commentator Michael Tomasky writes for the New York Times.
“The great democracies face new and serious threats, yet seem to be losing confidence in their own calling and competence,” he said. “Economic, political and national security challenges proliferate, and they are made worse by the tendency to turn inward. The health of the democratic spirit itself is at issue. And the renewal of that spirit is the urgent task at hand.”
“The speech addressed the problem of how the liberal order responds to a crisis that threatens its erasure in favor of a reactionary, authoritarian alternative,” Tomasky adds.
Liberal democracy is currently under siege, according to Jeffrey C. Isaac, James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University and a contributor to the Journal of Democracy.
“Instead of moralistic appeals to civic virtue and moderation, what we need is to name, vigorously defend, and also give new meaning to its core values: equal citizenship, human rights, freedom to speak, dissent, associate, and protest, vigorous political contestation, and a democratic state that is responsive to the claims of social justice and ecological sustainability,” he writes for the Los Angeles Review of Books.
“The challenge for liberals is not only to create new narratives and new coalitions and to forge a new language of commonality,” Isaac contends. “It is to empower new organizations and political candidates, revitalize social movements and political parties, and generate a deep base of support for a politics of autonomy, solidarity, and liberal democratic deepening.”
Populism has exposed the fragility of liberal democratic institutions, argues James Meek. Case in point?
“Brexit: how a liberal democracy with a seemingly robust representational and judicial system, which is used to balancing innumerable interest groups and projects and regulations, suddenly found itself subjugated overnight, for a generation at least, to the one-word answer to a 16-word question,” he writes in a review of The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics by Mark Lilla, who argues that identity-based micro-politics has undermined democratic citizenship.
“What’s extraordinary – and appalling – about the past four decades of our history is that our politics have been dominated by two ideologies that encourage and even celebrate the unmaking of citizens,” he writes:
- On the right, an ideology that questions the existence of a common good and denies our obligation to help fellow citizens, through government action if necessary.
- On the left, an ideology institutionalised in colleges and universities that fetishises our individual and group attachments, applauds self-absorption, and casts a shadow of suspicion over any invocation of a universal democratic we.
But might it not be that ‘identity politics’ is just what politics has become – or what it always was, in a way that has only now become impossible to ignore? Meek asks in the London Review of Books:
The formal structure of US politics may still be binary, Republican v. Democrat, and it is a binary world of liberals and conservatives that underpins Lilla’s book, but the reality, as in all world democracies, is that politics is no longer one-dimensional, conducted along a left-right axis, but multi-dimensional.
The liberal order is under attack from an odd alliance of libertarian anti-state campaigners and Moscow-backed authoritarians who are combining to disrupt liberal institutions, the Guardian’s Julian Borger adds.
“The radical libertarians and the autocrats are allied by virtue of sharing an enemy which is the mainstream, soft, establishment, liberal politics,” said Jamie Bartlett, the director of the centre for the analysis of social media at the Demos think-tank. “Most early, hardline cryptographers who were part of this movement in the 1990s considered that democracy and liberty were not really compatible. Like most radical libertarians – as Assange was – the principal enemy was the soft democrats who were imposing the will of the majority on the minority and who didn’t really believe in genuine, absolute freedom.”
The survival and strength of American democracy has always depended on U.S. support for freedom beyond the country’s shores, according to the Prague Appeal for Democratic Renewal.
For all its flaws, America has long been the greatest force for good in the world, upholding the liberal order and offering an example of how democracy works, The Economist notes. But now the dream of a global liberal order is being challenged at every turn, Rutgers University’s Jackson Lears writes for the Hedgehog Review.
The most sinister figure in Masha Gessen’s The Future Is History is Alexander Dugin, who “ended up consorting with a group of Western New Right thinkers whose underlying theme was hatred of liberal modernity and the worship of tradition,” notes Stanford University’s Francis Fukuyama. “From there, Dugin invented something called Eurasianism, a mishmash of Russian culture, authoritarian government and worship of a strong leader. Today, he would like to cast himself as the unofficial ideologist of the Putin government,” adds Fukuyama, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.
Whose Liberal International Order?
The influence of Eurasianism is evident in the arguments of analysts who contend that Russia is acting as a countervailing power and alternative to a “rigged liberal order.”
“Perhaps for the first time since the end of the Cold War, the liberal international order faces meaningful opposition,” one analyst suggests in ‘Whose Liberal International Order’, an article for the Kremlin-backed Valdai Discussion Club.
