Published online by Cambridge University Press: 12 October 2022
Crisis of liberalism
Liberalism, the ideology of liberal democracies, is founded on the principles of freedom and equality. The freedom of individuals to pursue their own interest as long as it avoids harm to others, with everyone considered equal members of that society, has been a very powerful idea in legitimating liberal societies.
Since the demise of the potential Soviet threat to the liberal order, the idea that each person is treated equally in terms of access to legal and political rights has been progressively questioned. Furthermore, the ability of individuals to pursue their idea of freedom appears to be increasingly constrained by birth. Instead of the triumph of liberalism, liberal democracies since the end of the Cold War have presided over a growth in the concentration of power which has resulted in societies becoming increasingly divided. The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted just how entrenched these inequalities have become.
This rising dissatisfaction with liberal democracy has been accompanied by an industry of books and articles claiming that liberalism is in decline. The fact that electorates believe liberal democracies are merely serving to entrench specific interests suggests these criticisms are largely valid.
The philosopher David Hume writing in a pre-industrial commercial society argued that concentrations of wealth and power would negatively affect society, discouraging all industry (Hume, 1994: 228). In the 19th century, the French writer Alexis de Tocqueville warned that out of an industrial society a new aristocracy of the wealthy would emerge, thereby undermining the idea of equality (Tocqueville, 2003: 645). Concentrations of wealth and power through time, therefore, pose a grave threat to liberal values.
One effect of electorates beginning to lose interest in the liberal ideology that underpins liberal democracies is that political parties that promote particular interests such as the nation are becoming increasingly popular.
To a large extent, there is no difference replacing the entrenched interests that have developed under liberal systems with more explicit interests. The main concern is that illiberal political parties attempt to use the will of the people to override the rules and institutions that have maintained liberal democracies with a focus on mythmaking to sustain their legitimacy.
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