Populism: Fighting for Liberalism without Liberals

by Luke Widenhouse, age 15
Populism: Fighting for Liberalism without Liberals

“There seems to be a consensus amongst scholars that right wing populism is an anti-liberal movement. This notion is, to say the least, flawed. The populist movement has arisen due to a lack of liberalism, not opposition to it. My intention in this essay is to demonstrate that most populist voters are not anti-liberal but rather that support for populism is because liberalism is not available.”

There seems to be a consensus amongst scholars that right wing populism is an anti-liberal movement.1 This notion is, to say the least, flawed. The populist movement has arisen due to a lack of liberalism, not opposition to it. My intention in this essay is to demonstrate that most populist voters are not anti-liberal but rather that support for populism is because liberalism is not available.

Perhaps it is best that we begin this essay by defining our terms properly. Since labels often serve more to confuse than to clarify, they should be avoided, but I feel that it is impossible make my point without resorting to them. By ​liberal I do not mean it as most Americans likely see it. The word has become associated in the United States with political correctness, censorship of conservative viewpoints and so forth. The word, “liberal,” around the rest of the world means a belief in civil liberties, political autonomy, human rights, constitutional government and the rule of law. Today, political liberalism is generally divided into classical and modern forms. What is today called classical liberalism emerged during the Age of Enlightenment. Building on the ideas of John Locke, Jean Jacques Rousseau and Adam Smith, classical liberals advocated political freedoms, the rule of law and laissez faire economic policies. The American and French Revolutions were inspired by classical liberalism, arguing that government was by consent and that people retained certain natural or inalienable rights which even the government must respect. While enjoying significant support, particularly in Britain under the Governments formed by William Ewart Gladstone. Classical liberalism eventually began to be replaced by modern day egalitarian or social liberalism. While strongly supportive of human rights, civil liberties and the rule of law, social liberals also believe that social programs aimed at reducing inequality are also necessary towards maximizing individual liberty and are more critical of the laissez faire policies of classical liberals. Examining social liberal thought, we find that two strands of thought can be identified within it. The moderate tradition articulates a support for laissez faire economic policies alongside support for a minimum level of welfare protection. It departs from classical liberalism in its support for the welfare state and a minimum level of government intervention in the economy but departs from more radical liberal variants or from social democracy and democratic socialism in its more pro-business stances. This tradition began with the rise of the, “Third Way,” movement under U.S. president Bill Clinton and British prime minister Tony Blair. Today it is continued by French president Emmanuel Macron and British politician Vince Cable.

The more radical strand of thought, although rejecting centralized ownership of the means of production, tends to be more skeptical towards full capitalism (private ownership of the means of production) and is more supportive of collective bargaining and cooperatives. This tradition is usually more extreme in its support for autonomy, decentralized structures of political organization and civil disobedience. It began with Leonard Hobhouse,2 and was continued economically with the work of John Maynard Keynes and politically with the Italian anti-fascists such as Piero Gobetti and Carlo Rosselli. As an academic tradition, philosophers Norberto Bobbio and in particular John Rawls contributed to its conceptions of justice and liberty.support taking in refugees from other countries.7 A study done by the Better World Campaign found that 88 percent of Americans believe that the U.S. should play a major role in the United Nations and that 81 percent believe that the U.S. should work with major allies to solve issues facing the world today, thereby affirming that the public retains vast support for internationalism.8 Furthermore, the Eurobarometer recently revealed that the E.U. is enjoying its highest support in 35 years.9

Thus, if support for the rule of law, multiculturalism, immigration and internationalism (in short everything that the populists oppose) continues; why do populists continue to get elected to, and form governments?

The answer lies in an examination of what liberalism and populism both represent. Liberalism, particularly social liberalism combines both support for rule of law institutions, human rights, civil liberties and free markets with support for social programs aimed at the redistribution of wealth and in limiting the influence of business over people. In short social liberalism seeks to increase autonomy not only through limiting government power but also through limiting corporate power while also believing that individual liberty requires not just political and economic freedom but also reduced inequalities.

The populist movement has taken traditional social liberal and social democratic policies of support for the working class and the, “commoners over the elite,” but eliminated what makes liberalism the guardian of natural rights and the social contract by rejecting liberal institutions aimed at safeguarding the rule of law and individual freedom and also rejecting support for immigration and diversity.

