Millennium Post

Shaking foundations of liberal order

Liberal democracies are going through a unique phase of internal conflict marked with bipolar ideologies. Irreconcilable divisions between liberal and conservative, secular and theocratic, democratic and authoritarian, inclusive and exclusive ideologies reflect this syndrome. Ideological allegiances are frequently transcending the limits of nation and state thus creating an impression as if people no longer live in a state but in a system of states having divergent worldviews. The impact is both fissiparous and polarising. That's why Syrian refugee crisis divides people across Europe, America, and West Asia. Trump's victory and policies receive as much popular support and criticism in America as in other parts of the world. Brexit, which in a way defied the earlier spirit of 'better together' (the campaign encouraging Scotland to remain with the UK), becomes a global concern. Notwithstanding the criticism and condemnation a new wave of 'populism' is sweeping across. Fareed Zakaria calls it a syndrome of suspicion and hostility toward elites, mainstream politics, and established institutions. This populism speaks for the plentiful ordinary people to whom nationalism, patriotism, economic concerns, etc. are non-negotiable. It nurtures sentiment against liberal elites who arguably have compromised on many fundamental issues. Trump's political truism amply reflects this emotion. He made Americans believe that the only antidote to decades of ruinous rule by a small handful of elites is a bold infusion of popular will. Now, through his 'America first' policy, he's trying to prove that the people were right and the governing elites were wrong.

The schism between the so-called liberal and right wing ideology is getting more pronounced and bitter than ever before. It's visible in most of the liberal democracies – India, UK, France, Germany, and America. A section of American media and civil society is yet to reconcile with Trump's victory. Mobilisations for and against Trump and his policies have polarised the civil society of the world in an unprecedented manner. The ideological stand of the European Union (EU) and policies of many European heads of state including Angela Merkel vis-a-vis the Syrian refugee crisis have created a cease within. While the EU firmly stands for the international humanitarian law which provides protection to civilians especially women and children and their safe access to humanitarian support and rehabilitation in safe places, it's vehemently opposed by a sizeable section in Europe.

Trump's uncompromising stance vis-a-vis immigration, entry ban, employment, visa regime, etc. may be the part of his populist agenda. Nevertheless, they also reflect America's frustration with its diminishing performance on the domestic, economic and geopolitical fronts. Liberals across the world got together to condemn Trump's executive order titled "Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into The United States", alongside the ban on Syrian refugees 'until significant changes.' They looked at it as a kind of religious apartheid against Muslims. Political leaders in Britain and Germany joined their American counterparts to criticise Trump's executive order even before the American court pronounced it unconstitutional. Theresa May's spokesperson quickly clarified that the Prime Minister does not agree with this decision and will raise the issue with the American President if it anyway adversely affects British nationals. German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed her dismay, too, on the travel ban. Her spokesperson Steffen Seibert said Merkel is convinced that even the necessary, resolute fight against terrorism doesn't justify putting people of a particular origin or particular faith under general suspicion. In France, Hollande also maintained the liberal line of his German counterpart and said that Trump rejects the arrival of refugees; while Europe has done its duty, and united they should respond to him.

However, the far-right politicians on the continent celebrated Trump's move in the US and Europe. The Dutch anti-Islam populist Geert Wilders tweeted: "Well done @POTUS it's the only way to stay safe + free. I would do the same. Hope you'll add more Islamic countries like Saudi Arabia soon." Wilders, whose Party for Freedom (PVV), which is going to contest the polls shortly, tweeted again: "No more immigration from any Islamic country is exactly what we need. Also in The Netherlands. For Islam and freedom are incompatible." PVV is likely to win most of the seats in the elections as per the political prediction. His anti-Islam and Eurosceptic rhetoric echo concerns of the Dutch voters vis-a-vis the migrant crisis, terror threat in Europe and enduring eurozone pangs. His victory will not only reinforce the ideological justification to the rise of the right wing against the liberals but also Trump's exclusivist policy of 'America First', Marine Le Pen's unequivocal views about French citizenship being 'either inherited or merited', Britain's referendum for Brexit and rising Eurosceptism among other.

Consolidation of the right wing populism against the liberals is quite evident. Le Pen's party FN, Dutch Freedom Party (PVV), Austria's Freedom Party (FPOe), Belgium's Flemish Interest (VB), Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the Italian Northern League (LN) are not only in ideological league but are also emerging as the new alternatives which may change the political landscape of Europe. Their impact on India, the biggest democracy can also not be ruled out. The liberals, on the other hand, seem to be losing grounds. Perhaps they have become too utopian to govern the complex modern societies and take on the challenges of mounting inequalities, deprivation, existential threat arising out of radicalism and terror among other. On the contrary, the so-called right wing has a rising appeal due to its everyday pragmatism and forthrightness. Le Pen appeals to people in France and elsewhere because of her clear stand that nations must be intransigent when it comes to respecting its constitutions and laws and that reasonable accommodation vs. intransigence would allow us to protect our civil liberties. Liberals must introspect rather than just remaining disdainful confrontationists.
(The author is a Senior Faculty of National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad. The views expressed are personal.)

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