Experience suggests that if men cannot struggle on behalf of a just cause because that just cause was victorious in an earlier generation, then they will struggle against the just cause. They will struggle for the sake of struggle. They will struggle, in other words, out of a certain boredom: for they cannot imagine living in a world without struggle. And if the greater part of the world in which they live is characterized by peaceful and prosperous liberal democracy, then they will struggle against that peace and prosperity, and against democracy. (Francis Fukuyama, The End of History, p.330)
Liberal democracy won the Cold War but a generation later it is losing the peace. In country after country across the comfortable, safe, prosperous western world populist parties and movements dedicated to its overthrow are advancing steadily towards power. Why is this happening? A righteous indignation enabled by complacency. What can be done? Radical liberalism
Note: A shorter version of this essay can be found here.
I. Liberalism's Minsky Moment
Politics is particular, and particular explanations have been given for the populist triumphs of Orban, Kaczyński, Erdogan, Modi, Duterte, Brexit, Trump and the rest. It is certainly true that if we want to know Why here; why not there?, then we need to look at local factors. For example, Trump’s amazing skill at trolling the media for free attention; Clinton’s campaign mistakes; the peculiarities of the US electoral college. But such local analyses do not get at the bigger picture: the worldwide rise in populism. If anything they raise more worries. Combine the results of France’s first round presidential election with America’s electoral college voting system and Marine Le Pen might well have won.
Populist victories are like hurricanes. They all have their own unique shape, path, and destructive outcomes, but behind them is a deeper, systemic trend: a worldwide rise in temperature. The bigger scarier question is, why do so many people around the world hate liberalism itself (not the 'progressive' politics of the left, but the very idea of rule based democracy) so much that particular events like the election of a Trump or Le Pen become possible?
Another class of explanations have been offered, often by populists themselves, which seek to pin the blame on the failures or contradictions of the liberal order itself. For example by characterising populism as a revolt by the losers of globalisation. Except that globalisation has been a tremendous success. There have been some losers - and perhaps more in countries like America and Britain with feeble policies for using the winnings from freer trade to compensate and retrain workers in unlucky industries. But not enough to form an election-winning demographic. And anyway, populism is riding high even in European countries like France, where the losers of globalisation receive extensive economic support and political attention, and now even in Germany, which was supposed to have won globalisation.
Such criticisms also miss the larger point that a liberal democracy is not a regime designed to get things right in the first place, but a regime designed to fix its problems as it goes along. Improvement does not require burning everything down with a revolution and rebuilding society from a blank state. Nor does it require granting an autocrat unlimited undivided authority to get things done. Out-dated institutions, injustices, arrogant elites, traumatic economic events can all be addressed within liberal democracy as it goes along. And this works. Just consider how America’s liberal democracy coped with the many challenges of its 250 year transformation from rural backwater to global superpower, exactly by this ability to adapt to different needs - and the moral arguments of its critics.
I have another explanation for the rise of populism. Liberal democracy works as well as ever. It's just that we got bored with it. More specifically, the very success of liberalism has created the conditions in which populism seems attractive. Liberalism is having a Minsky moment
Hyman Minsky identified a peculiar mechanism in the development of financial crises. In periods of economic stability and prosperity, market players engage in excessive risk taking which increases economic fragility and eventually produces a financial meltdown. Of particular relevance to the case of liberalism is that the longer the period of stability and prosperity, the less people remember of what can go wrong and the greater the risk-taking.
Liberalism tamed politics just as Alan Greenspan tamed the financial cycle. A great moderation created the conditions for a great melt-down of liberal democracy.
Firstly, people objected that the liberalism part of ‘liberal democracy' trumped the democracy part. Politics within the constraints of liberalism came to seem boring and pointless. Between the rulings of judges and the rules of bureaucratic technocrats, there seemed little of substance left for the people to decide about: just tedious values debates about how some people's feelings were being hurt by something or other. There was a revival of the idea of politics as a space in which everything should be up for dispute, including the rules.
