Is liberalism to blame for populism?

Here we go. Europe may fail. This is the first time I am writing such a thing (partly) publicly. There are dozens of questions relating to this possibility. I suggest you focus on one today: Should we all be partially to blame? You may have heard about (or even read) the widely discussed New York Times article by Mark Lilla on ‘The End of Identity Liberalism’ (see reading below).

Lilla’s basic point is that liberals (he covers the US, but his point may be extended globally) have enjoyed the luxury of preaching liberal values, while huge groups of their fellow citizens were completely indifferent, or even felt threatened and excluded by these values. According to Lilla, this often went hand-in-hand with preaching to the ‘uneducated’ – for them to better understand things (international trade immigration, sexual and other identity politics), and to accommodate these liberal values.

He sees here, one of the major reasons for the apparently unstoppable success of populism:

‘The fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press had produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life’.

He suggests that a more careful liberalism would ‘quietly, sensitively and with a proper sense of scale’, address what for many people, are difficult issues like religion and sexuality. Lilla also suggests that such a re-invented (maybe more civilized?) liberalism would address that ‘democracy is not only about rights’, but also includes duties such as the duty ‘to keep informed and vote’.

Please join me in this discussion and let’s delve into this quite complex issue of liberals’ responsibility for the rise of populism.

– Prof. Klaus Segbers

Is liberalism to blame for Populism?
Article Name
Is liberalism to blame for Populism?
With the Italian referendum failing and the election in Austria that prevented a populist in office in the very last minute, debates about the stability of Europe’s liberalism are once again arising
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  1. Dmytro Sherengovsky 6 months ago

    Election of Trump in the US, Brexit and a number of European electoral events demonstrate that populist reactions are common to many Western democracies. In most cases these reactions are connected with anti-globalist, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim or other ‘anti-‘ rhetoric that currently resonates in societies and is actively supported by radical representatives, striving to gain political dividends. But is it a fail of liberalism?
    The liberal international order that was developing since mid of XX century formed a number of institutions and platforms that insured the possibility of global goods sharing among even weak and fragile actors. Nevertheless, when positive producing dynamic fails should liberal bankrupt be declared or consumer’s ability should be increased to prevent underproduction of such goods?
    Complexity of world is rapidly growing and it will be impossible for governments to act solely and directly without pushing other actors in overcrowded world arena. Therefore any government of liberal or realistic ideology will not be able to achieve international goals or combat international problems acting alone. Even nation-oriented state position will not secure from influence of climate change, inequity or terroristic threats inside separate country. That’s mean political elites, oriented on liberal approach should pay more attention to the ability (intellectual or economic) of their counterparts to receive the advantages of common goods (inside or outside their countries).
    Mark Lilla in his NY Times article partly blames different liberal groups (including political), that personalize liberal values, living ‘other’ citizens alone for the influence of ‘other’ political or electoral ideas. Nevertheless, such insider-outsider idea is typical for any community construction, based on (self-)identification – outsiders will always exist. Therefore, Lillas’ proposal of ‘post-identity liberalism’, concentrated on issues rather than backgrounds sounds reasonable.
    We can observe the need of ‘shift from the power of a state concept’ to ‘the power to solve the problem concept’. In such situation an ability to connect with others, the ability to construct a problem-solving agenda becomes a major source of power. What is more important – an eager to use such ability to persuade and engaged. Here an issue of responsible leadership (that actually failed and caused populism) should be defined as a key priority.

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  2. Sergei Medvedev 6 months ago

    Lilla’s column reproduces the very discourse that it seeks to deconstruct — the narrative of liberal supremacy that has alienated so many Americans. It is assumed in the article that identity-conscious liberals know better, or could have done better, in order to tend to the concerns of the less educated and fortunate fellow citizens, and to avoid the triumph of populism.

    Indeed, populism, too, is a kind of identity politics — as Lilla has noted, the Ku-Klux-Klan was an identity project, as well as today’s Trumpism, or Putinism, or the Alternative for Germany etc. These are all parts of the wider liberal polity. Trump has won not because of liberals’ neglect, but because liberalism in the 21st century, empowered by social networks and big data, brings forward not the liberal literati, but the wider voter with his/her identity concerns, and the liberal elite no longer has the power to frame the political agenda and to ask the question “what went wrong”.

