Liberal democracy, the foundational principle of western societies, has been increasingly vulnerable. Globalisation and its fast pace has delivered undeniable benefits but brought with it unattended challenges, namely swiftly growing wealth inequalities and a deepening sense of cultural fragmentation. The atomisation of society has increasingly pushed people to the margins to rediscover a sense of belonging and meaning from a politics they feel no longer answers to them but elitist institutions, both economically and culturally.
The threat to liberal democracy today approaches from primarily two wings.
The first is the populist white nationalist right. A tide of authoritarian politics has swept across Europe and America. The political cultures of each nation-state vary meaning drawing a set of common variables, and thus a solution, is too simplistic. But arguably, a mixture of economic disillusionment in the wake of the financial crash in 2008 and imposition of austerity measures combined with cultural anxiety at fast-paced and large-scale immigration has triggered an opening for authoritarian politics to step forward. In the face of their emergence, social democratic parties have simply not been able to provide coherent answers.
Europe has witnessed a march to the populist right across a range of countries including France and Germany. In Hungary and Italy, right-wing governments who pitched their manifestos on anti-migrant and anti-refugee rhetoric swept into power. Orban has chilling consequences possibly for Muslims and Jews living in Hungary. Italy’s various ministers have made repulsive statements around Roma immigrants. Even in France and Germany, the far-right have weakened the mainstream political settlement. In Britain, UKIP made a brief surge before melting away but not before spearing Britain towards Brexit. In America, Donald Trump ran on a campaign of building a wall to keep out Mexicans, to stop outsourcing jobs to China and ban Muslim migrants. It unfortunately worked.
So why are these politicians, who for all their deference to western political traditions and culture are attacking institutions of liberty be it a free media or judiciary as well as adopting thuggish tactics with protesters, gaining such prominence?
Asserting the primacy of economic grievances would be a mistake. Not all populist voters are unemployed or at the bottom end of the labour market. But a bleak forecast of the future and nostalgic yearning for the past exists even amongst more middle-class families. With growing inequality and dwindling resources, many feel locked out of the best opportunities and see a closed off set of elitist interests dominating them. It would be wrong to say that the financial crash created populism, or even the grounds for it, but it certainly fertilized it with the anger and resentment it needed. Desperate material conditions unanswered by politicians paved way for populists to emerge and demand a return to times when the value of nation-states and all from it was respected.
An example of this is Britain. The closing of industries that provided a sense of security, communal solidarity and identity to many towns created an economic rust and power and wealth relocated almost entirely to London. Communities became bogged down in chronic unemployment and poverty, atomised by the dearth of decent jobs and forced relocation of workers travelling south to find economic prosperity. This was before austerity rolled over the country like a black wave, squeezing public services, cutting welfare at a time when wages weren’t above the poverty line and power lay with employers and landlords. Such a climate made people regard the EU and Westminster as distant elitist institutions that did not represent them. They voted Leave to make their voices finally heard. Why after all would they vote for a continuation of the status quo governed by a party ushering in public spending cuts whilst trimming taxes for the wealthy?
Yet it would be too naïve to assume this alone or even primarily explains the flare in support for populist politics. Globalisation has changed communities at a fast pace, with sense of control now lost and a feeling of cultural fragmentation taking place. It doesn’t help that the sort of communal jobs were closed by Thatcher while communal hotspots like pubs and SureStart have increasingly declined either. A place where people can interact with others and feel like they belong in their local communities has been lost. The commodification of migrant workers rather than viewing them as long-term stakeholders in these communities has also weakened these social bonds. We demonised those uncomfortable by their neighbours not knowing English as racist rather than recognising that sharing a common language is the basis upon which you build social bonds in a community, and not knowing it only otherwise isolates migrants and creates loneliness. People look at their towns and feel like something is missing. These are challenges which have been ignored and need to be addressed. That we have not is partially why the far-right have grown in power and authoritarian parties have taken office.
The other side of it is that we have been inconsistent in our defence of tolerance, freedom, equality and pluralism. Migrants and refugees have been portrayed as burdens and threats rather than important facets of any society, both historically and currently, and both economically and culturally. Racism is normalised in political discourse rather than obliterated entirely. It has had corrosive impact on diverse communities and further fractured relations. The portrayal of Muslims as terrorists and extremists rather than ordinary people who are often at the forefront and the first victims of Islamic extremism must also be challenged. From the rhetoric of politicians to newspapers, discourse around Muslims has normalised a climate where it is increasingly fashionable to abuse a Muslim on the streets. Britain remains considerably better off than its European peers where the rights and protections for minorities remain considerably worse. In challenging the white nationalists, we should not let them dominate the narratives on economy and immigration by allowing immigrants and refugees to be cast as threats to national identity and security. Compassion and empathy is ingrained in us and the British society has evidently shown that years of anti-refugee headlines can be made redundant in one second by the powerful image of a dead refugee child washing up on a Turkish beach. But we must be do better in ensuring it does not reach that stage for the sake of refugees. A compassionate and empathetic politics which listens to voters’ concerns and carries out its humanitarian duties is extremely compatible.
A politics reaffirming the value of citizenship, common good, solidarity and mutual obligation can bind people together in mixed communities and ensure that different identities and cultural expressions need not necessarily result in social tensions.
The second threat to liberal democracy is one both leftists and conservatives can agree upon at least as a problem, which is Islamism. The past twenty years has seen western societies repeatedly attacked by Islamist extremists. Politicians and journalists have explored the factors behind extremism but seldom found an argument that makes sense with too much coherence. But, what is unquestionable is that Islamism is causing anxiety within many societies and presents a dangerous threat to basic British values of liberty, tolerance, democracy, human rights and rule of law. A reluctant to criticize a strand of the religion which applies a literalist interpretation of its tenets has allowed the far-right and Islamic extremists to feed off each other. On the left we have regularly made excuses for those radicalized by Islamism and then watched as evidence has repeatedly debunked these claims. Arguments of western imperialism should fall flat given how many young British Muslims were radicalized by both the Syrian conflict but also the appeal of the Caliphate. It would be a fallacy to suggest that religion itself is at fault here or the only reason, but that many young Muslims did not see Britain as their home and community, that they did not feel a sense of attachment but rather exclusion is undoubtedly a factor behind why Islamism is too dangerous to ignore. In the dystopian caliphate, their identity is central to society and their life has purpose and meaning. It is on us to find solutions to stop the few becoming radicalized by Islamist propaganda. This is a battle of integration and values, that requires fighting whether Islamism had a violent edge or not.
By Rabbil Sikdar