A leading historian on why liberalism failed—and what we can do to start rescuing it

It’ll take more than just hugs, but it’s a start.
It’ll take more than just hugs, but it’s a start.
Image: Reuters/Dylan Martinez
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In 2016 it became clear that liberalism—the belief in open societies, open borders, and free trade—was losing its progressive allure. Populist parties across the globe eked out wins against more liberal rivals, and upcoming elections across Europe could see this pattern continue.

So as we enter 2017, how do liberals bounce back from the bruisings of Brexit and Trump, and fight for their cause this year—and beyond? And whose job is it to do so? I put these questions to historian, writer and liberal advocate Timothy Garton Ash, a professor of European studies at the University of Oxford. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.

Quartz: You wrote some months ago that “to remedy the unintended consequences of globalization we need more liberal internationalism, not less.”  If we take 2016 to be the year in which liberalism—the belief in progress through more global, open flows of trade and borders—was seriously challenged, how do you rescue it in 2017?

Timothy Garton Ash: I think there is a global counter-revolution against liberalism that’s partly a witness to the success of it. Its success has been so hegemonic for so long it’s not surprising there’s a reaction against it.

The problem is there’s a version of liberalism—globalization, the opening of frontiers, allowing the flow of goods and services across them—that doesn’t work for everyone in the West.

The reaction is three-dimensional. First: it’s economic—the “what’s happened to my job” if you’re a steel worker in Wales or in the rust belt of the US. You may blame that on immigrants but the job has just as likely gone to a computer, a robot, or someone in Asia—globalization has had a huge positive effect in lifting people out of poverty there. The second is social, about inequality and seeing people who are doing incredibly well and those who are doing badly in exactly the same period. Thirdly, it’s cultural—very rapid change, cosmopolitanism, LGBT rights, etc., and people not recognizing their country any more.

But the answer has to start with the right analysis.

So, what do liberals do about that? You have to take the social and economic dimensions together to some extent. That means much more and smarter investment in retraining so those who have lost manual jobs are fit and equipped to do other jobs by continuous learning. Plus, thinking seriously about a basic income guarantee, and taxing the very rich more.

The cultural part is in many ways much more difficult. Telling someone “you shouldn’t be xenophobic” only makes things worse—the question is how you get people to be more liberal in their attitudes. If we look at the Labour Party in the UK, part of the answer has to be making people feel that migration is being managed. We ran a study at Oxford comparing five leading democracies on how they integrated migrants, and Canada came out on top—it’s the only one that really controls its borders. Because Canadians have the feeling that they do have it under control, they can live with higher levels of migration.

So how does all of this look in practice?

I’m not sure I’m the right person for a granular, policy response, but I think it’s an important direction to go in. If you look at Britain specifically, we have by far the best higher education sector in Europe, but our apprentice schemes lag far behind Scandinavian countries and Germany.

And what about a basic income?

It’s about thinking about a mix in democratic capitalism. There are not going to be good full-time jobs for all; we have to find a solution other than that. The welfare state is one way to think about it—the idea that the minimum necessary for equal dignity is provided by the state on the basis of taxation. None of these things are answers in themselves but part of the jigsaw. It’s a different discourse from the one we’ve been used to which has prioritized growth in the economy—it’s a paradigm shift. Maybe we’re heading to societies which won’t be like that in the long term.

And whose job is it to fight for this? How do they do it?

I think it’s a job for all of us. For writers, for academics, for journalists, for politicians. But what I would say is you have to get the diagnosis right before you make the prescription.

That means really seeing what the problem is and looking at the evidence. Accepting the reality and validity of popular discontent, but not accepting the cheap, demagogic explanation of it—the classic example is this notion of jobs going to migrants, not robots. Then, you have to start looking at the individual policy answers.

We need to put together the policy and intellectual parts into a new package, as western Europe did after 1945. We got a new package with a social market economy, a welfare state and conservative parties accepting more social democracy. My hunch is this won’t happen overnight, or in the course of 2017. We’re only in the beginning.

And for liberals, we have to analyze but also stand up for liberal values against xenophobia. At its best, liberalism has always been a fighting creed. So we have to fight, and slowly work our way toward a package that brings voters back.

What would such a package look like?

It would be foolish to be premature in predicting what it looks like. We have to take the time first to understand the counter-revolution.

Then we come to liberal self-criticism. How many articles did the Guardian run from post-industrial small towns in northern England, or the New York Times from the rust belt in the US? There’s been a failure to take seriously that experience of the other half.

We’ve got our work cut out on all of that—Rome wasn’t built in a day, and post-war European social democracy wasn’t either. But that’s where we have to go.

In terms of that sort of media coverage though, what’s the value of doing that sort of reporting if the people you’re writing about might not even read or trust it?

It’s a fair question, especially as we’re going through a media revolution right now. Where we have public service broadcasting, for instance the BBC in the UK, they need to take their national mandate very seriously.

I’ve never met an ordinary person, because if you talk to anyone enough and listen to them, everyone has some extraordinary story to tell. A journalistic challenge will be to find ways of telling those stories which will be interesting to their readers, just because they are interesting stories.

What’s your own vision of liberalism? Would you amend it in any way after the events of 2016?

An answer would be given in a life’s work. But being liberal in its most elementary sense is the belief in individual liberty as the highest political value—it’s not the only one, of course, there are others (equality, security, community, etc.)—but individual liberty is the most important.

But the social conditions of liberty for the many, and not just the few, is what comes back to us from this crisis, as it did in the late 1920s and early 1930s, when the challenge was [this idea of] what are you doing for the many, the community. That’s where fascism and communism scored against liberal democracy.

What went wrong for liberalism in 2016, and what can it learn from last year

The biggest lesson for liberals, I think, would be: Beware groupthink. Beware conventional wisdom. Beware becoming comfortable in your own received orthodoxy.

One thing that’s really important for all intellectuals is to constantly be trying to look at things from a different angle. We need more independent thinking across the board—for journalists, what are we not reporting? For economists, what are we missing in the way we’re telling this story?

There is in human nature a strong inclination to conform. It’s about being aware of those [inclinations] and trying to cultivate independent, radical thinking.

You’re a historian. What can historians like yourself do?

The issue is not prediction, punditry or prognostication. It’s a realistic, evidence-based. independent-minded critical analysis of what has happened and what is happening now. That’s our job.