Leader: The revenge of history

In an age of reaction, it is tempting for liberals to lapse into defeatism. They should not.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

A quarter of a century ago, liberalism appeared to have triumphed. After decades of division, the Cold War officially ended. In Europe, a dozen countries founded the European Union through the Maastricht Treaty. In the United States, after 12 years of Republican rule, Bill Clinton was elected president. “What we may be witnessing,” wrote Francis Fukuyama in The End of History and the Last Man, “[is] the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

That was long before the 11 September 2001 attacks and the resultant “war on terror” inaugurated a new era of global insecurity. Seven years later, the financial crisis ended the illusion of perpetual growth. Yet progressives were little prepared for the political humbling they have since endured.

In defiance of its allies, the UK voted to leave the EU. It did so after a Leave campaign that shamelessly exploited fears over immigration. Many sorrowfully remarked that the UK was not the country they thought. In a state historically hailed for its tolerance and respect, racist and religious hate crimes rose by 41 per cent. Ministers floated the idea of forcing companies to publish a list of their foreign workers. Immigrants old and new testified that they no longer felt welcome.

Brexit was part of a Europe-wide revolt against both free-market and identity liberalism. In France, the leader of the Front National, Marine Le Pen, rose to become a potential winner of the 2017 presidential election. In Germany, the increasingly xenophobic Alternative für Deutschland challenged the country’s postwar norms. In Austria, the far-right Norbert Hofer was only narrowly denied the presidency. In the Netherlands, the nationalist Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) repeatedly led opinion polls. Amid the tumult, the eurozone and refugee crises remain unresolved.

For Europe’s liberals, the US presidential election was supposed to provide consolation. Instead, it delivered the greatest reversal of all. Donald Trump, an unashamed racist, miso­gynist and authoritarian, defeated Hillary Clinton. Under Mr Trump’s rule by generals and billionaire businessmen, the US will retreat from its postwar role as the guarantor of the international liberal order. Like an increasing number of Western politicians, he regards the malevolent Russian president, Vladimir Putin, not as a foe but as a potential ally.

In an age of reaction, it is tempting for liberals to lapse into defeatism. They should not. Both the EU referendum and the US presidential election were marginal victories. Leave won the former by 52 to 48 per cent. In the United States, Mrs Clinton won the popular vote by more than two million and was thwarted only by an anachronistic electoral college. Liberals and progressives should not deny their defeats, but nor should they connive in exaggerating them.

Progressives must, however, reckon with the discontent so plainly displayed. Across the West, voters have long endured falling or stagnant living standards. Open borders and mass immigration have destabilised many communities. As John Gray wrote in our New Times special issue last week, “By pursuing the ultra-liberal project of a borderless continent in which national identities count for little, Europe’s ruling elites are bringing the opposite into being.”

And yet, too often, mainstream politicians have cast themselves as powerless in the face of global forces. In the absence of adequate solutions, electorates have been ineluctably drawn to the extremes. Voters desire greater control over their lives and recognise the state as a mechanism for that ­purpose. Rather than ceding this territory to reactionaries, the left must reclaim it.

However, in an age of public distrust and defensive nation­alism, technocratic social democracy will not suffice. Politicians must combine a reinvigorated public sphere with radical devolution and transparency. They must craft a progressive patriotism that neutralises the exclusivism of the nationalist right. And they must speak a language that brings them closer to the public, not one that takes them further away.

Just as it was premature to declare liberalism’s triumph, so it is premature to speak of its demise. But the old platitudes will not work. A left that is simultaneously more reflective and more ambitious can begin to regain the ground it has lost.

We wish all our readers the very best for Christmas and a happy and peaceful New Year. 

This article appears in the 15 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2016