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  3. Justas Paleckis 6 months ago

    Indeed, extreme liberalism was faced with rebound, and greatly contributed to the rise and victories of populism. Three decades ago liberalism seemed to be the passkey which will successfully unlock the door to prosperity in Eastern and Western Europe, North and South America, even in Asia and Africa. This could not happen and did not happen – the world is too much diverse. The impact of globalisation in the attempt to erase those differences also caused high resistance. If we take the “golden billion” people, we could see that liberalism often lose to populism even in the more or less successful countries. It should not only be the duty ‘to keep informed and vote’ but also more frequently to doubt, consult and abandon that categoricalness and all-knowingness which many liberal politicians, journalists and political scientists have, especially in Eastern Europe. Populists are also from those who do not doubt in their own righteousness. But their march maybe could be slowed down or even stopped by greater flexibility, sensitivity and striving for compromise by those who would be able to implement “more careful liberalism”.

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  1. Zoltan Eperjesi 6 months ago

    Certain aspects of liberalism in Eastern and Central Europe

    The nature of liberalism is a highly discussed subject in our days. However, the notion of liberalism existed long before 1812. During the eighteenth century it was an emerging school of economics (partly in G. Britain, partly in the Netherlands), which could be named as pre-liberal, because it did not use the word liberal. Let’s take a look at the verbatim meaning of the word. The root of liber means “free”. The term liberal (and liberality) means generosity in the material and intellectual fields. The term “freely given” (he gave liberally) implies that the person concerned is generous. In this sense, liberalism is an aristocratic virtue. By now liberalism has lost its original value, and has passed to a greater or lesser extent in an autocratic manner being often associated with words as dictatorship, globalization, liberalization, deregulation, privatization, corruption and even populism. Thus, due to the fact of what each of us means today under this notion experiencing it at its own regional or national level, it evolved into a very divisive topic that can generate all kind of cleavages within society being able to reduce the concerned point to simplicity or black and white way of seeing. And yet, if one thinks about its semantic meanings, one has to remark that the subject has undergone major conceptual transformations over the past decades. Let’s say a hundred years ago, the aristocratic, royal world of politicians who declared themselves adepts of liberal values would correspond now to firm conservative principles. But we do not need to go so far back in history, because liberalism as such, was interpreted in a different way even before twenty or thirty years ago in comparision to what the term covers at the moment. For example, in times of socialism, especially in the twilight years, more specifically at the stage of pre-collapse of former dictatorial systems, liberalism was the magic word that coined the opposition and samizdat against the the whole coercive regime and emerging strongmans were constructing the basics of the new world in the spirit of more liberalism…
    However, we must recognize that also “the liberals” of then have become mostly conservatives by now, and this transformation not necessarily happened because they have changed their values in the meantime: since among their main objectives were such main worths, which can be considered today as the most natural fundamental freedoms. Among these are included the basic freedoms of movement, religion, opinion or even the right of press freedom and inclusively at the economic level the concept of market economy or otherwise simplified as capitalism. The last term has a lot of negative connotations and even history provides eloquent proof that all this could easily turned against society when it gets unlimited powers. Economic liberalism is often tied to capitalistic tendencies in the main stream thinking in Eastern and Central Europe. Just think of the “wild capitalism” of the ’90s as the more or less successful privatisation process was apparently changing everting and has coined the lives of millions of citizens. It depply remained in the collective mentality of people how the newly established political regime was profiting from the weaknesses of the emerging system by taking advantage of artificially created opportunities. Therfore, takeover speculations were happening on the large scale (privatisation of former state companies). Moreover, abuse and practically legalized robbery was on the agenda paper. All this happened legally and illegally or openly and hidden. Certain actors become very rich by such legal, semi-legal or illicit transactions, while others (most of them), in turn were ruined and indebted for their whole life in this rabble-rousing. As socialism has just collapsed, but right in the aftermath the masses were disillusioned with the so long dreamed “western system”. Most of the people felt to be cheeted as the enlargement of the EU was happening in 2004 and 2007 as the agricultural budget was seriously lowered, although new members have had an agricultural profile.

