In late May of 2017, Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the ALDE group in the European Parliament, spoke at the conference of the liberal Nowoczesna party in Poland about how European liberals constitute a ’coalition of hope’ against the ’coalition of hate’ of Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Viktor Orbán and Jarosław Kaczyński.
Conducting that kind of rhetoric in a country like Poland carries great symbolism. After 123 years of occupation by three foreign powers, 6 years under the boot of Nazi Germany and then another 45 years of imposed communist rule, Poland knows like few other nations what it means to be fighting for freedom. Despite overwhelming tribulations and seemingly insurmountable ordeals, the Polish people never ceased in their struggle. And now, 28 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Poland stands out among both former soviet satellite states and European countries overall as a successful example of economic success and democratization.
But in spite of its remarkable progress in recent decades alone, Poland once again faces the prospect of authoritarian rule and the decline of civil rights – this time at the hands of none other than their own democratically elected government.
How did this happen?
There is much that Europe as a whole can learn from a country like Poland in terms of both freedom and democracy. But maybe the single most important lesson at this moment in time is the following;
That we the people, guardians of democracy, must always remain vigilant against reactionary forces who wish to reimpose the oppression of the past. No matter how hard we struggle, and no matter how decisively we triumph – we will never come to a place where we can put our feet up and consider the values of democracy and civil liberties to be written in stone.
But at the same time, it is important to know that the sentiments of populism and authoritarianism that we see today in countries like Poland, Hungary, Turkey and others did not emerge out of thin air. They were all elected to power by a broad majority of the voters, because there has been for a long time a growing dissatisfaction with what is perceived as a “political establishment” that is out of touch with its own electorate.
And unless we progressives commit to tackle this dissatisfaction right at its very source – there is always going to be an impending threat from populism, nationalism and other anti-democratic tendencies around the corner.
Upon the victory of Emmanuel Macron in the second round of the presidential elections in France, the leaders of Europe breathed a sigh of relief that the alternative scenario of a Le Pen presidency was not to be after all. The same thing happened in the Netherlands only a few months prior, when incumbent Prime Minister Mark Rutte staved off right-wing populist Geert Wilders and his party from being the main force in Dutch politics.
Indeed, the year 2016 was not only a year of setbacks and calamities for progressives, because on the 4th of December, after the previous election had been annulled due to voting irregularities, Austria held its second presidential election, in which the voters reaffirmed their support for Green Party candidate Alexander Van Der Bellen, over far-right eurosceptic candidate Norbert Hofer.
Recent victories for pro-European parties and progressive values have emboldened liberal minded politicians to the point where some even talk about a “defeat of populism”. That the clash of ideologies have been settled, and that democracy has emerged victorious once and for all.
But the truth is, that populism is far from being defeated. Just because you have beaten a party in an election, does not mean that you have delegitimized the fundamental ideas from which the party came, and which allowed said party to make the gains that they did in the first place.
While Marine Le Pen conceded defeat to Macron, she did not by any means dismiss her philosophy. Quite the contrary, she was bolstered even further to continue fighting for what she believes to be a righteous cause, and that is not a moment in which the opponents of her agenda should just sit back and believe the Front National to be ultimately defeated, when all that has actually happened is that they lost an election. There will always be another election, there is always going to be another chance for the losers of today to be the winners of tomorrow.
But that is the easy realization to make.
There is one other thing that is going to be much more difficult for liberals and progressives to digest. In the fight against populism, we have a challenge ahead of us that is not going to be as easy and straight-forward as many of us would believe.
And it begins with the painful but necessary realization that the liberal democratic world order that emerged after the defeat of communism has failed the people.
Make no mistakes;
The European Union is the most successful project for peace and prosperity in modern times. And despite its various flaws, democracy remains by far the most prosperous and most preferable system of government out of all those that have been tried and tested throughout history.
But somewhere, somehow, the European Union has failed. And in a way, democracy itself has failed, because elected officials from both the left and the right have neglected to address issues and concerns that the voters care about very strongly.
The sad but accurate truth of the matter is that the people of the United States did not just vote to elect Trump president, they also voted against Clinton. The people of Poland did not just vote for the Law and Justice party, they voted against the sitting government of the Civic Platform party.
And the people of Britain did not only cast their vote in favour of Brexit – they also cast their vote in opposition to what they perceived as a stiff and overextended Brussels-based bureaucracy that meddles in the affairs of individual member states without care or insight for the trials and struggles of ordinary people.
Across Europe and the whole western world, the trend seems to be the same everywhere;
Establishment politicians of all creeds underestimating the importance that the common people places on issues like immigration, social integration, security, crime, law and order, economic inequality, unemployment rates etc.
And they pay for it by getting voted out of office.
Most progressives today would explain this phenomena by pointing out how unsafe the world has become in the wake of terrorist attacks, refugee crises and economic uncertainty. While there is merit to that description, the proponents of this narrative are missing out on an even more important fact.
And the fact is that in a lot of countries, the public debate on these emotional yet imperative issues has become polarized and contentious to the point where people are deterred from participating in the political discussion. They are discouraged to speak their minds in any context out of fear of being placed in a file; being categorized and ultimately attributed labels and opinions that they have never expressed.
That kind of a climate generates frustration with the political process. And that frustration, of not being able to speak your heart in a society that is supposed to promote diversity of opinion, ultimately leads to disenfranchisement.
Add all of these to the everyday contempt that have always existed against the ruling class, and you’re gonna have entire groups of voters, transcending every social group, ready to vote for any party or candidate that takes on the mantle to challenge the detested “political elite”.
We saw this happen in the United States.
When it became clear in the summer of 2016 that Hillary Clinton had defeated Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries, and that it happened through the dishonourable interference of the Democratic Party in what was supposed to be an equal election process – that added fuel to an already growing trend of anti-establishment sentiments.
It is debatable but not at all unreasonable to make the connection that popular resentment over these developments spilled over into the general elections, enabling Donald Trump to defeat Clinton.
And somehow it seems that virtually none of all the pollsters and analysts at the time were able to see this scenario coming, even though it was unfolding right before our very eyes.
This is why defeating populism is about more than just winning elections;
If we as liberals and progressives are serious about defeating populism, and to once again restore the prosperous days when western democratic values thrived – we need to start gaining back that trust that we have lost.
We need to undermine the very source of populism and nationalism right from its core, and declare them irrational on their own grounds. And in order to do that, we’re gonna need to discuss, reflect on, question and maybe even re-evaluate some very fundamental truths that we have come to think of as obvious.
As liberals, we love open borders and the freedom of movement.
But what are the long term implications for a rich but small country like Sweden when a whooping number of 163.000 people (primarily from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan) arrives in the country asking for asylum in the space of just one year?
What would be the consequences if, say, a country of 10 million people were to expand it’s population by one percent each year for a full decade?
This is only one out of many questions that needs to be asked and resolved.
It is an open question to which we can argue in favour or in opposition. Inevitably, we’re gonna have different opinions and we’re gonna reach different conclusions.
That is fine. That is how it’s supposed to be in a democracy.
But just as we need the difference of opinion – we also need the open and unconditional debate. A debate free from all forms of polarization, throwing of labels and assignment of blame.
That is how we defeat populism.
And that is how, on a longer perspective, liberals and progressives are going to regain the confidence of those citizens who right now feel let down, put aside and ignored.
Because trust is never granted – it needs to be earned.