The Crisis of Illiberalism

In Commentary, Sohrab Ahmari has a piece titled “Illiberalism: The Worldwide Crisis”. He refers to the spread of nationalist sentiments across Europe and the U.S. as “Planet Trump”:

Planet Trump is what happens when liberalism’s capacity to absorb and dilute enmity falters, and when liberals neglect to give politics, ideology, and enmity their due—when they take a little too seriously their own claim to stand outside and above ideology. To see Planet Trump as merely a reaction to social, economic, and legal developments is to reproduce this common error, and some of Trumpism’s sharpest critics and most sympathetic observers are equally guilty of it.

Both camps are caught in liberalism’s blind spot, in other words, because they fail to discern the simpler if more discomfiting explanation. What if Planet Trump represents the emergence of a serious ideological alternative to liberalism—one that echoes the illiberal and authoritarian movements of the previous century but, crucially, isn’t an exact replica? What if the new illiberals believe what they say they believe?

Planet Trump is a combination of 1) economic protectionism, including shielding earned entitlements from fiscal reform and undeserving newcomers; 2) geopolitical isolationism and, often, pro-Russian sentiment; and 3) hostility toward groups that are seen as agents of economic dislocation and/or physical insecurity—immigrants for the far right, corporate elites for the far left, finance capital for both (and Jews for many).

Of course, the Jews… always the victims.

The fact that these policies are common to far-right and far-left movements from Vermont to Vienna isn’t all that interesting or illuminating. It is necessary to uncover the deeper impulses behind the policy mix—that is, the emotions and instincts that are the warp and weft of any ideology, including liberalism. In the case of Planet Trump, the impulses can be summed up as nostalgia, aggrieved nationhood, and hunger for authentic politics.

These are the three psychological planks on which all such movements rest, and understanding them is essential to defending liberalism against this fresh assault—not least by rejiggering the liberal program in areas where the new illiberals have a point but offer solutions that are monstrous, irrational, or, well, illiberal.

Ahmari is at least cognizant of the increasing perception of the inherent failure of democracy as a form of government:

Along with the failure to name the enemy, the liberal mainstream is also becoming more dismissive of self-government, and this too has intensified the sense that contemporary politicians are pursuing their own agenda rather than the interests of the voters they are supposed to serve. On both sides of the Atlantic, mainstream parties have been too ready to short-circuit the democratic process when they fear it won’t produce the desired liberal outcomes. From Obama’s executive order on immigration, to the imposition of gay marriage by judicial fiat, to the EU’s attempts to punish voters in Poland and elsewhere for electing the wrong kind of government, to the efforts by European and American transnationalists to “download” liberal norms into national legal systems, liberal disdain for self-government is bolstering illiberals. By sanctioning and censoring the wrong kinds of speech on Islam, immigration, and integration, European and American liberals only manage to turn the illiberals into folk heroes and martyrs voicing forbidden truths.

Much the same sentiment is made by liberal scholar Michael Sandel in a long and worthy interview with Jason Cowley in The New Statesman:

MS: I think the restiveness that you describe reflects a broader disquiet with democracy that we see in most democracies around the world today. There is a widespread frustration with politics, with politicians and with established political parties. This is for a couple of reasons; one of them is that citizens are rightly frustrated with the empty terms of public discourse in most democracies. Politics for the most part fails to address the big questions that matter most and that citizens care about: what makes for a just society, questions about the common good, questions about the role of markets, and about what it means to be a citizen. A second source of the frustration is the sense that people feel less and less in control of the forces that govern their lives. And the project of democratic self-government seems to be slipping from our grasp. This accounts for the rise of anti-establishment political movements and parties throughout Europe and in the US.

JC: One of the key slogans of the Brexiteers is to regain control. Why does this resonate with so many? And are you somewhat sympathetic to that line of argument?

MS: Well, I do think it resonates deeply. And I see this not only in Britain, I see this in the American political campaign, and I see it looking at the rise of anti-establishment parties throughout Europe. A theme running through these various political movements is taking back control, restoring control over the forces that govern our lives and giving people a voice. As to whether I have some sympathy for this sentiment, I do. I don’t have sympathy for many of the actual political forms that it takes.

One of the biggest failures of the last generation of mainstream parties has been the failure to take seriously and to speak directly to people’s aspiration to feel that they have some meaningful say in shaping the forces that govern their lives. And this is partly a question of democracy: what does democracy actually mean in practice? It’s also closely related to a question of culture and identity. Because a sense of disempowerment is partly a sense that the project of self-government has failed. When it’s connected to borders, the desire to reassert control over borders, it also shows the close connection between a sense of disempowerment and a sense that people’s identities are under siege.

While there is more of an Alt-Left in Europe than here in the States, might this change over time?

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