Secondly, the safety, prosperity, and orderliness of a liberal society came to be taken for granted. The dangers of turning politics into a bloodsport were forgotten. The defenders of liberalism became complacent.
The stakes are high. A previous bubble of liberalism popped in 1914. It capped a century of liberal peace and internationalism in Europe with 75 years of war and totalitarian misery.
What is most surprising about 1914 is how excited and eager the peoples of Europe were for the glamour and political simplicity of a good war. The long peace had made war more attractive. Firstly, a good war would unify everyone behind the flag. The divisive political challenges that liberalism itself made possible would all disappear and harmony would be restored. (For example, in the UK, demands for Irish self-rule, women’s suffrage, and the political integration of the labour movement were indeed postponed - but only for a few years.) Secondly, there was the usual fantasy of the zero-sum mind, that only the rules are holding us back from taking everything we deserve; not the other powers in the world.
II. Liberal Democracy vs Populist Democracy
I’ve been saying that liberalism is at risk, but that needs some explaining since ‘liberalism’ means different things to different people. I am not interested in the fate of any particular political party or ideology (on the centre-right in Europe; on the centre-left in N. America). Rather, as a political philosopher, I am concerned with the political regime of liberal democracy within which particular parties and ideas compete for the people's consent to rule (John Rawls).
What is this liberal democracy? An idea developed by enlightenment thinkers and first realised in revolutionary America in answer to the foundational problem of politics:
How to create a harmonious society out of a large number of individuals with different beliefs, values and material interests all striving to get their own way.
Unlike its competitors (such as socialism, theocracy, traditionalism, fascism, populism, or ethnic nationalism), liberalism treats this natural human diversity as a resource to be domesticated rather than an existential threat to be overcome by suppression or annihilation. E pluribus unum, as the old motto of the United States used to go - but without losing the many.
The goal of liberalism is a regime in which people are bound by the obligations of citizenship and yet still remain free to live their own lives for reasons that only they find convincing. This is achieved by placing limits on what state power can be used for and placing some issues, such as religion, in the domain of private affairs over which the individual is sovereign, meaning that they are answerable to no one but themselves for their choices.
However, that goal also places an important limitation on the sovereignty of individuals: only 'tame' varieties of moral and religious views – ones that tolerate conflicting opinions - are permitted. The liberal part of liberal democracy is reciprocity: people matter, so other people matter too. It is fine to try to convert your neighbours into your kind of Christianity; but you mustn’t use the threat of violence or state coercion, only sweet persuasion. There are some things you just aren’t allowed to ask for in a liberal democracy. The sincerity of your sense of Righteousness, the importance of the stakes (immortal souls), even the proportion of the population that agree with you are all irrelevant.
Some people find the morality of political liberalism too thin. I will come back to them in a moment. Others – of a Nietzschean or cynical bent - find even the idea of respecting other people as you would like to be respected too much to ask. This group of hardnosed ‘winners’ think politics is only a social Darwinian contest for power and interest dressed up in pretty words. They see moral talk about equality and mutual respect as an elaborate con trick that the weak play upon the strong to stop them getting everything they want and deserve. So it is worth noting, as philosophers from Adam Smith to John Rawls have done, that liberalism is not only the morally best solution to the problem of politics. It can also be justified entirely 'rationally', to those interested only in the efficient pursuit of private self-interest.
The self-interest of each and all is enhanced by living within a regime that treats everyone equally and according to the same principles (accountability to the rule of law). If your interest is in living according to your values, this is more likely under liberalism than in a society where only the group holding power gets to live righteously. If your interest is material wealth, opportunities for mutually beneficial cooperation are much greater if the weak have property rights than if the strong are free to prey upon the weak. We convert the zero-sum games modelled on predation and warfare between predatory elites – what dominated human history up to around 1800 - into the win-win cooperative games that dominate the history of liberalism. The proof is in the eating: the era of liberalism is the era of exponential economic growth that has lifted 90% of human beings out of our species’ default state of Malthusian poverty.
