Leader: The crisis of liberalism

Liberal democracy must stand for more than the people’s will, but mainstream politicians have a duty not only to acknowledge, but to address their frustrations and deeper feelings of alienation.

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Democracy depends on division. Vigorous competition between parties is a prerequisite for a healthy polity. Yet democracy also depends on unity: a shared commitment to basic norms and principles, and a vision of the common good. Throughout the dispiriting US presidential election campaign, Donald Trump has repeatedly transgressed these standards. The Republican candidate’s suggestion during the second debate that Hillary Clinton would “be in jail” if he won encapsulated his malevolent and paranoid style: the demonisation of opponents, aggressive machismo and a contempt for constitutional limits.

The previous day, after Mr Trump was shown to have boasted of groping women, some of the senior Republicans still supporting him (such as John McCain and Condoleezza Rice) finally withdrew their endorsements. They had multiple opportunities to do so. Since announcing his candidacy, Mr Trump has pledged to ban Muslims from entering the US, described Mexican immigrants as drug dealers, criminals and rapists, and suggested that Mrs Clinton could be assassinated.

For the party of Abraham Lincoln, he is a profound embarrassment. However, Mr Trump did not emerge in a vacuum. Many Republicans had long portrayed their Democratic
opponents as not merely wrong, but dangerous and unpatriotic. For them, government was not a force for good, but something malign. Mr Trump’s foes should not be surprised that so many voters embraced the candidate who best exemplified these traits

The Republican demagogue’s rise is also the product of an economic system that has failed to deliver shared prosperity. Since 1979, most US workers’ hourly wages have stagnated or declined, despite GDP rising by more than 150 per cent. Between 2009 and 2013, the top 1 per cent enjoyed 85.1 per cent of total income growth. When mainstream institutions neglect them, voters are ineluctably drawn to the extremes. A coarsened political discourse is the result.

We have similar troubles in the UK. The EU referendum was marked by intense polarisation and, all too often, by an absence of civility. Contrary to what some now claim, the Leave campaign won not by promoting an open, global, free-trading Britain but by pandering relentlessly to anxieties over immigration. Those who sought to inform rather than scare voters were dismissed as irrelevant “experts”.

Rarely in recent memory has the UK been more politically divided. Though the Leave vote was decisive, and must be respected, its narrow margin (52-48) should not be ignored. The result reflected and reinforced existing fractures. Jeremy Corbyn has remade Labour, attracting hundreds of thousands of new members, but has still to prove that he can achieve broader national appeal (the latest polls give the Conservatives a 17-point lead). Ukip, Britain’s third party by votes, is represented by a sole MP. The Scottish National Party has achieved hegemony north of the border and still aspires to stage a second independence referendum.

Theresa May’s mission, as she has recognised, is not just to deliver Brexit but to unite a profoundly divided country. In his review on page 42 of John Milbank and Adrian Pabst’s important new book, The Politics of Virtue, Rowan Williams identifies some of the economic and social means by which greater economic justice and more social solidarity can be forged. The former archbishop of Canterbury writes of the potential for a “civil economy”, under which “companies should be freed from the unquestioned authority of short-term shareholder interest so as to be able to consider long-term public benefit”, and which ensures “fair wages and fair prices, as well as a realistic regime of taxation on purely financial transactions”.

The healing of the UK’s divisions also necessitates a reinvigoration of civil society. As Dr Williams writes, we must “affirm the solidity of ‘intermediate’ communities that are neither private nor state-franchised (professional guilds, trade unions, religious associations, volunteer organisations . . .)”.

One of the themes of these new times is the crisis of liberalism. Liberal democracy must stand for more than the people’s will, but mainstream politicians have a duty not only to acknowledge, but to address their frustrations and deeper feelings of alienation. Should they prove incapable of doing so, the anti-system populism of Donald Trump and others like him will endure, and intensify. 

 

This article appears in the 13 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, England’s revenge