Populism is on the rise not because it's desirable, but because liberalism has lost its way. We must help it find a new, open pathby Jan Zielonka / February 2, 2018 / Leave a comment
Populists are winning voters across the entire western world and we are at pain trying to understand why. Why was a vast body of statistical evidence showing the costs of leaving the EU ignored? How could seemingly pragmatic Brits refuse to trust them: the academics, the journalists, the experts?
Why does an overwhelming majority of Poles support the nationalist Law and Justice Party, and not the conservative liberals who made Poland an economic champion? Why is a chaotic movement led by a capricious comedian more popular among voters than the centre-left party which led Italy out of the recession? Why is the party of the late Jörg Haider part of the new coalition government in Austria?
Even in prosperous and stable Germany, the right-wing nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD) entered the Bundestag with nearly a hundred seats. That’s without even mentioning the baffling rise to power of Donald Trump.
For the majority reading the Prospect, including myself, liberalism is a force for good, which populist insurgents are determined to destroy. We (liberals) are rational, they (populists) are illogical, if not crazy. We tell the truth, they tell lies; we offer progress, they offer destruction; we are open-minded, they are intolerant; we enhance freedom, they seek domination; we believe in laws and institutions, they are trying to get rid of them. If people support populists, we think, they must be either brained-washed or mad.
We are, I fear, too biased. Liberals from centre-left and centre-right parties have been in power in Europe for at least three decades, and their record is mixed at best.
In many countries across Europe, inequality has increased dramatically under the liberal reign. Between 2009 and 2013, the number of Europeans living without enough money to heat their homes or cope with unforeseen expenses, known as “severe material deprivation”, rose by 7.5 million to 50 million people. Tax dodging has become widespread, and the cuts to social spending are notorious.
Liberals have invaded other countries—with no UN mandate—and then left them to rot in the hands of local warlords. European integration used to be the flagship of the liberal project, generating prosperity and cooperation. Yet in recent years, it has become a symbol of austerity, stagnation and conflict.
Democracy has also been weakened if not perverted over recent years. Its pillars—parliaments, parties and the media—have experienced damaging scandals across the continent and lost the trust of ordinary people.
Unelected bodies such as central banks, constitutional courts, and the European Commission have been increasingly authorised to make key decisions. Elections were ran, but they failed to generate genuine policy changes: power alternated between the same parties with similar programs, led by the same cast of politicians.
Liberals rightly accuse populists of twisting facts, manipulating statistical data, playing on voters’ prejudices, and lying. Yet liberals are not just innocent victims of misinformation campaigns. Regulation of the media system by successive liberal governments, particularly public service broadcasting, has been opaque in most Western countries.
What’s worse, liberals have regularly exploited opportunities created by the communicative chaos, and sometimes even purposefully encouraged media decadence. “Evidence based” reasoning has notoriously been used and misused by liberals to justify governmental programs and policies.
Appeals to “common sense” cover all manner of sins. Liberal politicians have heavily relied on PR agencies and “spin doctors.” Inconvenient facts have either been removed from the political discourse or discredited by “scientific” advisors on the governmental pay-roll.
“Populists are strong because liberals are so weak.”
The most striking British examples concern the “evidence” regarding the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the Brexit statistical scorecard foreseeing “£15bn tax rises, increase in fuel and alcohol duties and £15bn cuts to health, education and defence” if Britain leaves the EU.
No wonder populist politicians have adopted a similar tactic and often proved more skilful in generating cooked-up evidence supporting their own partisan, if not outrageous positions. Predators feel at home in the jungle, don’t they?
Despite all their recent successes, populist parties lack charismatic leaders. Their political programs are shallow and their members divided. Populists are strong because liberals are so weak. But instead of admitting their own mistakes, liberals blame the voters for getting mad and being misled.
Instead of confronting neo-liberal economics, they criticize populists for making “unsustainable” social promises. Instead of helping local communities to cope with the influx of migrants, they accuse these communities of xenophobia. Instead of making the EU more transparent, fair and accountable, they rally behind such discredited figures as Jean-Claude Juncker or Antonio Tajani. (The former is a symbol of the European system of tax dodging, and the latter is a buddy of the disgraced Silvio Berlusconi.)
Those who understand this, and urge liberals to self-reflect, are accused of advancing the populist cause. No wonder the electorate is looking for alternatives to liberals.
Populism will not dwindle as long as liberals insist that the old practices were correct and must continue. Liberals should look into the mirror, change their leaders, and propose a new liberal vision of capitalism and democracy, in tune with the writing of their intellectual heroes like Hannah Arendt, Isaiah Berlin, and Karl Popper.
These twentieth-century thinkers urged us to strive for an open society, which is not only free but also tolerant and fair. They urged liberals to lead by example and move forward—not back—through trial and error. They tried to protect those oppressed by the state and markets rather than helping those who are already rich and powerful.
I fear most liberal politicians are not ready to go this way. In recent elections, liberals, especially those on the right of the political spectrum, were more eager to embrace a soft version of populism than a kind of liberalism advocated by Arendt, Berlin and Popper.
Mark Rutte in Holland and Sebastian Kurz in Austria castigated migrants; Emanuel Macron in France bashed traditional parties; and Theresa May embraced Brexit. True, they are in power. But can we say that liberalism is alive, well and safe under their reign?