As we have shown, support for liberalism remains vibrant. The rise of populism has therefore not been moved forward by opposition to liberalism but out of a lack of it.

In places where liberalism has managed to defeat populism, liberal parties, or at the very least strong liberal factions in other parties, have managed to gather support from the people and therefore beat back populism (or prevent it from gathering a stronghold in the first place). For example, the Liberal Party in Canada has remained one of the two major governing parties in Canada for decades along with the Conservative Party. The social liberalism of the Liberal Party managed to appeal to a wide demographic in the 2015 federal election in which the Liberal Party under Justin Trudeau seized back Government from the Conservatives.10 France is perhaps the most notable example since Emmanuel Macron’s victory against populist Marine Le Pen in the 2017 French presidential election is widely seen as a victory for liberal democracy.

Now Macron, while being a social liberal is still a part of the moderate rather than radical tradition and his ​La Republique en Marche! party did not appeal to as wide of a demographic, particularly not in high deindustrialized areas of France. However, he still managed to present himself as the moderate alternative to Le Pen.11

By contrast, liberalism has suffered where no liberal parties or liberal factions within parties have gathered support. Italy has no notable liberal presence. Nor does Poland or Hungary.

The 2016 U.S. presidential election is widely seen as a loss for liberal democracy. While Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party are social liberal in the moderate tradition, similar to Macron in many ways, the main problem is in the electoral college system in the United States but the problems of the Electoral College are a story for another day. In fact, Clinton’s win of the popular vote goes to demonstrate how a social liberal platform can appeal to a wide demographic.

The challenge to liberalism by populism come, not from a rejection of liberalism, but from a lack of it. Social liberal parties can present themselves as the alternative towards populism. More than ever, liberty must ring.

1. Rupnik, Jacques. ​“The Crisis of Liberalism.”​​Journal of Democracy ​vol. 29, no. 3 (July 2018): 24-38.

Wike, Richard, and Janell Fetterolf. ​“Liberal Democracy’s Crisis of Confidence”​Journal of Democracy vol ​29, no. 4 (October 2018): 136-150.

2. ​Hobhouse, Leonard Trelawny. ​The Labour Movement​.New York, New York: Macmillan Company, 1912. Accessed November 06, 2018. https://books.google.com/books/about/The_Labour_Movement.html?id=RHBMAAAAIAAJ&prin tsec=frontcover&source=kp_read_button#v=onepage&q&f=false.​

3. Munro, Andre. ​”Populism.”​Encyclopedia Britannica. March 06, 2018. Accessed October 28, 2018. ​https://www.britannica.com/topic/populism​.

4. ​Galston, William A. ​”The Populist Challenge to Liberal Democracy.”​​Journal of Democracy Vol 29, no. 2 (April 2018): 5-19.

5. ​“How countries around the world view democracy, military rule and other political systems.” Pew Research Center. October 30 2017. Accessed October 27 2018. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/10/30/global-views-political-systems/

6. Harting, Hannah. ​“Most Americans View Openness to Foreigners as ‘essential to Who We Are as a Nation’.”​Pew Reseach Center. October 09, 2018. Accessed November 05, 2018. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/10/09/most-americans-view-openness-to-foreigners-as -essential-to-who-we-are-as-a-nation/​.

7. Connor, Phillip. ​“A Majority of Europeans Favor Taking in Refugees, but Most Disapprove of EU’s Handling of the Issue.”​Pew Reseach Center. September 19, 2018. Accessed November 5, 2018. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/09/19/a-majority-of-europeans-favor-taking-in-refuge es-but-most-disapprove-of-eus-handling-of-the-issue/​.

8. Better World Campaign. “New Poll Finds 88 Percent of Americans Support Active Engagement at the United Nations.” Better World Campaign. November 06, 2018. Accessed January 04, 2017. https://betterworldcampaign.org/news-room/press-releases/new-poll-finds-88-percent-of-american s-support-active-engagement-at-the-united-nations/​.

9. ​EU Public Affairs. “Eurobarometer Survey Shows Highest Support for the EU in 35 Years.” European Parliament. May 23, 2018. Accessed November 06, 2018. http://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/headlines/eu-affairs/20180522STO04020/eurobarometer-s urvey-highest-support-for-the-eu-in-35-years.



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