For decades, Western European democracies have taken pride in their liberal values, harbingers not only of peace and prosperity, but inspirers too of open societies and representative governments across the globe. Pursuing policies based on such values also helped them in grand integration of the continent into the European Union.
But are these values nearing extinction? Importantly, are leaders steeped in liberal tradition so out of touch with the ground reality that they are stupefied by changes in many parts of the West? These are concerned queries that have gathered greater salience since the victory of Donald Trump.
“Populism is not anti-democratic but it implies an illiberal version of democracy,” says Alberto Martinelli, professor emeritus at the University of Milan. Martinelli says it brings to the surface the constant tension between the two components of the “democracy of the modern”, the liberal and the democratic. It tries to solve the tension between the two by exploding the former and limiting the latter. “It is a recurrent attempt within democratic societies to dissociate democracy from liberalism.”
Many feel 2017 might well begin a period that could redefine liberal democracies and allow the fissures deep within to surface and pose a serious threat to the West’s liberal values.
The victory of a xenophobic-protectionist leader like Trump in the US presidential polls has given a huge moral boost to right wing parties across Europe—forces already ascendant have now been catapulted into the political centrestage. They are likely to pose a threat to established political parties when a number of key European countries go to polls next year.
“It does not signal an end of liberalism—either in the sense of economic and social integration, or in the sense of liberal democracy with strong protection for rights and a rule of law—but liberal democracy is under growing pressure, and may be approaching a crisis,” says Larry Diamond, noted political sociologist of Stanford University. “Liberals live in cities and are highly educated, while the bulk of those displaced are left behind by globalisation, live in smaller towns and in rural areas. They do not interact and liberal elites grew distant from the pain and anxiety of many working class and lower middle-class families.” This, he adds, is the story behind both Brexit and the Trump victory. “Though, in each case, if small political factors had changed, the outcome would have been different.”
Over the past two years Europe has been beset with crises—the economic slowdown, stagnating wages and joblessness, compounded with a rush of immigrants from trouble-torn Asia, Africa, eastern Europe and a rising threat of Islamic fundamentalism that exploded in terror attacks in major European cities. The UK’s June referendum on Brexit, calling for the end of its membership in the EU, dealt a blow to the idea of an united Europe. Then, on November 9, came news of Trump’s victory.
Ironically, that date is celebrated and commemorated across Europe as the day of the Berlin Wall’s demise in 1989—that final hole punched through the USSR’s Iron Curtain that sealed off half the continent. Now, it marks a development that threatens a break in its partnership with the US and unleash the dark forces within.
Cheering supporters of the French right wing Les Republicains party in Bordeaux
Leaders like Marine Le Pen of France’s National Front, UK’s Independent Party’s Nigel Farage, Netherlands Freedom Party’s Geert Wilders and Alternative for Germany (AfD)’s Frauke Petry—marked right wingers and Islamophobes are all ecstatic at Trump’s win. They all sniff a possibility of emulation.
The Netherlands, France and Germany are due for elections next year. Before that an Austrian presidential election is due this December, as well as a referendum in Italy to decide on the country’s political system. Liberal Europe stands at a crossroads.
“We, liberals in Europe, always thought the challenge to come from the Left. We never expected to be challenged from the right. Trump’s victory, therefore, is so much more stunning,” laments a senior West European diplomat.
The fact that Trump based much of his electoral plank on his promise that “the forgotten man and woman will never be forgotten again”, has now opened the space for European far-right parties to tap this large constituency previously neglected with impunity by liberals.
Liberal institutions were jointly created by liberals and conservatives, like constitutional monarchies and upper houses of parliament, says scholar of Russian and European history, Madhavan Palat. “Liberal ideas have always been challenged, but their institutions, along with conservative ones, provide space for the challenge and the response,” he says. Even the US presidency was created as an elective monarchy, if one were to examine the republic’s founding. “Trump has not challenged US institutions, still less the constitution. He has exploited it to the maximum,” says Palat.
But Diamond feels that though the end might not have come for liberal ideas, there is an urgent need for liberals to respond to miseries of the common people. “Liberal policies must be adapted to take account of the economic and social dislocation caused by globalisation, automation and broader technological disruptions.” He cautions, “These political earthquakes are sending a message to governing elites.”
Martinelli is in agreement. “The culture of liberal democracy must be updated and reinforced so as to cope with the populist challenge. To achieve this we must take growing inequality seriously.”
But can all these sage advice turn out to be another classic example of ‘too little, too late’ for liberals?