Vladimir Putin has fired his latest broadside against Western political ideas, by claiming that liberalism has become ‘obsolete’. The Russian President singled out LGBT issues, immigration, and multiculturalism as key liberal ideas that are now opposed by ‘the overwhelming majority of the population’. Naturally, this has led to consternation and widespread debate amongst academics and politicians, some agreeing with Putin, and others defending the political ideology that has formed the backbone of most Western states for the last few centuries. The big question: Is Putin right?
He is certainly correct that the liberal mainstream, represented by the centre-left and centre-right, is increasingly electorally unpopular. President Donald Trump and the GOP trample on political norms in America, driven primarily by an abiding hatred for uncontrolled immigration. In Hungary, Viktor Orban is building an ‘illiberal state’, which seeks to bolster border protections and takes a hard line on social issues, much like Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) government, which has sought to tighten abortion laws. Closer to home, the anti-immigrant far-right National Rally made it to the run-off of France’s 2017 presidential election, Italy is dominated by the anti-refugee Matteo Salvini, and Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party took first place in the recent European elections. In many European countries, traditional parties are increasingly unpopular. Labour and the Conservative Party now regularly poll behind the Brexit Party in the United Kingdom, while France now sees its traditional Socialist and Republican parties poll in the single digits. These parties have seen their core voters become polarised across cultural lines: cultural conservatism, and nationalism on one side; cosmopolitanism and internationalism on the other.
Putin has made a bold statement in the interests of making headlines, and it is questionable to say that liberal ideas on social issues (his main focus) are now opposed by an ‘overwhelming majority’. However, it is certainly true that the liberal status quo is increasingly rejected across the West in favour of populism, nativism, and in some cases, socialism. The reason? Liberals, and the political leaders that have espoused it for centuries, have forgotten how to appeal to the voters that they now take for granted. Liberalism has historically been an ideology of liberation, of the replacement of unearned hierarchies with a level playing field, the promotion of the individual and their rights. Free markets, a key economic doctrine of liberalism, were promoted to the benefit of a new middle class, while the less fortunate were to a degree protected from capitalism’s excesses.
This is perhaps the key point. Liberalism has succeeded by giving material benefit to many, in the form of new economic opportunities. William Gladstone fought to promote free trade and lower prices for Britain’s poorest, while Margaret Thatcher sought to expand share ownership and tear down financial regulations, in order to create a ‘property-owning democracy’. These neoliberal reforms were maintained by the Labour government of Tony Blair. Earlier, the doctrine of liberalism turned North America from a colonial subject into a republic devoted to limited government and freedom. Liberalism has been threatened before, too: following the Great Depression, extra-political forces of the far right sought to establish new regimes inspired by Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. The United States responded with the New Deal, a series of reforms to liberal capitalism that gave material protections and social programmes to the working classes, while Britain’s first majority Labour government implemented many of the tenets of the Beveridge Report, written by a partisan Liberal. The cultural aspects of liberalism have enjoyed time in the sun when balanced with a concrete material offer to the electorate- after all, most vote with their wallets. In today’s era of austerity and stagnant growth, liberalism can now only offer its cultural side, which is not enough for many voters. Reactionary leaders such as Putin and Trump will cynically blame the expansion of civil rights, immigration, and multiculturalism for the economic strife many face, but in truth, the culprit is a liberal order that has forgotten to balance the material and the cultural in its political offer to voters.
For liberals, rediscovering the political nimbleness that has allowed them to dominate governments for centuries is increasingly an existential task that they cannot afford to shirk.