Indeed, many people who think of themselves as ‘political’ are merely passionate about extending their own sacred moral values to the societal level. They have no interest in the morally impure give and take business of politics, only in winning the power of the state to enact their values (whether that be laws that ban homophobic discrimination, or make it compulsory). They want to sidestep the process of politics and get to the real prize: power. Hence the obsession with politicians' authenticity, of being true to their professed beliefs - meaning that they refuse to learn from others or make compromises for the greater good. Hence also the petitionary approach of many activists, who seem to think that being political in a democracy means having the right to demand things from the government - not building political coalitions or reaching out to persuade fellow citizens to their views.
More generally, from the ethical perspective politics is itself a problem to be overcome. Politics appears as an existential struggle between good and evil that can and must be won. As the recent history of America demonstrates, this lens magnifies the divisions within a society, since those who disagree with you are no longer merely wrong but either idiots or just plain evil (or both). One can’t engage with such deplorables, only seek to contain them using the power of the state.
Liberalism of course firmly rejects the idea that politics is about which sacred values should rule. It copes with deep moral conflict by treating it as ‘just politics’: converting it into endless but civil disagreement, a talking shop that never closes and where even winners don’t get to have it all.
But the idea of politics as endless disputation irritates even those who don’t pay much attention to the content of those disputes. There is a natural tendency to see one’s country as an organic entity, on the model of the family, that should ideally be united and harmonious. Like a family feud, political disagreement feels distressing and against nature, something that should be overcome. Other political regimes try to meet this desire for societal harmony - by taking away all the keys on the piano except one. Only liberalism respects diversity in its own right and tries to manage it rather than eliminate it - by converting factional conflict over power into productive disagreement over ideas.
Liberalism is a sophisticated and successful doctrine, both morally and materially. It has permitted the revival of democracy, a regime that was seen as unstable and disastrous for thousands of years. But, like the scientific revolution also launched by the enlightenment, it requires counter-intuitive reasoning. Sufficient people and institutions have to be committed to explaining and defending its slightly complicated ideas for it to flourish. When that fails, dangerously simplistic notions about democracy begin to circulate, such as populism.
Populism is a kind of ur-democracy. It activates many common sense ethical intuitions people have about politics. In particular, the idea that democracy literally means 'the rule of the people' and the idea that the business of politics, its rules, and its actors are the greatest obstacle to true democracy. Populism seeks to overthrow the rule of the corrupt elite and replace it with that of the people, as represented by one person in particular.
The idea of populism should not be confused with popularity. 'The people' is a metaphysical, rather mystical notion of the true soul of the nation (in leftist versions, founded on economic class; in rightist versions, on ethnic identity). It is not the same as an electoral majority, and its claim to rule does not depend on electoral success. The point of elections is to recognise the truth of who deserves to rule, not to establish it.
Recall how candidate Trump pointedly refused to promise to accept the results of the US election if he lost. And how Nigel Farage described the outcome of the Brexit referendum:
"A victory for real people, a victory for ordinary people, a victory for decent people."
Part of the idea of populism is that the true nation is unified in its values and interests. Political disagreement is an unnatural aberration introduced by the dastardly politicians and other elites so they could inveigle themselves into power and wealth. It follows that opposition to the populist is illegitimate. Politicians who oppose the populist are traitors to ‘the people' and America itself; voters who vote incorrectly aren't true Americans; an election defeat is evidence of conspiracy; and so on. Likewise, liberal institutions and rules (such as minority rights or judicial review of government actions) are not necessary once the people are actually in charge. In fact they are undemocratic because they constrain the will of the people in order to protect those who object to it, i.e. the enemies of the people.
