Responses on Populism, Liberalism, and Authoritarianism

The responses to my original piece by Francis H. Buckley, Jacob T. Levy, and Henry Farrell raise a number of issues, some of which I am actually uncertain about. In some ways I agree with the comments made but I also welcome the chance to clarify some of my positions and arguments, as well as seeing what the four of us have identified as being the big questions to consider.

Jacob Levy and Henry Farrell both think I am optimistic, probably unreasonably so, and in particular that I am too optimistic about the prospects for liberal politics in general and classical liberal (or “libertarian”) ideas in particular. Actually I am not that optimistic. I do think that it is wrong to see the current state of politics as a collapse into chaos or as the possible end of constitutional government, at least in most developed democracies, so in that respect I am less fearful than Levy or Farrell. I do think that we will see the emergence of a stable political division in most democracies, although I am prepared to qualify that with regard to some countries, more of which in a moment.

However, I do not think this new and stable division or alignment is going to be particularly friendly to liberals in general and classical liberals in particular. It is perfectly possible that the outcome will be something like that of the realignment that took place in the 1920s in the UK and some other European countries, which saw politics coming to be dominated by two kinds of anti-liberal thinking and liberalism of all kinds largely sidelined. Even if (as I expect in most cases) that doesn’t happen, the likely outcome is not going to be particularly welcoming to liberals.

In the alignment that is now ending, each of the two dominant poles was close to consistent liberal thinking on at least one axis; the social democrats supported social liberalism while the free market conservatives gave at least lip service to economic liberalism. Henry Farrell and Francis Buckley both think I overestimate the role of libertarian voters in the last thirty to forty years. If by that you mean self-identifying and aware libertarians then they are right. However, in the United States and the United Kingdom, surveys and studies showed that about 15% of voters were ‘fiscally conservative and socially liberal’ so in that libertarian quadrant. These people often self-identified as “moderates.” In the event politics moved towards the free market position on the economic axis and the social liberal one on the other axis, because those voters were geographically in the key places.

By contrast the “national collectivists” are, from a liberal perspective, wrong about everything—they are clearly anti-liberal on both axes of the new alignment. People such as Viktor Orban explicitly define their politics as being anti-liberal. If we then have a political alignment where one pole is overtly anti-liberal, what about the other pole, if it is the cosmopolitan liberals of my analysis?

Here I actually agree completely with Henry Farrell’s central point. Over the last two or three decades liberal ideas (defined here as being both economic and social liberalism) have become identified in both practice and theory with a kind of technocratic managerial elitism. This is particularly true in the area he focuses on, economic policy. Economists have come to see themselves as technical experts or mechanics, who deal with the nuts and bolts of economic policy. Given that, it does not make sense to subject economic and social policy to the rough and tumble of democratic politics or normative arguments about ends as well as means (the ends are just assumed). Hence the phenomenon Farrell alludes to, of democratic politics being hollowed out and decisions handed over to regulators, central bankers, and unelected experts. As he says, the result is a lack of serious political argument and choice.

That also meant that serious and genuine divisions of both interest and belief were not being addressed by the political process. Another way of thinking about this is that policy and administration came to be dominated by a class of university educated technocrats, who also dominated the media. This “new class” as some have called it shared a number of other beliefs, in particular cosmopolitanism. They were the “anywheres” of David Goodhart’s analysis. This is what has given the new emergent politics its present populist form.

Henry Farrell argues that the parties I have identified as occupying or representing the new cosmopolitan liberal pole are actually the remnants of the increasingly discredited liberal technocrats and as such are toast. This point is well taken and indeed parties like En Marche do fit that description (as does the other one I mention, Civic Forum in Poland). The question though, and the challenge for liberals, is that of whether they will continue that way. He says that there is no constituency for a politics of the cosmopolitan liberal type. I think that is clearly untrue, and we can easily identify the social groups who are the constituency for that politics. It is people who work in the globalized and internationally traded parts of the economy, who live in large and economically successful metropolitan areas, who have the human capital and qualifications to succeed in the activities that employ them.

