Liberalism in Crisis

Identity Politics and Authoritarianism

There is a lot said and written about identity politics these days. Not all of it is very useful and some of it exploits rapidly emerging fault lines within liberal democracies. One thing is for sure and that is that the ‘golden age’ of liberal democracy appears to be coming to an end, or has perhaps already ended. Back in the 1990s, the brilliant academic Francis Fukuyama foresaw what he termed the end of history. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union signalled the end of the Cold War and the seeming retreat of illiberal ideologies such as communism. Indeed, between 1970 and 2010, the number of states that could be considered liberal democracies rose quite dramatically before beginning to ebb away. Fukuyama perceives the failure of the Arab Spring, the rise of Trumpism and a marked increase in support for far right nationalist parties in countries such as France and Hungary as the natural outcome of a marked shift in political focus. For much of the twentieth century, politicians highlighted economic disparity when seeking election. Now, politicians tend to appeal to people’s ‘inner-self’ or perceived sense of self-worth. 

Several decades ago, Fukuyama envisaged the ‘end of history’. Of course, he did not mean this in a literal sense; rather that conflict between nation states would become obsolete due to a global sharing of liberal or progressive values. Whilst I think Fukuyama is on shaky ground when he tries to crowbar the 2016 Brexit vote into his broad sweep analysis, there is no doubt that, at the time, much of the debate focused upon sovereignty and national identity. Indeed, those on both sides of the campaign appealed to our ‘feelings’ as much as to our economic or material well being. Past glories were invoked to advance an isolationist ‘go-it-alone’ narrative. This proved incredibly attractive with great swathes of the population; especially disgruntled folk in the regions who, all too often, felt marginalised or abandoned by a seemingly smug political elite in London or Brussels. There was a strong appeal to personal dignity and the promise that one’s intrinsic sense of self worth would be enhanced by standing together as an island nation as opposed to remaining part of a federal European structure.

   Such seductive rhetorical appeals are dangerous for they play upon and foster feelings of resentment. The belief that one is a victim of a grave injustice due to a lack of recognition or validation pervades modern society. For those on the right, such feelings can give way to nationalism, Islamophobia and a rejection of globalisation and liberal values. For those on the left, there is the danger that identity politics may lead to the atomisation of society. In its extreme form, a relentless focus upon the individual sometimes comes at the expense of pluralistic groupings that champion inclusivity and diversity. The right to self-expression and the promotion of individuality are crucial facets of any modern liberal society. Regardless of gender, race, religion or sexual orientation, we all aspire to belong to the institutions, societies and nations of which we are members. If we actively reject traditional value systems or organisational frameworks (whether they be societal, institutional or familial) then we have nothing beyond ourselves to which we may purposefully belong. 

     Of course, the middle ground in progressive liberal democracies understands the need to balance the individual with the collective and tradition with innovation. Similarly, the middle ground recognises that society must continuously evolve without forsaking democratic values. Reasoned debate rather than dangerous invective results in measured and moderate outcomes and yet the role of the populist demagogue has been reinvigorated by social media. More than two thousand years ago, Aristotle recognised the danger that such individuals presented within the context of direct democracy and, arguably, digital media has enabled an immediacy and directness that makes this threat more potent now than in the time of fourth century Athens. 

   Why does any of this matter? I do believe that we should reflect very carefully upon the values that we embrace within a changing world. We should promote the idea of being a good citizen rather than a passive consumer. We should provide opportunities for children to argue and debate contemporary affairs in forums that are characterised by civility, compassion and a desire to understand. We should encourage children to critically examine the information that they read online. Finally, we should encourage children to engage in groups beyond themselves. To share the values, hopes, dreams and aspirations of a community is to look beyond oneself and to take joy in the achievements and happiness of others. 

    Fukuyama is right; we must not assume the ascendancy of liberal democracy will continue unchallenged. The domination of centrist parties is not guaranteed and movements that appeal to one’s lack of self-worth or feelings of resentment have a pernicious traction that can very easily lead towards extremism, a falling away of the middle-ground, and polarised states more likely than not to lead to conflict or the repression of a minority. 

   Fukuyama contends that classical liberalism is in a state of crisis and faces threats from authoritarianism, identity politics and social media. He argues that we need to revitalise liberalism and make it fit for the twenty-first century. Of course, it is not for us to provide children with the answers but we should encourage them to ask questions. Personal morality and political persuasion are a matter of individual conscience although schools have a statutory duty to promote British Values – usually recognised as:

i)   democracy

ii)   rule of law

iii)  respect 

iv)  tolerance

v)   individual liberty

         These values seem more important than ever for they constitute the fundamental building blocks of a liberal and progressive society. Furthermore, collectively, these values provide the greatest protection against extremism, the persecution of minorities and the grooming of those who may be susceptible to an exploitation of their resentment or existential fear that they have been forgotten. 

    We live in a world where the shrillest and most inflammatory of views are afforded the greatest bandwidth. Encouraging young people to become skilled debaters but compassionate listeners is undoubtedly the responsibility of all educators. As unifying politicians often remind us, there is much more that binds us together than tears us apart. Recognising our shared humanity and common values will serve us well in the decades that lie ahead. We have a duty to ensure that our children are discerning citizens with the intellectual and cultural capital necessary to make their own considered judgements. If we ignore this aspect of our responsibility then they risk being buffeted or swept along by the latest demagogue seeking to satiate our desire for personal affirmation.

Jeremy Quartermain
Headmaster of Rossall School