The shock of Donald Trump’s victory on a wave of populist energy continues to reverberate far beyond the United States, especially since Western Europe is facing its own nationalist and populist movements that often have a xenophobic edge.
At this point, no one quite knows what actual changes the Trump presidency will bring. But this moment certainly feels like a turning point in modern history. A quarter-century ago, the collapse of the Soviet Union was supposed to bring about what political scientist Francis Fukuyama famously called “The End of History” and the final ascendancy of internationalist liberal capitalism. Today, we may not have witnessed the end of liberalism — in a broad sense of the word that encompasses the more libertarian varieties of conservatism — but we are certainly seeing its crisis.
What went wrong?
To some extent, liberal capitalism’s troubles are the result of events largely beyond the control of political elites: the 9/11 terror attacks and their far-reaching consequences, and the financial crash of 2008. But we are also seeing the fruits of overconfidence abroad and at home.
The war in Iraq, in retrospect, was a case of intransigent internationalism, the belief that we could use military power to export liberal democracy to a culture rife with tribal hostilities and religious fundamentalism and precipitate a secular liberal revolution in the Middle East. Instead, what followed was a fiasco that led to an aversion to interventionism and nation-building.
Turmoil in the Middle East also led to the refugee crisis that sparked a revolt against Third World migration, especially in Europe, and posed a wrenching challenge to Western nations: How do we remain faithful to our humanitarian values without allowing a massive influx of refugees and migrants to overwhelm our economic and social structures? Some of the anti-refugee propaganda from far-right movements and websites was sensationalized, dehumanizing and racist; but the problems posed by accelerated immigration from countries where gender equality, religious tolerance and rule of law are alien concepts are real, and dismissing such concerns as bigotry will inevitably create a backlash.
Another kind of liberal intransigence manifested itself in domestic social policies. We rightly take pride in the progress we’ve made on equality for women, racial minorities, gays and other historically oppressed groups; but, emboldened by their victories in the culture wars, the progressive elites decided that the values of men and women with a more traditional outlook deserved no respect. Battles over Christian bakers and same-sex wedding cakes were a proxy for a larger issue: people feeling that they were being branded bigots simply for believing that the male-female union is the essence of marriage.
Meanwhile, on college campuses and in popular culture, progressivism became an increasingly narrow and rigid dogma that excluded more and more ideas from legitimate debate — from gender differences to artists’ and writers’ use of material from non-Western cultures. Liberalism turned into its opposite: illiberal policing of speech and ideas and identity politics treated people as members of a demographic, not individuals. It’s difficult to make the case for freedom when you can lose your job for questioning the use of newly minted pronouns for people who consider themselves neither male nor female.
Populism, which comes with its own brand of authoritarianism and identity politics, is not the answer to the challenges we face. But if it is to survive, liberalism must return to its universalist roots, remember its values of tolerance and open-mindedness, and learn some humility.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.