Populism is not only wrong, but also a failure. It tries to do away with politics by asserting that there are no real political disagreements, only a distinction between patriots and enemies. But this appealing simplicity is false and cannot be sustained. Deep variety of opinions, values, and interests is inescapable in a free society and the only way to bring them into mutually tolerable harmony is via a politics of persuasion and compromise.
When populists are in opposition they can promise every voter that you are the true patriot for whom we will govern without compromise. But if they reach power, they must confront the fact that they cannot give all their voters everything they want. Populist governments must tack back to a more inclusive liberal politics of pragmatic compromise within moral constraints. Or else they must double down and suppress the inevitable disappointment and criticism of their rule. More and more enemies of the people will be identified, and increasingly authoritarian powers required to control a restive citizenry that the government has come to see as treasonous. Thus, in power, populism drifts further and further from any recognisable accountability to the actual rather than imaginary electorate. If left long enough, comprehensive economic and moral bankruptcy follows - such as currently to be seen in Venezuela. (See further, Jan-Werner Müller, author of 'What is Populism?'.)
The question is, if liberalism is so successful and agreeing to disagree is so wonderful why do so many people want to tear the whole thing down and replace it something as dumb as populism? Two topics seem central to the appeal of populism: globalisation and political correctness. For reasons of space, and because political correctness is particular to the rightist form of populism (Farage, Trump, Le Pen) I will leave it aside.
III. Globalisation vs Sovereignty
I take ‘the problem of globalisation’ to be an instance of a more general crisis of faith in the ambitious cooperative schemes that liberal prosperity is built on. These are the schemes - which cover areas as diverse as international trade, public health, food safety, electricity generation, science, public education and policing - by which a society can dramatically increase total welfare by solving collective action problems. Some good things, like fire-fighting, are much cheaper to buy in bulk. Some only work if everyone can be compelled to join, such as vaccines or social insurance. Others require specialised government backed institutions to manage, like property registries.
There is a great variety of cooperative schemes, but they all affect individuals’ feeling of control. First because individuals' freedom of action is reduced in favour of a new collective dependence on institutions. Second because how these schemes work is increasingly complex and opaque.
First, individual are required to exchange one idea of control for another. We must give up our sovereignty in particular areas, the right to make our own decisions on whatever grounds we choose. For example, some of the income that we think of as ours is to be spent as the government sees fit: we must buy 3rd party insurance to be allowed to drive; we must pay taxes to fund local public schools (even if we have no children); and so on.
In exchange for suspending our own judgement about what to do, we are promised better average outcomes. These are better outcomes because they are more in line with what we need and want (e.g. a guarantee that anyone who hits you with their car can afford to compensate the costs of their mistake). And they are better on average because the benefits of cooperative schemes are often statistical and indirect rather than quid pro quo (for example, universal high quality public schooling increases the productivity of the future workers who will be paying your pension).
Statistical thinking of this sort is essential to modernity but it does not come naturally to human minds. Giving up the right to bear arms, for example, reduces individuals’ statistical risk of being killed by a gun, but increases their sense of vulnerability [previously]. We are asked to give up something immediate and real - the feeling of being in control, of agency, that comes from making our own choices - on the basis of intangible facts we must accept on faith from technocratic experts. It goes against the gut.
Furthermore, our cooperative schemes have grown ever more ambitious and hence complex. They have had to since the low hanging fruit analysed by Locke and Hobbes have mostly been plucked. In particular, the very device by which earlier cooperative schemes were advanced - transferring control from individuals to the state - has created a world of jagged lumps of prickly national sovereignty rubbing up against each other. Making further progress requires reconciling the established cooperative schemes of different states, such as their labour regulations and tax systems.
Second, these cooperative schemes are increasingly beyond the abilities of ordinary citizens to understand and evaluate. It is easy to see who will lose privileged economic positions from a new trade deal; harder to see the long-term gains or who will get them. Again, we have to take it on faith that they will work as promised to our eventual and average benefit.
