Liberals used to be famous for battling each other as much as their opponents on the far left and far right. After all, liberalism is a complex tradition with many strands and internal tensions. Yet the recent surge in populism has not only created a new adversary but has also corrupted liberal thinking itself. It increasingly sees the world in simplistic, binary terms of “us” and “them”—doing exactly what it criticises in populism.
At a time when populism is on the rise, many believe that the centre-left and centre-right need to make common cause in face of a greater threat. But this view is dangerously wrong. Instead, the two sides need to draw farther apart to enable a true debate over ideas. In this way, both camps can pull in supporters from the extremes—and once again offer voters real alternatives in the centre ground of politics.
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The conventional wisdom among liberals is that a struggle is now underway between a monolithic liberalism and a monolithic illiberalism—or even more simplistically, between “open” and “closed” world views, which have replaced the traditional political fault-line of left v right. The urge is for centrists on both sides of the political aisle to put aside their differences to protect liberal democracy from populists, who it is assumed want to destroy it.
Most of this logic is plain wrong. It not only echoes the populists themselves but plays into their hands. It was Marine Le Pen in France and Steve Bannon in America who came up with the idea of a struggle between “globalists” and “nationalists”. This is exactly the terrain on which they want to fight. Liberals are essentially accepting that narrative.
Consider Emmanuel Macron, who campaigned in the French presidential election in 2017 as the antithesis of Le Pen. His campaign slogan “ni de gauche, ni de droite” (“neither left nor right”) embodied the idea that the classic left/right division is now irrelevant. Yet the slogan was originally used by the French fascist movement in the 1930s—perhaps illustrating that the centrists might have more in common with populists than they like to think.
In response to populist pressure, liberals seem quick to suspend their ethos of incremental reform and defend policies and institutions from attack. They dismiss almost any criticism of trade liberalisation as “protectionism”. They call anyone who believes that European integration may be undermining democracy a “nationalist”. They warn that any reform of the fraying “liberal international order” will take us back to the trade wars—and shooting wars—of the 1930s. In short, anyone who is critical of any of the policies of the last several decades is “illiberal”—and therefore wrong.
There was even a small glimpse of this at The Economist’s Open Future Festival last September in New York, which was held on the 10th anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers. When The Economist’s editor-in-chief Zanny Minton Beddoes interviewed Steve Bannon, a darling of America’s alt-right, he brought up the financial crisis several times as an example of liberalism’s failure. But in her eagerness to demonstrate her opposition to his world view, she seemed to gloss over it rather than actively seize it, which was a missed opportunity. (Watch the video below.) Anyone still fuming about the financial crisis might sympathise with him rather than her.
Even the ubiquitousness of the term “populism” illustrates a reluctance to think in a nuanced way about the causes of the current backlash. The term is used to describe such a vast range of people, movements and parties—and even, in the case of Brexit, a decision—that it has become almost meaningless. Yet it is used without explanation as if it were self-explanatory. In practice, populism is used “as the label that political elites attach to policies supported by ordinary citizens that they don’t like,” as Francis Fukuyama pithily put it.
Liberals appear to want to lump diverse people, policies and parties together under the umbrella of populism in order simply to dismiss them. In particular, the term is used to discredit far-left parties such as Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece by associating them with far-right parties such as Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland or France’s Front National.
What these “populists” do have in common is a rejection of what the political economist Dani Rodrik of Harvard University calls “hyper-globalisation”—a form of deep integration that has emerged since the end of the Cold War. Thinking of populism in terms of a backlash against hyper-globalisation helps us understand its different forms. The left wants to restrict the movement of capital and goods. The right wants to restrict the movement of people.
But here, liberalism’s binary simplifications misread the situation and make the concerns harder to address. Supporting the removal of some freedoms, be it the movement of capital, goods or people, does not mean advocating the removal of all freedoms. In other words, populists do not necessarily oppose globalisation, as liberals frequently suggest when they talk about a battle between “open” and “closed” world views—many just want a recalibration of globalisation.
The implications? Instead of doubling down on the policies they have followed for the past several decades, liberals need to grapple with the criticisms, ideas and policies of the “populists”—even those made by noxious figures like Donald Trump.
If liberals want to save globalisation and a rules-based order, they need to think hard about how to reform it—and this probably involves dialling back integration. Something similar has been done before. The precedent for this is the way that liberals like John Maynard Keynes sought to moderate capitalism in order to save it in the 1930s.
This ultimately means rediscovering the differences between the centre-left and the centre-right, not rejecting them as obsolete. Joining forces against the populists only strengthens the sense that they form a kind of cartel. Instead, moderates on the left and right need to move further apart to offer genuine policy choices in the centre of politics. If there’s a fight to be won, it’s an existential one at the heart of liberalism itself.
Hans Kundnani is senior research fellow in the Europe Programme at Chatham House in London. He previously worked at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and at the European Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of “The Paradox of German Power” (Hurst, 2014).
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