The right-wing case against populism

It is no friend to conservatism—but liberalism is

March 31, 2017
US President Donald Trump ©Sachs Ron/CNP/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images
US President Donald Trump ©Sachs Ron/CNP/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images
In a companion piece, Jonathan Rutherford explains how Labour can take on populism from the left

Conservatives in the west face a serious and consequential choice: to align with ascendant authoritarian populism, or to defend the institutions and values of liberal societies, currently and dangerously bashed as the playthings of an urban elite.

Across the Atlantic, too many Republicans have chosen to appease or to collaborate with the grotesque and pantomimic Trump presidency. In Europe, where the public have also become frustrated with mass immigration and a sluggish and scandalous ruling elite, some centre-right leaders are flirting with protectionist and anti-establishment positioning.

They are making a grave mistake. At the moment, the incentives for the Right may lie with populism, but the long-term damage it will do to our economy and society is profound. The populist surge will ultimately hurt conservatives, too. Many politicians, such as the US Senator John McCain, are wisely resisting. Last month at the Munich Security Conference, he sounded the alarm over the turn away from universal western values and the romanticising of authoritarianism.

Populism is a term that is ill-defined and prone to over-use. But as the Dutch politician scientist Cas Mudde has written, in its original form it is an “ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogenous and antagonistic groups: ‘the pure people’ and ‘the corrupt elite’, and argues that politics should be an expression of the general will of the people”. Indiscriminate and incessant attacks on elites, from populists of both the left and right, conflict with the core tenets of conservatives: individual agency and social cohesion.

Authoritarian populists push for strong leaders that can bypass and smash supposedly biased and corrupt institutions that are preventing the implementation of radical action, including ones essential to democracy such as a free press and an independent judiciary. But conservatives value these institutions precisely because they tame the powerful from stamping on the freedom of other people.

After the Second World War, institutions such as the European Court of Human Rights, Nato and the United Nations were created to protect people’s freedom at an international level, They are now also under attack from populists. Without doubt, authoritarian populism is a threat to individual liberty—it seeks to strengthen the power of the state to correct injustices against “the people” at the same time as seeking to reduce the power of mediating institutions that provide actual people with protection and redress.

Liberalism—a broad philosophy that has shaped the building of these institutions and western societies for centuries—is now being distorted and demonised. It is being caricatured as promoting relativism and materialism, incentivising people to pursue their own self-interest in the bedroom as well as the boardroom.

In pursuit of diversity, social liberalism has supposedly prioritised minorities at the expense of the ethnic, religious and sexual majority. In the United States, the theory goes, the latter have finally fought back by electing Trump. But this identity politics is not liberal thinking, which aims to treat people as individuals, not as members of a social group. Rather, it is cultural Marxism, using a story of subjugation to pitch social groups against one another.

Economic liberalism has purportedly prioritised free markets and open societies, stripping those on modest incomes of employment rights and opportunities. But liberalism is not libertarianism. Liberals want to empower and enrich individuals, using the state where necessary. Liberal politicians have restrained capitalism to benefit those who are economically vulnerable—with the minimum wage and the redistribution of wealth, for example. Liberals are positive about immigration, but not necessarily uncontrolled immigration, which can thwart the freedoms of others, especially the lowest paid.

Properly understood, liberalism has at its core a profound belief in the empowerment of, agency of and respect for every individual. It is not a license for individuals to do whatever they want. The social and economic liberal order has not been merely imposed by a decadent elite who have been its sole beneficiaries. It is a philosophy that has helped to enrich, emancipate and improve the lives of the overwhelming majority of people in the west.

In fact, liberalism and conservatism are two distinct philosophies that are often presented in perpetual conflict—but they are natural bedfellows. They need, support and tame each other.

The goals of liberalism—individual flourishing, power and respect—can only be developed by enduring cultural, democratic and civic institutions that teach, guide and protect people. The conservative emphasis on interdependency between—not just independence of—people to cultivate responsibility towards others and to future generations, can only truly be realised if we respect the liberal insight that all and different individuals are equally worthy. As for taming one another, the liberal individual can be rooted in reality and responsibility by conservative institutions. Conversely, traditional culture and institutions can be modernised by legitimate calls for emancipation and inclusion.

It is liberalism, not authoritarian populism, which is a true friend of western conservatism. Luckily, our Prime Minister is the opposite of the US President: a liberal conservative more than a populist. But she is also a politician, prone to be pushed by the prevailing populist wind, into attacking the European Convention on Human Rights or “citizens of the world.”

In the UK, the official Opposition is enfeebled. It falls to liberal conservatives to provide the passionate, persuasive and vital challenge to the drift towards authoritarian populism.