    By contrast today it is common place that it is obsolate to fight for liberal values as these are the privilege of certain “isolated” or globalised and rich circels who are representing elitism, cosmopolitism, lobbyism and not least a well hidden corporatism. Therefore, liberalism in this
    direction is practically empty, and new content for it is mostly filled with new but highly political connotations, unfortunately distorted and totally alienated from its original roots. Thus, liberal ideas in the modern sense most commonly are associated with the gay marriage, sexual libertine reality (read it as: incest, transsexuality, horribile dictu zoophilia, necrophilia, etc.), feminism, free drug consumption or it is directed virtually to the multicultural amalgamation of homogenous nations as an unwanted artificial process. Basically several components of chaos theory are deliberately implemented in order to discredit liberalism that now putatively is in sharp contrast with the traditional value system of a certain nation or society. At the same time, in many instances these representatives of “illiberal” views paradoxically are not fighting to achieve the objectives of certain goals or implement precise political programms, paradoxically they are using collective fears, mistrust and dissatisfaction in order to reinforce certain negative stereotipes. In other cases it is the voice of one’s indignation against the general order and denial of the existing system by wanting to destruct it, thus it is also a manifastation against powerful international institutions, free commerce and mostly globalism or the EU, seeking to address barriers to break down the taboos in the direction of the totalitarian individual freedom. The ubiquitous “who am I” philosophical issue is mutating in this the context in to a new meaning, thus, “who could I be” which is in this way just one step from the divine role of the individual. And how this is fitting into the basic principles of liberalism it should be judged depending on the size of the gap that is widening between the removal of barriers and opportunities, respectively how far it goes the loss of humanitarian approach and of human nature by the realisation of instinctiv actions of charismatic beings, who are mandated by completely disillusioned voters.
    Several intellectuals are thinking that it is inappropriate to cogitate about the crisis of liberalism as they want to save or maintain it. Some of this thinkers are propagating that the western civilization is not sustainable anymore if one adheres to to “liberal fantasies”. They are coming to the conclusion that in fact liberalism is not in crisis, but liberalism itself is the crisis. The liberal thinker is degradeted into a nihilist creature.
    Alekszandr Dugin, Putin’s chief ideologue not entirely clearly, but tellingly wrote in his book (2014): “In the political sphere, Putin pressed political correctness among new frontiers, according to its own principles. From that point on the very broad sense of patriotism and the market protectionism became the main elements of the system fidelity. Basically loyalty is the ideological substitute material of the Putin regime.” In conclusion, one can anticipate that certain parts of Europe can be still influenced by a seemingly powerful autocratic managerial style. This includes the circumstnce that imitators of this “strong model” are also using harsh rhetoric on the adress of liberalism to hide their own undefined goals, but with the aim to strenghten their own position and claiming for more social and national cohesion…

    Let me close with a thought of Niall Ferguson:
    “So much of liberalism in its classical sense is taken for granted in the west today and even disrespected. We take freedom for granted, and because of this we don’t understand how incredibly vulnerable it is.”

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  2. Zoltan Eperjesi 6 months ago