Such faith is currently in short supply.
If you look around the world you will see that many societies fail to achieve basic things liberal societies take for granted. Despite the enormous payoffs of transport systems, sanitation, social insurance, effective courts, and so on these are complicated projects with lots of actors to coordinate and vested interests to balance out. To get them right, all parties need to have faith in government, and government has to be very competent. As Trump famously discovered, ‘Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated'
Yet when cooperative schemes succeed they are unappreciated. They form the invisible background infrastructure to our (often trivial) choices. New Yorkers can buy Chilean strawberries in January only because an elaborate system of coercive institutions governing food safety, import agreements, currency markets, tax funded transport infrastructure and so on in multiple countries fits together so neatly and invisibly.
Cooperative schemes are most visible when they fail to live up to the promises of their designers. Sometimes with disastrous consequences, as in the misregulation of collateralized debt obligations and other financial innovations that caused the financial crisis. Or the failures baked into the Euro project that caused the sovereign debt crisis in Europe. And even the fixes can be hard to understand. It is not surprising that people looking at this from in front of a TV can feel helpless and frustrated, and start to see the technocratic institutions of government as the problem not the solution.
Indeed, this is the populist view. The rules we have bound ourselves with to make cooperation work are the very thing holding us back. We have transferred control to a privileged elite class who write and manage those rules. They are not on our side. They are living it large on our taxes while they screw with us and laugh at us when we try to speak up. They change the rules to suit their pet causes, like 'the environment', and make their friends rich while ordinary people's jobs and communities are destroyed. (Add a scapegoat like ‘immigrant’ and you get the rightist populism of a Trump. Add the word ‘neoliberalism’ and you get the leftist populism of a Chavez.)
It is true that although the institutions of liberal societies do much better than other societies', they need to do better still. They leave too many people behind, are opaque to democratic scrutiny, and manage people in disrespectful ways. Trade deals in particular need to include more explicit compensation for minorities who lose income and clearer and more accountable governance mechanisms. But it is not true that a return to simplicity or control will solve all problems.
Take simplicity. Populists love to complain about the number of pages things have. The 2010 Dodd-Frank Act that updated America's financial regulatory system is one of their bugbears at 848 pages long (excluding many rules delegated to agencies to draft). In contrast, the law that set up America's entire banking system 150 years ago only needed 29 pages (The Economist). But such contrasts are not as straightforward as they appear. The code for Microsoft's Windows 10 is much longer than that for Windows 1.0, but that is because it tries - and mostly succeeds - in doing far more. Moreover, the fact that there are many many flaws in Windows 10 that should be improved doesn't mean you would be better off switching back to the simpler Windows 1.0.
Likewise, the populists promise to put the people back in control. By this they do not only mean that we can make ‘our own' decisions again (sovereignty), but that this will enable us to achieve better outcomes ('America First'). The treacherous expert class will be removed and replaced with a leadership directly connected to the soul of the nation. Thereby we the people will finally be in charge and our society will be a true democracy. Such a government will be able to act directly to solve our problems because it won't have to put its ideas through the tedious process of considering and incorporating criticisms and and opposing interests.
Deciding which group are the real citizens of the country does seem to simplify dealmaking - since other citizens' interests need no longer be considered, let alone foreigners'. However, declaring that other people don't matter doesn't change the fact that you still need their consent for your deals to work. Brexiteers for example are under the delusion that they can opt out of EU regulations about things like food safety, and somehow make people in the EU buy their toxic but now cheaper food. Populists commitment to their own moral supremacy leaves them strategically blind, unable to think through how other players pursuing their own interests might respond to their unilateralism.
Moreover, even if a populist regime doesn't progress all the way to its natural destination of incompetent authoritarianism (Venezuela), it can still inflict great harm by reducing a society's institutional capacity to handle complex cooperative projects.
