Does populism’s rise mean liberalism’s end?


havel event 2Liberal democracy may be facing dark times, as a conference at the National Endowment (left and below) this week suggested. But this is not the first time the Liberal Story has faced a crisis of confidence, notes Yuval Noah Harari, a lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the author of “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” and “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow”:

Ever since this story gained global influence, in the second half of the nineteenth century, it has endured periodic crises. The first era of globalization and liberalization ended in the bloodbath of the First World War, when imperial power politics cut short the global march of progress. This was the Franz Ferdinand moment. Yet liberalism survived this maelstrom and emerged stronger than before, with Wilson’s fourteen points, the League of Nations, and the Roaring Twenties.

havel eventSo why are people now losing faith in the Liberal Story? he asks in The New Yorker:

  • One explanation is that this story has indeed been a sham, and that, instead of peace and prosperity, the liberal prescription has produced little more than violence and poverty. This, however, is easily refuted. From a historical perspective, it seems evident that humankind is actually enjoying the most peaceful and prosperous era ever. ….
  • Another explanation for the loss of faith in the Liberal Story is that people care more about their future expectations than about their past achievements. When told that they no longer suffer as their ancestors did—from famine, plague, and war—people don’t count their blessings; rather, they enumerate their debts, disappointments, and never-to-be-fulfilled dreams….
  • A third possibility is that people are worried less about stagnating material conditions and more about dwindling political power. Ordinary citizens across the world are sensing that power is shifting away from them….

populism bookBut economic insecurity explains less than cultural backlash, argues Harvard’s Joseph Nye, citing a careful study of rising support for populist parties in Europe by the political scientists Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris.

It might be much harder for the Liberal Story to survive the current crisis of confidence, because the traditional alliance between liberal ethics and capitalist economics that has long underpinned the Liberal Story may be unravelling, Harari contends:

During the twentieth century, the Liberal Story was immensely attractive because it told people and governments that they don’t have to choose between doing the right thing and doing the smart thing; protecting human liberties was both a moral imperative and the key to economic growth. Britain, France, and the United States allegedly prospered because they liberalized their economies and societies, and if Turkey, Brazil, or China wanted to become equally prosperous they had to do the same. In most cases, it was the economic rather than the moral argument that convinced tyrants and juntas to liberalize.

Authoritarian psychology, not conservative ideology, is the main driver of intolerance, Conor Friedersdorf writes at The Atlantic, citing political psychologist Karen Stenner, who has spent significant time studying the people who express an outsize share of political, racial, and moral intolerance:

The threat this cohort poses to liberal democracies springs not from flawed or inadequate socialization, she argues, but from a largely immutable characteristic: They are inclined to want oneness and sameness. ….Reformers on the left and right alike must give up the fantasy that humans are blank slates who can be overwritten with ideal values, however discomfiting or disappointing the realization may be. As Stenner puts it, we can moralize all day about how we want ideal citizens to be, “but democracy is most secure, and tolerance is maximized, when we design systems to accommodate how people actually are.”

In the twenty-first century, however, the Liberal Story has no good answers to the biggest challenges we face: global warming and technological disruption, Harari suggests:

As the masses lose their economic importance to algorithms and robots, protecting human liberties may remain morally justified—but will the moral arguments alone be enough? Will élites and governments go on valuing the liberties and wishes of every human being even when it pays no economic dividends to do so?


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