Over the last 200 years, Liberalism has been a stunning success story. It brought forward liberty and prosperity for the many instead of privileges for the few. Yet, today liberal thinking and liberal politics are under siege. To regain public support, they need a profound update, offering convincing answers to the major challenges our societies are facing: globalization and digital revolution, climate change and global migration, growing inequality and fear of the future.
Liberal democracy is in trouble. If we compare the current political landscape with the liberal awakening of 1989 and the early 90th, when the Soviet Empire collapsed and millions of people all around the globe reclaimed their right to liberty, the situation couldn’t be more different.
This was the time when Francis Fukuyama coined his famous formula “The End of History”. He wasn’t alone with his prediction that the combination of liberal democracy and capitalism has emerged as the one and only successful model. From now on, the whole world would follow this pathway. Systemic competition would be replaced by systemic convergence.
Meanwhile, history is back. Liberal societies are facing a double challenge: Internationally, we are confronted with self-assertive authoritarian powers, who see themselves as a counter model to liberal democracy: China, Russia, Iran and others. These regimes are differing among themselves, but they have one adversary in common: the global liberal order, based on the idea of universal liberal values, which was constructed and dominated by the West.
At the same time, authoritarian populists are rising in the West itself.
In the US, we see a deeply polarized society and a fierce battle over migration, economic policy and national identity. Even the basic rules and procedures of democracy seem to be at stake.
In Europe, from prosperous Scandinavia to post-communist Poland nationalist (and sometime even right wing extremist) parties have become a strong political factor. The Hungarian strong man Viktor Orbán coined the phrase “illiberal democracy”, a synonym for a new kind of hybrid regime where democratic institutions are undermined by a creeping authoritarian conversation.
In Germany, a hard core right wing party with a nationalist and xenophobic agenda is capturing up to 25 percent of the votes in some states, especially in the eastern part of the country, where 30 years ago people brought down the communist regime of the former GDR. On the national level, they hang around 15 percent, in spite of ten years of economic prosperity and social stability with record low unemployment rates.
Similar to the 20th and 30th of the last century, we see the return of the “strong man” in politics: authoritarian leaders like Xi Jiping in China, Putin In Russia, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Rodrigo Duterte in the Phillipines, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Salvini in Italy. I leave it to you if you would put Donald Trump in this basket.
So what went wrong over the last two decades? When and why did liberal democracy get off track and in many parts of the world, liberalism itself fell into disrepute?
I’m using the term “liberalism” in its initial meaning: a set of ideas and a political concept based on individual freedom, political pluralism, rule of law and division of powers in combination with individual property and a competitive market economy.
Actually, we owe Liberalism much of our modern achievements: inalienable human rights including the right to be different, as well as the foundations of our democratic republic: government by and for the people, free elections, protection of minorities, an independent judiciary, freedom of the press, and a dynamic economy based on entrepreneurship, competition, and open markets.
The combination of liberal political systems and capitalist market economies has afforded us a hitherto unknown degree of justice, individual liberties, and prosperity. By the light of day, Liberalism is a historic success story. How did it manage to fall into disrepute?
At this point, a lot of people both from the left and the nationalist right are quick to point to neoliberalism. Even though it stems from very different historical roots, it is often equated with market radicalism today. Its mantra of deregulation, privatization, and rigid budgeting has indeed weakened public institutions.
Deregulation of financial markets brought about the deep crisis of 2007/2008, discrediting globalization. The growing low-wage sector, precarious work arrangements, a crass disparity of wealth, and organized tax avoidance by international corporations have created a growing notion of injustice. In the eyes of a broader public, Liberalism seems to turn a blind eye to the social question. It sides with the successful rather than with those who struggle.
The liberal camp – in the European tradition this term sounds different from the specific meaning of “liberal” in the US – also offers few convincing solutions concerning the threat to the ecosystems on which our human civilization depends – climate, soils, oceans. While their caveats of an ecological nanny state are legitimate, Liberals discredit themselves when they downplay the urgency of ecological transition. Liberalism has yet to write a playbook for an ecological policy that reconciles climate protection with a dynamic market economy, sustainable economic growth, and diversity of lifestyles.