Populist governments reject the idea of competence as a conspiracy, and exploit and exacerbate distrust of government and social division. Trump's government for example, though less populist in office than on the campaign trail, is doing great harm to America's capacity for good government. America's institutions and performance will decline until they reach a new equilibrium that can be sustained in the new political conditions. Probably not quite as low as South Africa, but maybe comparable to Argentina or Brazil or Louisiana. Even if the Republican party returns to liberalism, it will likely take decades for America to recover its power and influence.
IV. Radical Liberalism
I have tried to outline the main components of the appeal of populism, and its flaws. But defeating the populist threat also requires acknowledging the harm that liberals' own complacency has done to the idea of liberal democracy. Liberalism is supposed to tame politics with rules. But in the last decades it went too far, unreasonably narrowing the scope for disagreement and citizens' real choices and insulating elites from criticism and accountability (the real outrage of the Great Recession). That is how so many people around the world could be persuaded that liberalism itself was the problem.
Liberalism needs reinvigorating: liberal institutions need dramatic reform; liberal politics needs to offer citizens the radical possibilities for change without giving up on democracy.
First, one of the strengths of liberal democracy is that it allows radical changes to be made from within, without resorting to revolution or autocracy. It is a regime designed for improvement as a society learns from its mistakes. It should not be mistaken for the specific set of political parties, rules and ideologies on can find in any particular liberal democracy - like the Federal Reserve banking system, NAFTA, the electoral college, and legal decisions that money=speech. One can find fault with the institutions of a liberal society or even condemn them. But that does not require rejecting liberalism itself. Especially since that provides the best standard for criticising such institutions and the best means for fixing them.
This seems to have been forgotten - by both citizens and politicians. Over the decades of the great moderation of liberalism, mainstream politicians became unable to imagine beyond a very narrow set of institutional possibilities. The institutions, individuals, and economic theories contaminated by the Great Recession are mostly still in charge. It seems that politicians had no idea how to manage without them.
Citizens' lazy consumerist approach to politics is also to blame. They mistook their anger at the failures of their complacent liberal rulers for proof that liberal democracy itself had failed. Imagine liberal democracy as a restaurant. In one 'consumerist' view, all democracy means is that you sit down and choose something from a menu you didn't get to write. If you are dissatisfied with the menu there are other options than burning the restaurant down, namely getting involved in politics itself, where the menus get written. That would require more effort though than ticking the box next to the populist candidate.
Second, as the above suggests, defeating populism is a political not an intellectual challenge. Liberal politicians must step back from their usual disputes with each other about the precise role of the state and explain to voters what is at stake when populists appear on the ballot. They have a first duty to defend liberalism, the constitutional democracy they compete to serve.
That defense must be explicit and it must be positive. Hillary Clinton's campaign showed the failure of fighting the dark emotions of populism with other dark emotions. Her message of fear failed to motivate voters to turn out and cost her the election. The same happened with the Remain campaign in the Brexit referendum. The contrast with Obama's successful message of hope was stark. Macron's electoral successes are more recent. They show that politicians who communicate a passion for liberalism can still win citizens back.
Besides a positive vision, it is important that citizens feel that their politics is real again, not some patronising colour inside the lines distraction while the real decisions get made somewhere else by judges and technocratic civil servants. For example, that different parties will actually do different things if elected. There is a misconception that radical politics, or savage critiques of our ruling elites and institutions, must be populist. But the radical proposals of the likes of Corbyn, Sanders, and Macron are quite compatible with liberalism. Indeed, they show the radical possibilities to change our world that liberal democracy has always offered - if we are willing to try them.
Perhaps the ideas of these radical liberals are unworkable. Perhaps even bolder changes will be required to meet such challenges as the coming AI economy. But it is within the constraints, scrutiny and accountability of liberalism that better answers to our challenges will be found. The chance of finding our way to national greatness by studying which of us are true citizens and which are traitors is rather less.