The rise of the right has been enabled by a crisis in liberal democracy. Photo: Prospect composite

The real threat to liberal democracy isn't the right. It's the ideological vacuum at its own heart

It is the hollowed-out condition of the “mainstream” parties which allows the shrill, noisy and wealthy to dominate. In 2020, we should repoliticise politics
December 6, 2019

For the past decade, mainstream politicians across the world have struggled to cope with the far right. But so far, too much of that battle has been against the nativists rather than for liberal democracy.

It is high time to develop coherent and comprehensive liberal democratic responses to both the anti-political politics of technocracy and the über-political politics of populism. While most political traditions bowed to the gods of “the market” in the last two decades of the past century, they have increasingly pandered to the (homogeneous) “voice of the people” in the first two decades of this century. The 2020s require a new approach.

What I hope all mainstream political traditions will do is to rediscover the strengths of liberal democracy, and also think more carefully about the best balance between majority rule and minority rights. We have to learn to defend liberal democracy by explaining why it is the best political system we have at this time. Crucial to this debate is reclaiming the term “minority.” It should not apply exclusively to “ethnic” or “religious” groups. People need to understand that anyone can be—or become—a minority in time, and that only liberal democracy will always protect your fundamental rights—irrespective of whether you are part of the majority or a minority.

Similarly, we need to think anew about where the limits of the liberal democratic system truly lie. Criticism of policies and the way things are run is integral to it. But some positions attack the root of the system, and so cannot be accommodated within it. For instance, while the closing of borders to Muslim immigrants might be morally abhorrent, and practically impossible, it does not in itself undermine the liberal democratic system. Taking away rights from citizens because they happen to be Muslim, or from some other religion, does. Likewise, weakening the independence of the media or judiciary, attacks the foundation of liberal democracy and should be non-negotiable for any party—of any persuasion, in any circumstances—if it is to be a valid part of that system.

Beyond this, each political tradition should be rethinking its own ideological core in the new decade. The task is to unearth the intellectual foundations of the past and apply them to present and future challenges. This is not just relevant for social democracy, which has strayed furthest from its origins. Christian democracy and conservatism may have performed better electorally, but they have often achieved this on radical right-inspired agendas, not their own turf.

What does Christian democracy look like in a largely secularised Europe with a growing, if still relatively small and marginalised, Muslim population? What does conservatism mean after decades of neoliberal hegemony, sometimes softened by social democracy? How does liberalism recover from the Great Recession? And how should Europe develop, after decades of integration without vision, and in a world of a confrontational Russia and a less and less invested United States?

What of my own proud but struggling tradition—social democracy? It remains rooted in socio-economic interests, but today these are less easily linked to a specific class than they used to be. With a growing (and often educated) “precariat,” alongside an increasingly diverse working class, social democracy must abolish its traditional model of the solidarity of a single class, which was based on the patriarchal white family. And with a new automation revolution around the corner, it should give up on the illusion of full employment, re-establish its bonds with trade unions, and seriously discuss the various options for a Universal Basic Income. All of this requires a fundamental rethinking of the meaning and value of full-time employment. Moreover, at least on our continent, none of this can be achieved without a fundamental reform of the European Union.

Not all of this is going to get done in 2020, and perhaps not within the 2020s as a whole. I merely hope that these overdue rethinks can get started. In many ways, the real crisis of liberal democracy today is not the mainstreaming and normalisation of the far right. It is the ideological vacuum at its own heart. It is the hollowed-out condition of the “mainstream” parties which allows the shrill, noisy and wealthy to dominate politics. It is time to repoliticise politics.