25 May

Whither Western Liberalism?

The outcome of the Austrian presidential election has produced a swift surge in outspoken expressions of relief among the West’s liberal media. Alexander van den Bellen, backed by the Greens and a supporter of further European integration, won by the narrowest of margins, just 31,000 votes in a nationwide poll. His opponent, Norbert Hofer, is a member of the Freedom Party – generally associated in the media and by liberal pundits more generally with far-right populism. Mr Hofer is reported to have worn on one occasion on his lapel a cornflower, a 1930s Nazi symbol. Austria has de facto a thoroughly parliamentary system of government, with its President playing a largely ceremonial role, yet moderates of all formal political persuasions throughout Europe have expressed deep satisfaction over the containment of ‘extremism’ even in such an election for a thoroughly non-executive post.

Identifying the result in Austria with a victory for political moderation is deeply misleading. Mr Hofer actually secured 49.7% of the electorate and 2,223,458 votes. Elsewhere in the West, novel forms of sharply differentiated political awareness are on the rise. The general election in the United Kingdom (2015) saw UKIP garnering 3.8m votes and a ‘regional’ party, the SNP, garnering 56 Westminster MPs. In France, the Front National failed to obtain any presidency in last year’s regional elections, but nonetheless won the first round and gained 6.8m votes in the second. Spain’s 2015 general election saw the rise of Podemos, a left-wing anti-austerity party which received about 21% of the vote. The victory of Law and Justice in Poland and of Syriza in Greece, as well as the furore about Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in the USA, further attest that new forms of politics are developing.

Is this trend part of the eternal return of fascism, as Rob Riemen wrote in 2010? The comparison is facile, and perhaps unhelpful for understanding the political novelty the West is currently experiencing. Whether inclined to Right or Left, the new movements seem to share a fundamental mistrust of the established Western liberal order as we have known it. Globalisation, immigration, deindustrialisation, austerity, inequality, economic stagnation, European integration and even political correctness are all targets for marksmen of the new politics. Explaining the emergence of radicalism is by no means straightforward and must take into account both recent socio-economic troubles and the long-term cultural as well as intellectual evolution of Western liberalism.

Is the West’s apparent loss of values to blame for the surge of political antiliberalism? What does the future hold for the populations of Europe and North America? Instead of dismissing this new politics as an irrational ‘populism’ inevitably doomed to failure, decision-makers and the media alike should try to understand what lies behind the trend to radicalism. The West must undertake an arduous process of reflection and self-criticism so as to ensure that its humanistic ethics and religious traditions do not vanish or end up modified beyond recognition.

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