The idea of liberalism emerged in the West at a time when the masses were used to being ruled by elites, who exercised power by virtue of the divine right to rule. The people went to wars and cultivated land to enlarge the power and fill the treasuries of a few elites of the ruling class. At a time like this based on the values of liberty and equality of opportunity, the idea of liberalism developed and went on to become one of the most dominant political theories of the world.
It was in the Age of Enlightenment that liberalism emerged as a distinct theory, which sought to replace authoritarian rule, divine rights of kings and monarchies with democracy and the rule of law. The 17th-century philosopher John Locke is widely regarded as the father of the liberal school of thought; Locke completely rejected the idea that kingship was an institution that derived its political authority from God. He argued that people created kingship to suit their needs, Locke said that by willingly giving up some of their freedoms, people gave consent to the king to rule only so far as their rights were protected. In any case where the king began to act like a tyrant then the people were entirely empowered to withdraw their consent and overthrow the ruler.
The ideas that helped inspire the emergence of liberalism found expression in the works of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. In Leviathan, Hobbes argued that the authority of the ruler was ultimately derived from the consent of the people who, in a hypothetical social contract, agreed to obey the sovereign in all matters in exchange for the maintenance of peace and justice. John Lock in his Two Treatises of Government has given the same argument of the social contract theory between the state and the people. These ideas formed the basis on which the school of liberalism began to spread in the West.
Liberalism evolved over the years as one of the dominant political ideas of the world. Its ideals inspired many revolutions, such as the Glorious Revolution of 1688 which is regarded as one of the first victories of liberalism. It emerged as a result of the growing influence of religion over the King. The revolution ended with the establishment of a constitutional monarchy with limited powers and political prominence placed into the hands of the parliament. Several successive revolutions were inspired by this such as the American Revolution of 1776 which was concerned with the overthrow of the British colonial rule and the formation of the United States of America.
However, it is the French Revolution (1789-99) that led to the consolidation of the dominance of liberalism and went on to inspire the spread of rights and democracy all over the world for more than a century. The Revolution emerged as the resistance of the people towards exploitative taxation by the state and the influence of the Church in government. Liberalism evolved over the years and extended to the eastern part of the world as well, with the rise of Tanzimat and Al Nahda in Turkey and the Middle East. Despite the emergence of various opponents of the liberal thought, such as communism and fascism, liberal democracies found themselves on the winning side in both the world wars.
It was the qualities of liberty, freedom and equality that helped liberalism to spread to various parts of the world. Liberalism was able to sustain itself and survive major challenges because it emerged as an idea of governance based on the timeless critique of the excessive state. It is deemed unique from other ideas of governance as its foundation is based on the assumption that human behaviour should be governed, in the pursuit of fostering the idea that society is understood as a realm separate from the state.
Over the years liberalism dominated world politics, even though it faced critique and opposition from various schools of thought, but it managed to maintain its position. In the recent years, however, populism has emerged as a threat to the liberal ideas. Populism as an ideology does not have one particular definition. However, it can be broadly defined as the delineation of the ‘people’ from the ‘elite’, where the former is the morally good force against the corrupt latter. Populist movements argue that today’s liberal elites have become as powerful and unaccountable as the aristocracy of the past. Populism accuses the liberals of having strayed too far from their founding principles.
Populism has existed since the 19th century; however, it has emerged as a rather alarming threat to liberalism in the recent past. Various factors give rise to populism such as the globalisation phenomenon and feeling of increasing cultural complexity, the fear of the decline of the local culture, perceptions that foreigners are stealing the jobs that should belong to the natives among others. Other factors responsible for populist uprisings include unemployment, the perception of an economic crisis and widespread suspicion against the established government.
In the past few years, some of the most powerful and modern countries of the world have witnessed populist upsurges, as a reaction to declining economic conditions and the alleged corruption of the liberal elites. In the case of the United States of America, the 2016 presidential election saw a wave of a populist upsurge in the campaign of Donald Trump who fought with an anti-establishment agenda. Donald Trump emerged as a victor in the polls, his campaigns being focused on bringing back jobs to the ‘people’ of the United States and reforming immigration policies to the extent of deporting some 11 million undocumented immigrants, challenging the very ideas of liberal philosophy.
Trump became the President of the most powerful country in the world with promises of eliminating free trade, banning people belonging to particular communities from entering the country and most importantly on ‘Making America Great Again’, however the greatness that these exclusive policies aspire to achieve may not be in the best interest for other countries. Moreover, it was the failure of the Hillary Clinton led the liberal campaign, which was characterised by weak policies and lack of new agendas that paved the way for Trump’s victory.
Another example of recent populist upsurge is of Great Britain. The decision of the people of Great Britain to withdraw from the European Union is widely regarded as the victory of populist sentiment. Three important reasons are primarily cited as leading to the culmination of Brexit – Economics, Sovereignty and Political Elitism. Economic stagnation and the increasing gap between the rich and poor were the significant criticisms of the liberalist policies that were followed before Brexit. Another critique was of the liberal immigration policies that caused loss of livelihood of the natives of the country; this was accompanied by a demand for sovereignty and increasing mistrust of international organisations. Finally, the Brexit was a vote against the political elite, which was seen are corrupt and thus, having lost their right to govern matters for the people.
In this way populist upsurges have targeted liberals, calling them hypocrites and accusing them of becoming too elite and aloof from the original principles on which the idea of liberalism was founded. The liberalists are accused of becoming the very institution that they sought to destroy. These populist movements have already delivered a significant blow to liberalism in two big powers of the world and are seen spreading in various countries in the developing world as well.
IMPLICATIONS AND THE WAY FORWARD
Thus, in the wake of such uprisings and criticisms, the liberal school of thought has come under attack. A question that arises in this situation is that does this mean that the days of Liberalism are numbered? The answer to this question lies in the past. In late 19th century America, just as today, there was widespread corruption among the rulers and political elitism was emerging. The so-called group of Robber Barons were seen as the root cause of these developments, as they formed vast business empires accumulating massive wealth and using immoral methods for their benefits, thus dividing the society into winners and losers.
These developments undermined the ideas of liberalism as government machinery was exploited for the benefit of the ‘elites’, and the liberals began to seem like hypocrites. It was at such a time when reformers like the then president Theodore Roosevelt took actions against these elements with policies such as the Square Deal and cleaned up the government of such liberal elites. These reforms reinvented liberalism at a time when the liberals were becoming more and more contradictory to what its ideas preached.
It is essential to understand here that populist movements tend to move towards authoritarian governments and are exclusive as far as the ‘elite’ groups are concerned. Hence, to survive and put a halt to the dangerous growth of populist upsurges, liberalism must reform itself now, just as it had reformed itself in the past. The liberals of today need to realise that success has transformed them into elites, they must once again reinvent themselves by becoming the agitators for reform. A reform concerning the growing power of political elites and the increasing hypocrisy of liberals is the most urgent need of the hour.
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David Molloy (2018, March 06), What is populism and what does the term actually mean? From BBC https://www.bbc.com/news/world-43301423
Michael Ugorji, BREXIT, Trumpism and the Agency of Populism in Contemporary Political Communication, Journal of Mass Communication and Journalism, retrieved from https://www.omicsonline.org/open-access/brexit-trumpism-and-the-agency-of-populism-in-contemporary-politicalcommunication-2165-7912-1000355.pdf
John Mauldin (2016, July 05), 3 Reasons Brits Voted for Brexit, Forbes https://www.forbes.com/sites/johnmauldin/2016/07/05/3-reasons-brits-voted-for-brexit/#736cb6771f9d
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