However, he is surely correct that if voters of this kind and the politicians who represent them continue to espouse a technocratic kind of politics (usually contrasted to the “ignorant” and “prejudiced” mass) then they are done for. There are enough voters however for a more principled and normative kind of liberal politics to emerge that actually tries to engage with other parts of the population that support the national collectivists. In geographical terms this will be large, globally connected cities versus rural areas and small towns plus decayed ex-industrial areas. The big question is how will this work out? I’m not as pessimistic as Jacob Levy, but I am not necessarily optimistic either.

Another big question that comes out of the responses is how to locate the United States in this bigger picture. Francis Buckley and Jacob Levy both argue for something distinctive in the current American experience that makes it different from what is happening in Europe. Buckley argues that I misunderstand the nature and uniqueness of American politics, and that the unique quality in question is a commitment to the principles of the Founding and the American civic religion. This means, he thinks, that Donald Trump (and by extension the Republican Party since his election) are not the same kind of creature as the European parties I mention, but a response from within the distinctive American tradition to particular American problems or challenges to that tradition, in particular the way that the dysfunctional American education system undermines and thwarts the central American value of meritocracy.

I think that Buckley has identified a major problem (but also that it is not unique to the United States). However, I disagree fundamentally with his core argument. There are obvious and overt connections and sympathies between Trump and the grass roots movement that has consolidated around him, and European individuals, movements, and parties. When people in the United States themselves say that they are part of the same movement as the RN or other European populists, should we just ignore them? Moreover, the reality that American politicians use a rhetoric that draws on the history of the Founding and the Constitution, which is not available to their counterparts elsewhere, does not mean that there are no shared features of ideas, social and economic circumstances, or kinds of actual politics and policy.

Jacob Levy by contrast thinks that populism is potentially much more long lasting and dangerous than I mostly think it will be, and that the United States is experiencing something much more dangerous than its counterparts in places like France and Germany. He argues that populism as a style and form of politics has a natural affinity with authoritarian strongman government, as indeed the history of Latin America demonstrates. Essentially he argues for a distinction between countries such as France, Britain, or Germany, where the populist impulse will probably be contained and tamed as I predict, and ones such as Hungary, Turkey, and the Philippines, where it will not (and possibly Poland as well). This may well prove to be true, and again, we will have to see how things work out. In the 1920s the growth of anti-liberal politics took a democratic form in some countries and an authoritarian one in others, and we may see something similar this time.

The question is where will the United States fit in that scenario? Levy implies that Trump is closer to people like Bolsonaro and Erdogan or Orban than he is to constitutional populists such as Le Pen. That would mean that the United States has a higher risk of the realignment leading to a collapse or deformation of constitutional government than most European countries do. So like Francis Buckley, he argues for American distinctiveness vis a vis Europe, but in a bad way rather than a good one. I am presently not as alarmed as he seems to be. The Constitution was partly drawn up precisely to deal with the challenge that someone like Donald Trump would pose (although many of the people at Philadelphia probably had Alexander Hamilton in mind) so you could say that currently it is undergoing a stress test.

Again the question we do not yet have the answer to is how will this work out? Personally I think the constitutional regime in the United States is sufficiently robust. In addition to institutional stability, the key factor everywhere will be whether there is a sufficiently large and coherent group of voters and politicians to form an effective cosmopolitan liberal pole to check the national collectivists, particularly if that politics takes a populist strongman form. In Hungary, the liberals are both relatively few (mostly confined to Budapest) and internally divided. In Turkey they make up just under half the population but are very divided. We will have to see how things work out in the United States, but I think a much more effective kind of cosmopolitan liberal politics will eventually take shape in opposition to the national collectivism of the Republicans.

This brings up a point that all three of my interlocutors consider, which is the role of economics and economic circumstance in the realignment process. Levy thinks I may have underestimated the importance of economic anxiety, and both Buckley and Farrell think that economic grievances are driving much current political unrest. I would still argue that the new emerging division is primarily one of outlook or attitude as much as economic position, and that it is driven more by cultural shifts (metapolitical shifts in the fashionable terminology) around questions of change and identity than by economic divisions.

