The crumbling ideals of western liberalism

In the twenty-five years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the architecture of liberal modernity has looked relatively stable. Not flawless or wonderful or ideal, to be sure; not free of discontents and decadence. But it’s been hard to imagine the basic liberal democratic capitalist order cracking up, let alone envision what might take its place.
Through the dot-com bust, 9/11, the Iraq war, and the financial crisis, it was striking how consensus held, how elites kept circulating, how quickly populist movements collapsed or were co-opted, how Washington and Brussels consolidated power even when their projects failed. No new ideological movement, whether radical or reactionary, emerged to offer the alternative to liberalism that fascism and Marxism and throne-and-altar traditionalism once supplied. And no external adversary, whether Putinist or Islamist or Chinese, seemed to offer a better way than ours.
Here in the dying days of 2015, though, something seems to have shifted. For the first time in a generation, the theme of this year was the liberal order’s vulnerability, not its resilience. 2015 was a memento mori moment for our institutions — a year of cracks in the system, of crumbling firewalls, of reminders that all orders pass away.
This was especially true in Europe, where for generations the parties of the center have maintained a successful quarantine against movements that threatened their dream of continental integration — be they far-right or far-left, nationalist or separatist.
On the Eurozone’s periphery, in Greece and Hungary and now in Poland, that quarantine is dead. But in 2015 it began to weaken in the European core. Elections in Great Britain empowered Scottish Nationalists, handed the Labour Party back to crypto-Marxists, and raised the odds that the United Kingdom could depart the European Union or dissolve. Elections in France kept Marine Le Pen’s National Front out of power — but by a narrower margin than ever before. Elections in Spain empowered both the populist left and Catalan separatists. And in Sweden, that blessed end-of-history paradise, the most popular political party was suddenly the Sweden Democrats, whose roots are in homegrown fascism.
Europe’s extremes gained, in part, because in 2015 the center was unusually feckless. Angela Merkel’s decision to open Germany’s borders to a million Middle Eastern refugees earned her the praise of her globalist peers. But it also pushed a fast-forward button on long-term trends threatening the liberal project in Europe — the challenge of Islam, the pressure of migration from Africa, the danger of backlash in countries with little experience of mass assimilation.
In the process, Merkel handed ammunition to the argument, expressed in artistic form in Michel Houellebecq’s novel “Submission,” that late-modern liberalism might have a certain tendency toward suicide. And she did so at a moment when both the Islamic State and Vladimir Putin’s Russia were supplying evidence that the liberal project can be at least temporarily defied.
Yes, ISIS probably won’t endure, and Putin’s ambitions exceed his grasp. But by pulling volunteers from Western countries and inspiring terrorists from Paris to San Bernardino, the would-be caliphate has provided a new template for revolts against modernity. And by playing power politics in his near abroad and the Middle East, Putin has helped make the Pax Americana look more fragile than at any point since 1989.
Meanwhile, in the American heart of that neoliberal imperium, were it not for Donald Trump the big political story of the year would be the emergence of a new New Left — visible in the continued potency of Black Lives Matter, the turmoil on college campuses, and the appeal of an avowed socialism on the Democratic Party’s campaign trail.
Except that Trump is the big story, and deservedly. His mix of reality-TV shamelessness, European-style nationalism and boastful authoritarianism might be a genuinely new thing in U.S. politics. And the fact that so many disaffected voters find it attractive is a revelation, an objective correlative to polls showing declining faith in democracy, and a window, perhaps, into a more illiberal politics to come.
Now: Trump will not be the Republican nominee (yes, really). Bernie Sanders won’t beat Hillary. Far-left antics at Amherst and Oberlin and Claremont McKenna and Yale are not as significant as elite college graduates like to think.
In Europe, Jeremy Corbyn probably won’t be Britain’s next prime minister, Marine Le Pen probably won’t be France’s next president, Sweden probably isn’t about to turn fascist, the E.U. probably isn’t about to break apart. Houellebecq’s vision of an Islamified Europe, like ISIS’s vision of a new Islamic empire or Putin’s Stalinist nostalgia, is more a resonant fantasy than a plausible atlas of the future.
It’s still wise to bet on the current order, in other words, and against its enemies and rivals and would-be saboteurs.
But after liberalism’s year of living dangerously, for the first time in a long time it might make sense to hedge that bet.

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