A statue of Mahatma Gandhi in the center of downtown Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, where he was thrown off a train on the night of June 7, 1893 for refusing to move from a whites-only rail car. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
A statue of Mahatma Gandhi in the center of downtown Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, where he was thrown off a train in 1893 for refusing to move from a whites-only rail car. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Robert Frost is famously quoted as saying, “A liberal is a man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel.”

This is the most common notion among nationalists about liberals or liberalism or those who believe in liberal values.

As Mahatma Gandhi famously said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” That notion is quite right if you are raised in a civilized society with proper values as well as awareness about your rights and those of others. Most of the time a liberal would look upon the interests of society or other individuals above his or her interests.

That’s part of their upbringing. But sometimes they could not able to divide the thin line between being good and being too nice.

In the power game, when you take your interests for granted, others will take you for granted. Politics and power are all about perception. If you are perceived as weak or too nice, you cannot have power for the long term. It is one of the most prominent reasons behind the decline of liberalism across the world. 

The fall of Liberalism 1.0

At the end of the Cold War, there were two common notions among many liberals: optimism about the direction of history and the fate of liberalism. Most liberals were agreed that the conflicted era of history had ended with the end of the Cold War and steady incremental reform of the status quo was the only way forward. 

But their biggest mistake was assuming it was all over. During the Cold War era, liberalism had a strong narrative because the alternative to liberal democratic capitalism was autocratic communism.

But today the attacks on liberalism are distinct from the kind of challenges it has faced in the past.

It is facing a loss of legitimacy and credibility in many countries. The transition of liberalism to neoliberalism, where every sphere of social life is run by the marketization of relations, has resulted in rising inequality and the creation of structures that indirectly support autocracy and oligarchy.

The central weakness of liberalism is that while trying to operate in this wedge between democracy and capitalism, it has failed to get the balance right. The 2008 financial crisis is one classic example.

In the 1990s, totalitarian communism was the counter to democratic liberalism,  but today’s populism has posited itself as the central counterforce to liberalism. It brings a varied range of interests together under one banner.

More important, it is anti-intellectualism. That’s the reason it appeals to common people. For example: If you tell a person he is poor or that she is uncultured or uneducated, what do you think they are likely to get more offended by? Most of the time, people will find the distinction between social-cultural elites and the rest much more offensive than the distinction between the rich and poor.

The ability to strike out the cultural fault line between the elite and the working class provides populism with much of its strength. That’s why right-wing leaders such as Donald Trump and Narendra Modi create a narrative of elitist entitlement and socio-cultural exclusivity.   

This is not to say that the liberal world order has completely collapsed and there is no further hope. What is that liberal messages be conveyed in the right manner to the masses.

The case for Liberalism 2.0

If liberals wish to revive the relevance of liberalism in the populist era, they must address two core questions: why and how. These are the common reasons and methods through which strongmen propel into power.

Strongmen exist on large mass support for a core narrative. They mainly focus on creating a notion of an enemy or a threat.

For example: In India, it’s the secular elites, in Russia, the enemies are “Western counterparts,” in Hungary it’s Muslim migrants. They do it by winning the public perception by positioning themselves as the only alternative to such threats.

Liberals should start focusing on advocating the drawbacks of populism, such as the existence of a narcissistic society, where individuals have an inflated sense of their importance and the abilities of themselves or the nation that may lead to the failure of a country in the long run.

The best examples are Germany and Japan in World War II. The populist idea of promoting a sense of crisis (whether true or not) and presenting themselves as having the solution to the crisis is a bogus way to gain power.

The moralist view of populism, which denies the existence of divisions of interests and opinions within “the people” and rejects the legitimacy of political opponents, is an illiberal democratic response to undemocratic liberalism.

It is also essential to locate where the “individual” lies in the whole gamut of liberal ideals and clearly communicate how their ideals relate or resolve to daily real-life dilemmas. They need to sharpen their attacks and make their policies more understandable to the common masses.

Dialogue and debate should not be the only way to convey your point.

Focusing on the fact that a leader should not be judged by his rhetoric but by his performance will be a key factor in the revival of Liberalism 2.0.

Liberal leaders should work on connecting with people on the ground. That will give them a better understanding of what people want and how they perceive things. A too defensive approach can be extremely dangerous in the revival of liberalism.

Liberals should not focus on a controversial subject that may go against their values in the short term but have a long-term impact. Issues such as gender equality, class struggle, immigration, and increasing the wages of the middle class will generate long-term impacts. 

The precautionaryapproach of liberalism of avoiding the sensitive topic in power games is highly unrealistic. As Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind but an eye for an ear makes the world more even, as power understand the language of threat.” Liberalism needs to adjust between current realities.

Ravi Kant

Ravi Kant is a columnist and correspondent for Asia Times based in New Delhi. He mainly writes on economics, international politics and technology. He has wide experience in the financial world and some of his research and analyses have been quoted by the US Congress and Harvard University. He is also the author of the book Coronavirus: A Pandemic or Plandemic. He tweets @Rk_humour.