    What exactly means today to have liberal views? If we put somebody the question: “do you think liberal?” – the positive answer could be: certainly, as I am against authoritarianism, I am tolerant, and beyond any doubt for the protection of freedom and democracy. – How is that on the economic level? – Well, I am clearly against economic exploitation, speculations, absolute monopoly and the state should put a stop to such things. – And how should work liberalism within society: should the state set limits for instance in penology or not? – Yes, indeed, but it must act in a liberal manner. According to the above-mentioned answers, one is still in a dilemma what liberalism really is today. Should be there firm limitations or not? And if the state elaborates certain limits, how far should it go? To understand liberalism within its historical framework also means to make a serious intellectual effort. This not only needs a certain level of proficiency of political ideologies, but time to read meaningful accounts and abundance of patience to cogitate. It also involves the circumstance that there is need for much room for development of ideas, constructive debates and neutral platforms. I am thinking here on notions as academic freedom where a tolerant attitude is an advantage, but this is not to be reduced only on that field. Such prerogatives are mostly given in western countries as there is a tradition for culture of debate, but this is not always the case in Eastern European countries, because raison d’état, a divided civil society and media freedom often follows its own regional logic that in some cases is not anymore in balance with western principles. However, there is by no mean lack of clever thinkers in eastern countries, but the main problem is with the incentives to further development of constructive debates. There are very limited means at the disposal of free thinkers (government funds are strongly constrained or inexistent in this direction and private sponsorship is very limited). Another problem is the room for development of diverse ideas as local institutions and the media usually works with certain charismatic talk-show masters, who are mostly aware about what is good to care for their own public image or they openly represent their contractors. Under such circumstances, the meaning of outside experts is quite unwanted and too open minded thinkers are often unwelcome in round-table discussions that are even limited and have ever more the character of private circles or dispersed as split opposition with minor role. This phenomenon can be observed in Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, but also in Croatia, -to name certain examples. Nevertheless, the word liberalism involves the Latin root of “libertas”, which means freedom. But whose freedom is concerned here? Is that the freedom of the state or maybe of the government? Definitely not, as liberalism means the freedom of individuals. Here is the catch, respectively the main difference among western and eastern European countries, because each country has its own developmental trajectory and this generates various gaps within society, politics etc. During the socialist era, the Eastern bloc was mostly viewed as a compact conglomerate and with a few exceptions differentiation was only taking place by strict analytical investigation between former socialist states. Serious works remained mostly hidden for the larger public, who were cached in the communist censorship. This approach was mainly changed by the path-dependence of transitology, but in most cases neither sovietology, nor “transitology” has delivered specific answers as viable solutions or alternative methods for single countries in order to cope with their own complex showdowns after the breakdown of communism. Such studies were useful to hold a mirror up to the changing systems and societies. The question is if they really get the point as they were mostly too busy with their own concerns. It is also quite clear that some of them were not reached in time, but timing was not the only problem, because if one looks at the quality of political elites and discontinuities of systems in Eastern European countries, it becomes obvious that there were (and are) major shifts at all possible levels, which were mostly happening as unexpected fluctuations. The point is that beyond massive economic and political changes there is a lack of such kind of institutional continuity and stability, which in western countries is given since decades. Thus, it is not a coincidence that former socialist countries are still trying to find out where they really stay and the returning guiding question by this experiment is: what is the right direction? Because political, institutional and socio-economic instability prevails in several cases in that part of Europe, it is also fact that there are several levels of development concerning the rule of law, political culture or even the practice of the conception of freedom. Nevertheless, according to liberal thinking, the main task of the state is to protect the freedom of the individual. In this sense, the main idea is that people are aware about their own identity and actions etc. Consequently, liberalism also presupposes that people must not be saved from their own decisions as they have their own legitimate interests, and reasons. So, they should decide with reason. The best example in this respect is I. Kant as one of the founding fathers of liberalism. Kant’s words “sapere aude” as the “motto of the Enlightenment” is again time-wise now. More and more people want to take their fate into their own hands without the established political parties. They are not going to the elections anymore, but are streaming on the streets to protest against the system. Could one learn of the Enlightenment in times when politicians and citizens are drifting apart? The definition of Kant: enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. This is one of the pragmatic approaches of liberalism. The other is: be clever enough to follow only such rules from which you can expect that also other people will follow them. This is the categorical imperative or in other words: “do as you would be done by”. Thus, one should contribute with his own freedom in such a community, where each member can join the freedom, besides there are all able to see reason in that way that a community that is based on the freedom of the individual can be also maintained in the long term. But which are the basic features of such a community? J. Locke identified the following ones: personal right of life and freedom, right of property, because without belongings one cannot act in freedom as he wants. Furthermore, the protection of life, freedom and ownership in a way that state cannot grow overly powerful. This can be hindered by the clever practice of checks and balances. It is also to point out the crucial role of an efficient parliament, where society can be effectively represented via state power holders. The liberal program was more as revolutionary in the seventeen century as modern state was only born a century before from the chaos of religious wars. Accordingly, it was the incipient state power, which in between managed to maintain the internal peace and at that moment, as it became forceful, thinkers of the Enlightenment proposed to separate state powers. Moreover, it belonged to the liberal thinking that each individual should believe that nobody will use the power of the state in own interests. Those in power and their supporters have seen these attempts as the dangerous destruction of the order-giving state. Indeed, liberalism was only coming to the fore through revolutions (1688 England; 1776 America; 1798 France, and 1830/1848 Europe). But why were these revolutions successful? Because a new (social) class was emerging and it became large. They were getting central positions in apparatus of state. The bourgeoisie has developed in four main directions: public administration, commerce, economy and arts and culture. In this new situation some of them were able to compete even with rich aristocrats. The emerging new elite of the middle class propagated his liberal theses. Furthermore, they issued important works how people should think about themselves. This principles and directions gave birth to different currents of liberalism for example constitutional liberalism, economic liberalism and social liberalism. Freethinkers were struggling on all possible levels for more progress. This could be considered a complex agenda.
    Who were the main opponents of liberalism? The first main adversaries searched to protect (preserve) their own interests when constitutional and social liberalism was emerging. Conservativism as political ideology was growing out as a reactive response to liberalism. Accordingly, the stable state of reasonable absolutism should not be disturbed by the new liberal ideas and even Christianity must be kept as such within society. Conservative thinkers were giving as negative example the disastrous results of the French Revolution as terror and religious totalitarianism were components of the bloody actions of then. The conservative parties were mainly centered on the denial of liberal ideas of the French Revolution and they intensively fought against liberalism. Nonetheless, as in the 19-th century it became ever more evident that liberalism does not harms to the state, but on the contrary, it can make it more efficient, at that moment conservative liberalism was born. This direction searched to put in practice the achievements of liberalism, such as constitutionality and parliamentarianism. Other adversaries of liberals were the labor movements and later their parties…

