Remember, remember - the 9th of November...It is part of one of the most bitter ironies that on the 9th November 2016 -exactly 27 years after the day the Berlin wall came down and the ‘end of history’ was hailed- new rifts and new walls can be expected to emerge..
Let’s make no mistake – even though there are still 52 days left of this year, 2016 has been a historical caesura for the Western claim to supporting a liberal order. Just like in the night of the 23rd – 24th June 2016, the night of 8th to 9th November turned out to be a painful, sleepless affair. While still a shock, it should not have come as a complete surprise. The rise of angry and desperate populism is not just a phenomenon of 2016, but has been building up in the Western world at least since the financial crisis 0f 2008. While economics and income inequality cannot explain the full complex picture of the rise of populism, protest votes and anti-establishment feelings, it has been a decisive cause behind a wave of anti-liberal and anti-democratic sentiments on both sides of the Atlantic.
While Brexit shattered the almost axiomatic belief in European integration, the election night of 8th November heralds a ‘US-exit from the liberal order’. 27 years after Francis Fukuyama’s infamous essay on the ‘End of History’ and the belief in the Western and even global triumph of political and economic liberalism, we may be witnessing the beginnings of the ‘End of Liberal History’ in the West – and indeed for the globe.
Donald Trump’s election campaign was built on the seemingly erratic, but actually highly calculated spurring of protest votes – against core values of liberalism. Open attacks on immigrants, muslims, political opponents, people of different sexual orientation or beliefs as well as free trade, collective defence (, i.e. NATO) and measures against climate change have resonated with the majority of the American electorate. For US society, the main fear is that a similar kind of radicalization and perceived legitimisation of anti-foreigner sentiments as could be witnessed in the aftermath of Brexit could emerge. The rifts in American society that already emerged during the election campaign are set to widen further. This election will not only change US politics and society, but will also have far-reaching implications for European geopolitics and global governance.
It will not be hard to imagine that one can hear a pin drop in Tallin, Riga, Vilnius, Kiev and Tbilisi and a confident growl in Moscow. The implications of Trump’s foreign policy towards Russia, Europe and NATO could be far-reaching and dangerous for an already highly destabilized situation.
What can be done? What went wrong?
Political Scientists, International Affairs specialists, but also every citizen valuing liberal values beyond mere words, will have woken up on the 9th November (ironically, the exact day the Berlin wall came down crumbling 27 years ago) with a numb feeling of disbelief and the nagging question of what can be done now? Before this can even be addressed, we first need to understand ‘what went wrong’ or what the root causes of this rise of ugly populism has been?
It’s not only the economy, stupid!
It would be wrong and too simplistic to assume that Trump’s victory (just as the vote for Brexit) can just be limited to the explanation that it is a vote by uneducated and economically disadvantaged sections of society. Early polls indicate that Trump also won over the majority of educated white voters and I myself have been surprised by the social media utterings of some of my highly educated friends in the US in the run-up to this election. Trump is popular among many voters who feel that there should be change and a ‘wake up call’ for the political Elite in the US. The element of ‘protest’ against the current system ran across all socio-economic layers of society. In this context, much of Trump’s victory also rested on the unpopularity of Hillary Clinton and problems within the DNC. Particularly among young white voters, who supported Bernie Sanders, the anger over the nomination of Hillary Clinton was extremely costly in terms of lost votes for Clinton.
Yet, it is also clear that Trump did not garner the support from Afro-African or Latin American voters – the support from white voters indicates in this context an unsavoury link to racist undertones of Trump’s campaign. We have to admit as Political Scientists, however, that we still do not know enough about the specific causes of the recent illiberal sentiments on both sides of the Atlantic. While many explanations of the rise of illiberal populism across the West might lead us back to historical parallels with the 1920s and 1930s, there are many additional other factors (such as the role of the media in covering the US campaign) that must be explored now. Interdisciplinary research teams (historians, sociologists, communication studies experts, anthroplogists, psychologists and political scientists) need to get cracking in order to understand the composite and complex causes. It requires reaching beyond our own prejudices and assumptions in order to truly understand this phenomenon, Only then will those interested in defending and saving the liberal order be able to formulate answers.
What has become clear, however, is that the time of mere exasperation or expressions of disbelief that might result at best into an angry facebook update or clever tweet needs to be over. Anyone sincerely interested in a world of decency, humanism, open-mindedness, multicultural mindsets, fairness and global problem-solving needs to do more than that. The time has come once again that core liberal values –which we have taken for far too long for granted- need to be actually defended and whole-heartedly promoted. The biggest strength of ugly populism has always been the passivity and silence of those that were not ready to actively oppose it. This might also be easier said than done. Calling for, and building up, a liberal counter-movement will not be easy. But as liberals, we will only have ourselves to blame if we accept the end of Western Liberal History without a stir.