After last Sunday’s win in the Brazilian presidential election, supporters of Jair Bolsonaro took to the streets clad in the yellow and green colours of the Brazilian flag.
That people and parties with more liberal and open political platforms have everywhere allowed the extreme right wing to appropriate the national flag and the power of patriotism is one of the greatest political failures of our time.
Liberals everywhere have, throughout the 20th century, allowed a mistaken conception of internationalism to blind them to both the importance and the power of the nation state. In seeking to promote trans-national co-operation, they have gone too far. They have equated any national symbol or any waving of the flag to be equated with jingoism and non-cooperation. Nothing could be further from the truth.
First of all, we need to recognise that the nation state is the primary locus of democratic legitimacy. No institutions other than national parliaments have the same level of legitimacy and democratic mandate. As such, the nation state should be front and centre for anyone who believes in legitimate democracy.
Second, it was a big mistake to underestimate the importance of the nation state to people’s sense of identity and belonging. Talk of international perspectives, co-operation, and globalism are important. But the vast majority of people’s lives are local and policies of international co-operation need not be, and should never have been, positioned as being adversarial to the nation state. Rather they are methods to strengthen nation states and increase their resilience through trans-national co-operation.
Finally, maybe the biggest mistake was what was possibly a natural consequence of the first two – to dismiss people’s legitimate concerns about the impact of mass immigration as closed-minded xenophobia.
Those of us who believe in liberal democracy need to understand that democracy cannot function without being seen as legitimate, without being close to the people within its sphere, and without a strong sense of social cohesion. All of these requirements lie within the borders of the nation state.
It is not clear that liberals are now even capable of internalising these issues and, even if they could, whether things have been allowed to get so far that they have become irreversibly associated with ’the liberal elite’ in voters’ minds.
If either of those is the case, then we should all fear for the future of liberal democracy as those parties and politicians who credibly wrap themselves in the flag will continue their ascendancy.
And rather than condemning ‘populists’ and ’nationalists’, the liberal elite should look in the mirror and accept that, through crass incompetence and putting their own biases ahead of the views and feelings of the general electorate, they themselves will have played a big part in undermining liberal democracy.
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Stephen Gwynne says
Sorry to cross post (very busy today) but thought you might find these insights interesting.
The People, No.
The Peoples, Yes
What makes income and wealth (class) inequalities so pernicious is how they politically disenfranchise the low income (working class). By needing to work three times or four times harder than the average medium income (middle class) for the same loaf of bread means the working class don’t have the time or energy to engage politically. Therefore they become dependent on the middle or higher classes to represent them and their well-being.
Populism occurs when both the middle and the higher classes fail to adequately take care of working class wellbeing.
Right populism is when the higher classes take responsibility for working class welfare and left populism is when the middle classes take responsibility for working class welfare.
Therefore, a truly just universal society that is based on freedom, liberty and fairness is one where everyone has equal wages per hour worked.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
I think I made a connection between equality and freedom, liberty and fairness and hence liberalism. The same will also apply to republicanism (freedom, liberty, fairness and fraternity).
The People, No.
The Peoples, Yes
What makes income and wealth (class) inequalities so pernicious is how they politically disenfranchise the low income (working class) person. By needing to work two, three or four times harder than the average medium income (middle class) person for the same loaf of bread means the working class don’t have the time or energy to engage politically. Therefore they become dependent on the middle or upper classes to look after them and their well-being.
I feel the current crisis of Liberalism is because the welfare of the working classes has been neglected by both the middle and upper classes who now feel betrayed and underepresented economically, culturally and politically. I feel this is mainly due to high levels of inequalities between the different classes whether income based, wealth based or investment based.
Therefore, I feel Populism occurs when both the middle and the higher classes fail to adequately take care of working class wellbeing and instead become too focused on themselves and their own interests.
Possibly, in terms of political activity, Right populism is when the higher classes take responsibility for working class welfare and left populism is when the middle classes take responsibility for working class welfare. However, populism in itself cannot resolve the underlying inequalities that produces the working class anger in the first place but then neither can current forms of Liberalism either. Republicanism in this context, at least seeks to build the necessary sense of fraternity by which inequalities may be confronted but it remains unclear how a greater sense of political duty can connect freedom with an equality that goes beyond non-interference.
However, for a society to be a truly just universal society that is based on freedom, liberty and fairness, then Liberalism must go beyond equal treatment on the civil and civic level and start applying equal treatment at the economic level whereby everyone has equal wages per hour worked and therefore everyone has the actual or lived freedom, liberty and fairness to engage politically which ensures that the working classes can represent themselves in the same way the middle and upper classes can.
Therefore Liberalism is in crisis because we are not allowing the principle of equality to permeate into our shared economic life as well as our shared civil and civic lives. In other words, because the middle classes and the upper classes are actively stunting the development of Liberalism by not applying equal treatment beyond the civil and civic realms of society, we not only have the arrested development (crisis) of Liberalism but we also have the Emergence of Populism as the middle and upper classes become increasingly protective of their accumulated economic privileges and advantages. As such, Liberalism has turned into a privileged state of incumbency that benefits the middle and upper classes which has resulted in the emergence of populism. Since the middle classes, in particular, the left liberal metropolitan middle classes have put Liberalism into arrested development and abandoned the goal of political freedom through economic equality, this has allowed the upper classes to step in and take populism to the right.
This article provided me with useful insights and space to re-imagine populism.
Peter Arnold says
I agree that liberals have lost the plot at the minute, and have surrendered the central ground of democratic debate to the populists and rabble-rousers. I think I also agree that the focus of many liberals on internationalism has helped them to take their collective eye off the ball of what matters to people in the communities they claim to represent.
I absolutely do not agree, however, that “the nation state is the primary locus of democratic legitimacy.” The only locus of democratic legitimacy lies with each individual citizen of a community, whether that is as part of a family, a locality, a region, a nation, or a federation of nations.
Many Liberals (as opposed to liberals!) accept that sovereignty rests with the people, and only when the structures of government, at whatever level, accept this premise, and are so organised as to give practical expression of this fact, can they be seen as legitimate.
The government of the UK is a case in point. It is a centralised institution predicated on the erroneous principle that the UK is a homogenous nation. It manifestly is not, and that is one of the reasons why so many people reject both politics and politicians. The over-centralised government of the UK is so remote from the realities of most people’s lives, that for all practical purposes, its writ hardly runs outside of the privileged south east of England.
The main reason why British liberals are so unsuccessful at the moment is that they have forgotten one of the basic principles of political activity – campaigning in communities. Their policy proposals may be appropriate for the current situation in the UK, but their failure over many years to go out and campaign for them in the communities that need them is a woeful error of judgement. It is time that Liberals got out of the claustrophobic environment of London, and started to campaign on their fundamental principles and policies, and demonstrate to an angry, frustrated and cynical population, that London does not know everything, and that people in communities are perfectly capable of taking and using power in their own localities to deal with local issues. Liberals should leave London, and get out on the streets talking to people, listening to their concerns, and helping them to use the powers local government already has to tackle local problems. That is direct democracy in action, not the farce that exists in Westminster. Britain needs fundamental reform, from the very top of society all the way down to the level of the individual.
Joe Zammit-Lucia says
Thank you Peter for your comments. I agree about the centralization issue. What I nshould have said is that the highest level at which people feel some kind of connection with their elected representatives is at the level of the nation state. Of course, they could maybe feel even more connection with a politics that is more embedded in their communities (as in Germany, Switzerland, Canada, etc). There will always be a need for coordination of all of that at the national level. And a need to avoid the development of the ‘us and them’ syndrome between local and national politics.