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  3. Zoltan Eperjesi 6 months ago

    Continuation of the account.

    During the 19-th century capitalism worked against economic liberalism and has generated not only major technical progress, but also developed various ways of exploitation of labor with the consequence of pauperism of the newly emerging blue collar workers. They did not wait any help from liberals and during the decades new directions were emerging such as socialism, communism, but even social democracy. They all together were struggling against economic liberalism. Although there were some alliances between social democratic parties and social liberals, but even so they never accepted economic liberalism. For the latest, the only possible option remained to orientate towards conservative liberalism, because states, which were adopting economic-liberal measures were often much wealthier as countries without these new practices. Conservatives always searched to protect the state from liberal reforms. Liberals mostly acted single-handedly and as they came to power, their success was fatal for them. Since the beginning of the 20-th century social democrats and conservative liberals began to intensively implement constitutionality and social-liberal principles in their own programs. Around the end of the 1930s a new reform movement was emerging within economic liberalism. It propagated that the state should maintain certain control over the economy by assuring official framework for fair competition, against monopoles, which are a danger for the individual freedoms. Moreover, they claimed for more regulatory policy that should establish basic conditions for the welfare state in concordance with the market. All these regulations together with newly created institutional structures should make after all possible the liberally minded economic governance. In sum, the state has to generate frameworks not only for free commerce, but also for a social market economy. That was recommended as the third way between capitalism and socialism. This new approach was named neo-liberalism. The new element in this idea was that the state should remain powerful and economy should serve the interests of the citizens. The concept of neo-liberalism was gradually displaced by the notion of social market economy and later it was reinforced with fully new contents and turned it into its opposite. Since the 1970s most of the people understand neo-liberalism as an economic system with a weak state, which is at the omnipotence of the capital and threats social development potentialities. Furthermore, this kind of state is even against basic freedoms especially in the third world. This review shows in short the historical process as several mainstreams clashed with each other by coining each other. That’s all right, but in the light of this, if somebody automatically rejects liberalism as such, maybe did not get the original goals and various meanings of this concept or in other respects he simply rejects personal freedoms, or does not appreciates the advantages of a constitutional state with an efficient economy. Thus, an instinctive turning-away of liberalism is dangerous for current social conventions and the constitutional order. Indeed, each society has its own areas for improvement, but without consensus talks and openness there is a real danger to take far too drastic measures. This retrospective view also involves that most of the Eastern European countries have much less experience with contemporary outlines of liberalism as their western partners, but in fact each constitutional order has and can gain something from the historical achievements of liberalism. The main focus remains on the middle class society that is shrinking in the west and all too often is still quite narrow in the eastern parts of Europe. Finally, it is not to forget that all classical political ideologies were implemented in highly mutated versions in these regions. This situation implies that the understanding and implementation of liberalism or other ideologies can generate main confusions by definition from state to state. This is true even in historical respect. Populist radical right parties will remain a political reality for years, if not decades to come, predominantly in the countries where they were already on power before the recent economic and refugees crises. However, it is to bear in mind that their core support is relatively limited and is continuously changing. Therefore, liberal democratic parties should not give up the interests and ideals of the majority of their supporters to enter in coalitions with the radical right. This endeavor hardly ever works anyway.

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  4. michael r d james 4 months ago

    There is a philosophical position which is partly responsible for the more benign aspects of globalization which I term “humanistic liberalism”. This position I believe embodies the core value of the IB program. It is a position one automatically arrives at after studying Classical Greek Philosophy, Enlightenment Philosophy(Kant), Phenomenological and Existentialist Philosophy(Heidegger, Merleau Ponty, Ricouer, Arendt) and the Philosophy of Education from the 60´s in England( R S Peters, Hirst etc) which played such a decisive role in the construction of the International Baccalaureate program.
    I define this position in a series of posts on my blog at if anyone is interested.

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