The strange rebirth of Liberal Europe

Over at Thinking Liberal, Matthew Green asks if 2019 will be the year of the Liberal backlash.

This liberal backlash is based on two things. Firstly that younger people don’t hold with the anti-liberal movement. For them global warming is a real threat, and diversity a real asset. This needs qualification: less educated youngsters are picking up on the right-wing attack, and indeed they are behind a lot of the associated violence. But they form a lower proportion than they used to, and are prone to apathy. Meanwhile a large part of the original backlash comes from older people. This gives the potential for the pendulum to swing back. Time may be on the liberals’ side.

I’m not entirely convinced. While it is true that illiberal and anti-liberal populists rely on an angry but shrinking demographic, these people still appear to be willing to give a pass to their leaders. Given that the more committed people are to a worldview, the harder it is to turn away from it I think that the retreat from authoritarian thinking will be long and slow.

This, however, is very true:

[I]t is clear that the anti-liberal populists don’t have long term solutions for the main problems afflicting society. In fact, beyond the headlines, their solutions involve the breaking down of democratic institutions to provide cover for crony capitalism in league with a crony state.

Populists don’t have solutions. They are adept at channeling (often legitimate) anger in order to win power but once they gain power the paucity of their programmes quickly become apparent. The speed with which many Brexiters fled the scene once the referendum was won is a reflection not only of this paucity but also the extent to which they know that they have nothing beyond a few well-chosen slogans.

I don’t share Matthew’s faith in the strength of democratic institutions — the ongoing disaster of the Trump presidency shows just how weak these institutions can be — but these can be rebuilt.

The populist tide will recede but I don’t think this is going to happen quickly or consistently across countries. Emmanuel Macron demonstrated that it is still possible to defeat the far right with liberal, optimistic and internationalist programme. We need more of this.