On both sides of the Atlantic we currently witness the specter of populism. This populistic surge appears to be an epiphenomenon of a more comprehensive exhaustion of the Western liberal project.
The presidential election in the United States has brought into the White House the leading populist figure of our times – Donald Trump. Across the Atlantic, somewhat dwarfed vis-à-vis their American counterpart, European populists such as Marine le Pen (France), Frauke Petry (Germany), Nigel Farage (UK), Jaroslaw Kaczynski (Poland) or Viktor Orbán (Hungary) shake the political landscape. The transatlantic sphere thus finds itself confronted with an overarching trend that requires analytical scrutiny, especially since the term populism has grown fashionable and is being utilized to characterize a plethora of political actors and programs. Hence, which distinctive features does populism bear and how do they tie in with the larger signs of liberal fatigue? The differences between the abovementioned actors notwithstanding, a crucial commonality can be shown.
Populism, as the political theorist Jan-Werner Müller has pointed out, is built around the central claim to exclusive moral representation of the people. The populist purports that he or she alone embodies and enacts the political will of a nation that is conceived of as a homogeneous entity. Pivotal in this conception is the anti-pluralist impetus. As the populist allegedly brings to the fore what the ‘true people’ (das Volk) really wants, dissenting political opinions are dismissed, sometimes even as acts of treason. In its invocation of ‘the people’, populism renders itself immune against factual evidence of a more fractured and diverse – and in this sense: more democratic – political configuration. Per definitionem, ‘the people’ cannot lose in the political contest. Accordingly, empiricism is trumped by reference to a putative ‘silent majority’ and its tacit knowledge of substantive political truths that the populist gives voice to. ‘The system is rigged and I alone can fix it!’
The anti-pluralist thrust of populism, its structural closedness and gesture of exclusion, provides the nexus with the current dire state of the liberal agenda in the US and the EU. Liberalism, with its core notions of freedom, tolerance, primacy of individual self-determination over social ties and wariness of unbridled state power, exhibits an elective affinity with openness. It seeks to ensure discretionary spaces for each one to develop their personal form of life. Openness, however, has severely lost currency in the West – and populism is a symptom of this development. Across the transatlantic sphere, culture and identity politics have resurfaced: the growing request for representation of minorities such as Latinos, African Americans and Muslims in the US and the migration of predominantly Muslim refugees into the EU shift demographics and test the boundaries of tolerance and pluralism. Opposition against changes towards greater ethnic and cultural diversity in society demonstrates that Western countries are entangled in arduous processes of figuring out who and what they are. This renegotiation of societal values is complemented by the socioeconomic consequences of the liberal project of globalization. On the one hand, the free movement of capital and labor has allowed massive wealth creation; on the other, it has sharpened the question of inequality. Whether the motives for the anti-liberal sentiment are cultural, socioeconomic or both, we should be aware that it is by no means articulated by the so-called ‘deplorables’ only, but by the well-off too. And while it is regressive, it cannot be dismissed as a thing of the past, for the problem is precisely that it might be the future.
Two observations of such regressive trends are in order. Firstly, regarding the political realm, the strong state has become en vogue again. It is the political right that has grasped the current crisis of the liberal paradigm and stepped up with the promise to protect citizens against the demands of modernity – most prominently by reinstalling social cohesion and security. The emphasis on security, spurred especially by an ongoing fear of terrorism, entails the recognition of control, discipline and restriction of personal liberties as core functions of the state. Secondly, regarding the economic realm, the backlash against liberalism takes the form of widespread rejection of free trade agreements such as TTIP. Interestingly, the right and the left join forces in this protectionist endeavor, with the former advancing nationalist motives to support domestic industries and the latter suspecting a further weakening of the public sector in the interest of multinational corporations. Consequentially, borders experience a renaissance – physical borders against the influx of foreign people, figurative borders against the influx of foreign goods – and the nation state is favored over supra-national structures as the adequate political framework. Freedom and openness are palpably under duress in view of this regressive attempt to slam the door on globalization.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union we were said to have entered the era of uncontested free-market capitalism and liberal democracy. According to this verdict, it was ‘the end of history’. The populism and authoritarian inclinations in the transatlantic sphere, however, suggest that we are witnessing the end of the end of history. The naïve and self-satisfied premise that liberal progressivism were an historic inevitability has been debunked. Liberals themselves need to learn a lesson in pluralism and start to think harder about the reasons for the allure of regressive political offerings. Attuned to diversity as they profess to be, they need to engage seriously with positions that severely challenge their own vocabulary and outlook in order to be able to make sense of our times.
Finally, who can best be expected to revitalize liberalism in the transatlantic partnership? As the role of the US as global guarantor of a liberal order is thrown into question under President Trump, the EU will have to assume more responsibility on the world stage. The good news is that despite its own populist challenges and post-Brexit fragility, at least in Western Europe the moderates still prevail. Concretely, we must now put our faith in Germany and France to ‘make liberalism great again’.