Reorienting Liberalism

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The changing goals of advocacy.

The liberal cause has advocated a variety of policies in the past century. These have been consistent neither across regions, nor through time. But hardly ever before has it seemed so pressing a challenge to reorient liberal advocacy for the greater good than it does across much of the West today.

A series of challenges paved the way for a breakdown in global governance through 2016: turmoil in the Middle East continually pushing refugees out of the region and into Europe; UK’s vote to leave the European Union amidst chaotic domestic polarization; and, perhaps most notably, the election of President Trump. Given the significant risk that each of these events poses to global liberalism, it is worth identifying how things went so wrong so suddenly.

Much of the violence in less-developed parts of the world is not as unprecedented as it seems today. The Middle East has witnessed modern conflict since the unification of Saudi Arabia, the beginning of the Arab-Israeli conflict, up until the recent war in Iraq.

Perhaps what is different this time, though, is the nature of the threat this violence poses to other populations, and the response of hegemonic powers to its growing presence. ISIS has been identified as not just an ideologically corrupt and repressive regime, but also a terrorist organization. Its sympathizers and operatives have carried out attacks in several western cities, and have cost many lives. Further, unlike the Bush administration that responded to threat from Iraq quite aggressively, President Obama seemed unusually circumspect in launching military intervention in Syria. The territorial ambitions of ISIS coupled with the reticent response it has evoked from Western powers has meant that the region continues to find stasis in war and uncertainty.

Unfortunately, however, this is hardly the full story. President Trump’s policies towards the Middle East extend far beyond his hatred for ISIS (which he claims he will eventually destroy). His recent executive order on immigration, put in place within a week of his entering office, has made clear his intentions to not just distance the US from global problems, but also from global populations. In fact, he seems to draw little distinction between the two.

How then should liberals respond? Clearly, the moral legitimacy of the liberal argument for freer borders has lost its appeal with many voters, and there is a growing sense of anxiety among the US underclass that the system they so willingly trusted has turned against them.

Perhaps the truth might help. Unlike claims made by the White House, for instance, violence has been falling across the United States; the economic recovery has been steady by many measures; and the rate of uninsured people has declined by 5 percentage points since 2013. None of this is to contest the justification for any anger, but perhaps to direct it to more constructive avenues.

It makes little sense for the administration to call for significantly increased military spending, and at the same time to lock all gates of entry. It will be even more problematic if in the coming years we were to witness US boots on ground in the Middle East, while no people from the Middle East could flee war to find a living in the US. The tragic irony of this scenario is disturbing.

Liberals everywhere must recognize that populist anger that led to backlashes in the form of Brexit and Trump cannot be assuaged by way of stricter immigration. We may have to accept surges in defense capabilities, trade wars, and even fewer entitlements. But under no circumstances can the inherent racism that caused this backlash be countered by way of a closed border.

It can seem tempting to focus attention on solving domestic problems; after all, that is what a national government is elected to do. However, it is important to remember the larger context within which these developments occur. Regardless of who is president, technological advancement will continue to take jobs away from us, companies will continue to look for cheaper labor to organize production, and America will still be home to millions of immigrants.

Pulkit Agarwal ([email protected]) looks forward to observing how liberals in Washington respond over the coming three years.