The Case for Liberalism

Georgio Konstandi 5 November 2019
Image Credit: Flickr

It’s November. An election has been called. I, a self-proclaimed liberal, am writing an article on liberalism.

Now I’ve addressed that elephant in the room, let us begin with the case.

It’s 2019. Three years of Donald Trump has seen the free world cave in to the demands of murderous authoritarian regimes including Turkey’s Recep Erdogan who has directed the massacre of thousands of Kurds in Syria. Three years of Brexit chaos has seen the paralysis of Parliament, as the UK stalls on issues such as the climate crisis and domestic violence. The German city of Dresden has just declared a Nazi emergency following the rise of the neo-Nazi group Die Partei. Meanwhile, migrant families continue to mourn their children who died earlier in the year in cages at the US-Mexico border.

This is not the introduction to a dystopian novel. This is the world today.

How did we get here? The events described above have come as either a direct or indirect result of a failure to defend liberalism. This failure allowed for a new noise to fill the vacuum: an ever-building crescendo of slogans and catchlines based on fearmongering and narrow-mindedness, each word designed to create or reignite nonexistent divisions among coexisting peoples.

How did this crescendo build and where did it come from? Many factors have played a part in this sad story; far too many to analyse in the space of an article. However, there are key truths to recognise if one is to escape the same tragedy in the future (or indeed fix the mess in which we now find ourselves).

Inequality is high if not at the top of the list. Neo-nazis in Dresden struggle to thrive in the more affluent western Germany. Donald Trump’s rallying cries to drain the swamp (which he and his chums now very much embody) would not have rung true to voters had the former mining communities of Michigan not felt completely ignored since the financial crash of 2008. And indeed the demands to ‘take back control’ in June 2016 sounded far more appealing to the underinvested communities in the North of England than in metropolitan London.

Inequality alone does not answer for everything. Affluent people voted for Brexit, entrepreneurs chose Trump over Hillary and Nazism has seen supporters from all walks of life. There is of course the uncomfortable truth that prejudice and hate are always available to tap into by unsavoury characters. We shouldn’t despair at this – on the contrary, this fact should drive us even more to drown out the voices of hate with the voice of liberalism and reason.

But what is this magical liberalism of which I speak? Typically, this is another difficult question to answer succinctly. To quote Adam Gopnik in his book A Thousand Small Sanities, the foundation of liberalism “depends on shadings and qualifications” and the powers of “reform rather than revolution”. In other words, if someone comes to you promising to fix all your problems at once (Make America Great Again, Take Back Control…) it’s probably not good news.

Liberalism recognises, indeed celebrates, the fact that our ideas are never perfect: that the laws we previously passed were probably in some way flawed and indeed the amendments we are fighting for today will most likely present new issues in the future. But this does not mean we are not achieving something – each reform is a step away from an intolerable situation and a step further into the halls of progress.

Furthermore, there is nothing liberalism detests more than cruelty.

Telling someone they cannot enter ‘your land’ because of their ethnic origin or religion, separating migrant children from their parents, dissolving workers’ rights for the sake of an ideological project and likewise willingly polluting the population’s food and water all fall under cruelty’s umbrella. To avoid being too subtle, here’s a news flash: the nationalist and isolationist ideology behind both the Brexit and pro-Trump movements have allowed everything listed above to either take place or become a real possibility on both sides of the Atlantic.

“It strikes me both bizarre and tragic that after having defeated inhumanity in the 1940s, after having elected an African-American into the White House in 2008, after having brought down the tyranny of Communist dictators in the 1990s, we are now on the verge of giving a free pass to self-serving nationalism in the form of Brexit (and even more tragically, perhaps giving a second term to a self-serving nationalist by re-electing Trump in 2020)…”

We are better than this. We cannot fix everything all at once. However, in a few weeks’ time, we will have an opportunity to take a step away from an intolerable situation and into the halls of progress. The eyes of history are watching us. Our children and our children’s children will ask us what we did when our time came. Let us tell them we chose hope. Let us tell them we chose liberalism.

In a nutshell or missed the mark? Let us know at editor@tcs.cam.ac.uk with the subject ‘Letter to the Editor’!