The rise of right-wing political populism and rhetoric: is the fear of liberal progress rational or irrational?

Samuel Glen*

Brisbane, 21 November 2016 (Alochonaa): Liberals’ worst fears have come true. This year saw the UK vote to leave the EU, Australian far-right wing senator and self-proclaimed xenophobe Pauline Hanson elected back to the Australian Senate, drug free hard-liner and human rights nightmare Rodrigo Duterte elected as President of the Philippines, and property tycoon and dabbling actor-billionaire turned politician Donald Trump won the U.S. election. Liberals around the world are confounded by a rise of right-wing political populism which many thought may be an irrational response to benign globalization. But what does it all mean and is it truly ‘irrational’? Does ultra-conservatism fly really in the face of the liberal? This article seeks to show that for a core group of people the growing interest in right-wing political policy and rhetoric is a legitimate response to the liberal-progressive movement and that time will prove whether it is rational albeit with costs.


Like theory, policy is always created by someone and for some purpose. A policy can be adopted in response to a recognized political issue, such as immigration or trans-border crime. If the rise of right-wing political populism is in response to the liberal-progressive movement, which opens borders and has historically stood for tolerance and peace, then the question becomes what caused the transition to conservatism, and whom.


Historically, those familiar with the liberal project know that it started in response to the First World War, as a way to join nations in a project of progress and inter-state cooperation. This cooperation formed the ‘League of Nations’ and what would later be called the ‘United Nations’. It is on the back of this historical movement that modern-day globalization and inter-state cooperation was born. In short, borders opened up and markets expanded.


Liberal internationalism was at the time a rational response to the wars caused by people obsessed with expanding myopic state interest at the expense of inter-state freedom and sovereignty. An internal national focus seemed to be the cause of such devastating war and aggression on a global scale and needed a response.


Ultimately, the liberal movement of the mid-1900s saw that states conceded some of their myopic interests (i.e. protectionism and extreme nationalism) for the joint good of the society of nations. As an interconnected world, we no longer had the ability to close our eyes to external forces and influences. We had to adapt our national positions to meet an ever-changing global current. Albeit with problems, the liberal international movement was praised for its ability to engender peace, safety and security for the inhabitants of the world, if only temporarily.


Fast-forward to the Cold War. The world was again consumed by fear and that fear was not irrational. The arms race was real. Covert and subversive state-sponsored tactics were tearing at the fabric of international society, and caused many states to close their borders and again turn to political insularity, and some, like Cuba, remained officially closed off to the world until recently. The fate of the world hung in the balance and peace was fragile. Contrary to the liberal position, insularity and protectionism had a place during the Cold War because for some it was the rational response to foreign threats. The conclusion of the Cold War saw an increase in interstate cooperation, with the formation of the Common Market and the GATT (the forerunner to the WTO). In both instances of war, a liberal movement seemed to be the rational answer to problems caused by national insularity and protectionism.


Today, apart from providing a way for people to voice their opinion, right-wing political populism and ultra-conservatism has seemingly become the necessary counter to keep the liberal project in check, which begs the question, ‘should the liberal project be right for all people at all times?’ In theory, Fukuyama seems to think so.


Contrary to this, in reality, the liberal should be able to find a political standpoint that is open to various kinds of opinions without having to restrict those who hold those opinions. This is the nature of free speech, and it is the way of a modern, liberal democracy. The rise in popularity of anti-Islamism and anti-immigration rhetoric, while not the answer for some, is an answer to a particular political problem, for someone and for some purpose.


It doesn’t matter which side of the coin you fall on, the liberal-conservative fault-line is stark and divisive. However, that does not mean that illegitimate positions and tactics that might be held by ultra-conservatives must be applauded or commended by the liberal. It only means they should be allowed the same scrutiny that is afforded the liberal project itself, or risk becoming the equivalent of a political behemoth – one that everyone must follow. This is not good policy and not good politics.


While many may hold different views to those held by the growing tirade of right-wing populism and conservatism (which seems to be flying in the face of the liberal project), it is important to remember that, at one stage, the liberal project itself only gained traction because, for some people, it was a rational response to a particular problem of its time. Furthermore, in one way or another, time has proven the cause of the liberal project, with rising health and wealth outcomes for a greater number of the world’s population (not without increasing inequality). It would similarly be unfair to not let time prove or disprove the rationality of the right-wing populist movement and see what fruit it bears, albeit with some costs that may be hard for liberals to accept, i.e. a potential decrease in cross-border flows of peoples and goods and an increase in hate crime and reduction in civil rights.


While 2016 may not have turned out the way many might have expected – and this is only the beginning of a four-year stint – we should remember that opposition, if nothing else, allows perspective. It reminds us that the world is heterogeneous. If not, the liberal project would not have been required to deal with a problem in the first place and without necessary opposition, could not be the answer to the tirade of growing protectionism and insularity put forward by ultra-conservatives. Is returning to closed-borders, for example, building a wall at the US-Mexican border, the right response to the problems faced by the American people? The liberal would see it as a myopic, insular answer, but it is still nonetheless an answer, and one that almost half of U.S voters called for. The rational liberal response given these events should be to let time prove the cause of right-wing populism and show whether the response is proven rational or irrational.

*Samuel Glen is editor- religion and society for Alochonaa.com.

**Alochonaa.com is not responsible for any factual mistakes (if any) of this analysis. This analysis further is not necessarily representative of Alochonaa.com’s view. We’re happy to facilitate further evidence-based submissions on this topic. Please send us your submission at alochonaa@gmail.com


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