“The decline of global liberalism is a political myth for one simple reason: Our world has never been liberal,” argues Kazushige Kobayashi, a Visiting Research Fellow at the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC). Furthermore, “the remaking of Eurasia as a new multilateral hub demonstrates that there are indeed alternatives to the liberal way of international life,” he contends:
The standard narrative of a liberal international order implies that the entire world embraced global liberalism after 1991. Our task is, so the story goes, to defend this liberal world from revisionist forces. By and large, this narrative is a fairytale resting on two pillars of illusion:
- A belief that all Western citizens embraced liberalism as a sole organizing principle of modern political life; and
- a belief that Russia and other ‘illiberal’ rising powers are aspiring to overthrow the ‘prevailing’ liberal international order.
“Both of these assumptions are unfounded – we have never actually lived in a homogenously liberal world,” Kobayashi contends. “Hence, the decline of liberalism is not so much about decline; it is simply that liberals are slowly waking up to the fact that our world has not been so liberal in the first place.”
“Russia has played, and will continue to play, a pivotal role by providing moral balance, defending the pluralism of international orders and thwarting the concentration of moral authority,” he adds. “In so doing, Russia fulfills the responsibility to counterbalance the world’s ruling ideology.” RTWT
But what exactly is the liberal order that is under threat, asks Jeffrey Edward Green, director of the Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy at the University of Pennsylvania. It consists of at least four strands, he writes in Current History:
- Politically, it refers to a liberal democratic regime, which strives to afford equal respect to its citizens, conceived as free and equal co-legislators of public affairs.
- From a religious perspective, liberalism stands for the idea that the public realm must not be colonized by a specific religious faith, but must separate and protect a space that is religiously neutral from a private sphere in which citizens are free to subscribe to sharply divergent religious ideas and practices.
- Economically, liberalism indicates the sanctity of private property as well as the mutual advantageousness of markets and the inequalities they generate (when they lead to gains for all).
- And ethically, liberalism celebrates the standpoint of the individual, both as the holder of rights whose protection is the deepest purpose of the liberal state and as the agent of a way of life shaped by choice, freedom, self-realization, and the broad cultural diversity these attributes generate.
He distinguishes two different kinds of crisis that recent developments reflect:
- the “crisis of decline,” is the sense that liberal democracy is not what it used to be, compared with historical precedents.
- the “crisis of impossibility.” What this crisis signifies is awareness that some of liberalism’s greatest ambitions are not in fact fully realizable… For example, take the long-standing liberal aspiration that a nation’s political and educational systems be free from the arbitrary influences of socioeconomic class.
Green makes a number of suggestions—“permanent vigilance in contesting the effects of economic inequality on a nation’s educational and political systems, newfound interest in regulating the most advantaged class, and a recognition that liberals have individual ethical responsibilities to buttress the underlying institutions of the liberal state” —which, he concedes “would not erase the sense of a liberal order that cannot quite attain its highest aspirations. But they might produce an order that is more genuinely liberal than any that has yet existed.” RTWT
When growing uncertainty meets growing inequality, an explosive situation results. Populism — from the left and right — warns that something is brewing in Western societies that we must address, according to Ralf Fücks (left), of the Center for Liberal Modernity. Those who seek to defend liberal democracy must think again about what the concept of “well-fortified democracy” means, he contends:
- First, there is the state’s classic function of protection against violence and arbitrary acts, whether internal or external. In an era of ideologically charged terrorism, the return of political extremism, and organised crime, the issue of internal security has taken on new relevance.
- Second is the issue of what psychologists call “ego-strength”: the ability of individuals to act with confidence. The rapidity of comprehensive technological, social, and cultural change presents a challenge to individual’s identities and their sense of worth in a community. Ego-strength is fostered through the experience of self-efficacy. Education and upbringing play a key role here. It is imperative that our education system be geared towards strengthening the internal security of children and young people so that they are able to meet change with confidence rather than fear.
- Third, freedom from fear is a key requirement for the freedom of the individual. …We should not restrict our imagination to the pros and cons of an unconditional basic income, the policy response that seems to have dominated discourse in this area. Equally important is a right to education and training; participation of broad sections of the population in productive capacity, and raising the status of non-commercial work.
- Fourth, we need a new perspective on the central role of public institutions as stabilizers in times of radical fundamental change. The “provision of public services” is not the only purpose served by the public education system, the vast network of museums, theaters, libraries and concert halls, the public-service broadcasters, the public utilities or public transit operators. They are also republican institutions, symbolic representations of the democratic polity, which convey a sense of having a part and being a part of something.