However, economics does play a part, and there is a connection between the economic divisions and the cultural ones, which is the topic Francis Buckley raises, the part played by the formal education system. I think that the big economic division is not simply or primarily one of wealth and success versus poverty. It is rather about the degree to which one has access to and ability to participate in the global and city-region based economy that currently drives economic growth. Access to this is determined and regulated by formal academic attainment and certification, delivered by advanced secondary and above all university-level education. Crucially, this does not only involve getting a paper qualification: it also often involves assimilating a particular kind of cultural and intellectual outlook, which has cosmopolitanism, slighting of tradition, and trust in the role and importance of technical expertise as key elements. It is this technocratic labor market that connects the cultural divisions over identity with the hollowing out of representative politics Henry Farrell decries and with the economic concerns over lack of opportunity that Francis Buckley identifies.

The final point of engagement with my interlocutors for now is related to this, that is the question of what the economic position of my emerging national collectivist pole is and how different it is from the position of the free market conservatives I identify as one of the two poles of the old alignment. Jacob Levy argues that these people were not actually that free-market, and that consequently there will not be a really significant shift. I would make two rejoinders. Firstly, while the practice of centre-right parties was often far from the pure doctrine of Chicago (much less of Vienna, whether Austria or Virginia) the rhetoric and the justifying ideology for the policies was free-market and (in the early years of that alignment until the 1990s) it was set in contrast to an explicit defense of extensive government intervention or even outright socialism. We are now increasingly seeing attacks on free trade and free markets as undermining national sovereignty and identity from people like Marion Marechal Le Pen.

Secondly, there is a clearly emerging political and intellectual division over economic nationalism as opposed to globalism. Trade policy is the obvious sharp point but this also raises the issue of national industrial and economic policy, frequently to revive old manufacturing areas. This is clearly an emerging divide in the United States but is even more explicit in France and the UK. This partly reflects a division of interest within the class of political investors between broadly manufacturing and other sectors (such as old fashioned retail) that are national in orientation and depend on support from national governments, and globally traded sectors such as finance and IT that are much less attached to particular places and jurisdictions but need a functioning transnational legal and economic order to flourish. Henry Farrell asked what the mechanism of transition is: in my view the key players (with agency) are political investors, although large groups of voters who come to both have a common interest and are aware of it are also important (and these have increasing agency for technological reasons).

So I reiterate my essential argument that we are seeing the emergence of a new political alignment in which one of the two poles will be national collectivists (currently populists). It is uncertain whether the populism will prove to be a phase that ends as the concerns of voters are addressed instead of being ignored, or whether it will be a lasting and deeply destructive development that undermines constitutional government. I think that in most developed countries (including the United States) it will be the former, but as Hungary shows there will be others where local circumstances and institutional fragility lead to the darker outcome. I do think that a liberal cosmopolitan pole will also emerge in most countries, but I am prepared to hedge my bets, partly because the longer term viability of that kind of politics and electoral coalition depends on abandoning the technocratic managerialism that has come to dominate public life. That means that questioning the way the education system works will be vitally important.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Stephen Davies argues that political realignments are regular features of modern democratic politics. In them, some longstanding issues lose their salience, while others rise to the top of the heap. Because the world is increasingly networked, our realignments are likewise increasingly taking place in concert, Davies argues; he goes on to suggest that nearly the entire industrialized democratic world is currently confronting a realignment that turns it toward questions of populism versus globalization.

Response Essays

  • Francis H. Buckley argues that American nationalism is nothing like the European variety. American nationalists stand for liberty under law, not an ethnic state. Libertarians, however, cannot easily be nationalists, because nationalism implies solidarity with citizens while denying it to others. On the whole, however, American nationalism is benign, and we should welcome its return to our politics, which began with the 2016 election.

  • Jacob T. Levy agrees with Stephen Davies that conservatives have recently moved away from moralism and toward national identity. But Levy sees national collectivism as potentially quite durable, a prospect that he does not welcome. He notes that authoritarianism and racism seem to be everywhere in contemporary populism, and he argues that attention to constitutionalism among conservatives has largely disappeared.

  • Henry Farrell argues that political bitterness across the world arises from a common source: neoliberalism. Domestic politics has been “hollowed out” in that all the real decisions are made by corporations or bureaucrats. Politicians prefer to compete on symbolic, highly contentious issues that are unlikely to be resolved. Liberal cosmopolitanism is “toast,” Farrell writes, because it lacks any significant constituency. As to libertarians, he argues that they should expect even less.