There are deeper reasons why liberal politics is on the defensive. Classic Liberalism eschews the question how to maintain social cohesion beyond the invisible hand of the market. To many Liberals, catchwords such as solidarity or community have a suspicious collectivist ring to them, as does the notion of an omnipresent welfare state. They consider redistribution the work of the devil; a violation of the unadulterated tenets of market economy.
The avant-gardes of liberal thought deliberately decline to make grand future projections. Their objective is to keep the future open – it will emerge from the free play of the forces at work, from the sum of individual decisions made by a myriad of actors. Liberal politics is all about trial and error, reform rather than revolution, quiet doubt rather than vociferous certainty, competition for the best solution rather than proclaiming grand ideas about how the future is to be arranged. This is wise and humane. Sheer pragmatism, however, falls short. In times of growing uncertainty, a solid concept for the future is essential: Who do people trust to best master the challenges of globalization and digital revolution, climate change, and global migration?
Populists from the left and right are stirring strong emotions. Fear, hatred, pride, nationalism – making the champions of liberal democracy look a little bland in comparison. While “constitutional patriotism” is a good idea, it remains an abstract construct. The democratic republic is more than the sum of its institutions. It relies on joint action by its citizens, on negotiating common goals. That won’t work without a notion of what we want for our future. Anxiety about the future is the mental soundboard of authoritarians. We need confidence that we can create a better future rather than dread it as a doomed fate that will inevitably roll over us.
In a time of turbulent change, we feel an increased need for security and solidarity, for finding assurance in our community. Nationalists promise social and emotional security by retreating into the confines of our national state and national community as a bulwark against the storms that are raging outside. Liberalism will only be able to emerge from its defensive corner if we can respond to this conservative need for security and identity and formulate liberal answers to these needs. When President Macron speaks of a “Europe that protects”, he is hitting a nerve.
Security in a changing world
Economic globalization needs to be embedded in a social and ecological framework. Global migration needs to be regulated. Openness towards technological innovation needs a minimum of individual ability to keep pace with new technologies as well as a minimum of social security to cushion the fallout from disruptive transformation. The mother of all liberties is freedom from fear. Those who live in fear of social failure are not free. Real-life freedom also means to be able to move about the public space unafraid. Those who neglect public safety and order are tilling the ground for authoritarian populists.
It is not enough to keep invoking our love of freedom and a defense of liberal values. Modern liberalism must bridge seeming dichotomies: between freedom and safety, individuality and solidarity, diversity and identity, cosmopolitanism and patriotism, economic dynamics and ecological responsibility. It must shed its habit of simply pitting ‘the market’ versus ‘the state’ and recognize and appreciate the importance of public institutions in upholding equal liberty for all.
Markets rely on prerequisites they cannot generate on their own: an assurance of justice, social peace, protection of the natural resources that assure our livelihood, a functional set of rules governing competition, a strong science and educational system, a modern infrastructure. None of this is free. The slogan “smaller government is better” is just as misleading as its opposite.
In a nutshell: We need a contemporary renewal of Liberalism that offers both liberty and security. We must deliver on the liberal promise of equal opportunity and upward social mobility develop a new notion of progress that is more than just a continuation of the status quo.
Our confidence that liberal democracy is and shall remain the more successful, more innovative, and more just system is in peril. Liberal democracy will only survive if it is able to reinvent itself, catching up with the challenges of the 21st century: Climate Change, the digital revolution, global migration and increasing cultural diversity. Liberal values are great, but we must transform them into successful policies.
Ralf Fücks is a co-founder and director of the “Center for Liberal Democracy”, a Think Tank and political network based in Berlin. He is regularly contributing to major German and international media and author of several books. His last one, “Defending Freedom. How We Can Win the Fight For an Open Society” is published by the renowned British publishing house Polity.