‘Why I believe liberal politics has failed’

Beaten: Hillary Clinton talked about the ‘politics of meaning’ in 1993 — but not in 2016. © PA
by Shadi Hamid

Senior fellow in the Centre for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. Contributing writer for The Atlantic. Author of Islamic Exceptionalism: How the struggle over Islam is reshaping the world.

Next week an illiberal democrat will become president of the USA. If we want to defend liberal democracy, we must stop being technocratic and start tackling existential questions.

Democracy and liberalism are often in tension. For the first time, the USA has a president who is an illiberal democrat. He is democratically elected, he is democratically legitimate, but he seems to have an ambivalent relationship with the things we associate with the classical liberal tradition: civil rights protection, the bill of rights, the constitution, equal rights for minorities and personal freedoms.

Illiberal parties or individuals coming to power through free elections is a common theme in the rise of Islamism in the Middle East and the rise of the anti-immigrant far-right in Europe.

The common thread is not just illiberalism but something deeper: the failure of traditional left-liberal politics. Centre-left politics has become unthreatening and uninspiring. We have a technocratic, managerial liberalism that has failed to inspire voters and offer a substantive politics of meaning. There is a lot of focus on policy and process, and nudging along the margins of politics.

For the first time, with these election results in the US, I felt my own politics as an American were existential

But there is no broader discourse on the ends of politics: what is this all really for? That is what the centre-left has failed to really address.

When I was writing about the Egyptian elections after the Arab Spring, it struck me how existential the discussions were. People did not really care about policy. No one was talking about tax reform or health care. They were talking about the very foundations of the nation-state, about the most raw and existential issue you can talk about in the Middle East, which is the role of religion in everyday life.

For the first time, with these election results in the US, I felt that my own politics as an American were existential. This election was not about specific policy questions. It was about the question of who we are as Americans and what is our shared identity — and also issues of safety, the safety of my own family and community, being an American Muslim. These results could have actual consequences, not just in some abstract sense but in terms of the people I know and love.

What we have learned is that norms can erode quite quickly: norms about how we talk about a free press, or how we discuss the democratic process, such as when Trump was talking about the process being rigged. But I am also concerned to see colleagues on the left using hashtags like #NotMyPresident. As much as Trump worries me, I have to acknowledge that he was democratically elected. Whether I like it or not, he is my president. He is our president.

I have a somewhat dark view of human nature. I do not think that liberalism is our natural setting. My time in the Middle East has led me to believe that illiberalism is our natural setting. And the only way that liberalism survives is through the active work of citizens who argue for liberalism and who wish to protect it.

We all naturally want a politics of meaning. We search for it, even if we are not always aware of it. The question is what will fill that vacuum of identity, culture and meaning? The left has to come up with a less liberal politics that offers something more meaningful and inspiring for disaffected voters who have lost faith in the left liberal project. On the right, what I think that means is — especially for those in the faith community — how to bring a kind of mainstream Christianity back into the public discourse, which is not seen as overly partisan and helps address this crisis of liberal democracy and this crisis of meaning that more and more liberal democracies face.

This is an extract from the author’s remarks to the Council on Foreign Relations. See Become An Expert to read or listen to his thoughts in full.

You Decide

  1. Should politics tackle existential questions?


  1. Find a significant political speech from history. Re-write it in your own words (making it no longer than 500 words). Deliver it to the class and discuss what you thought of its message.

Word Watch

Bill of rights
The first 10 amendments to the US constitution passed in 1791; they outline some of the most basic rights which American citizens can expect (for example, the right to free expression).
The document which divides powers in the USA, the source of its supreme law. Created in 1787 it became effective in 1789.
Relating to control by an expert elite focused on technical questions and details.
Arab Spring
A series of protests against governments in the Arab world beginning in 2011. In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak was removed as president; elections to the People’s Assembly of Egypt followed.
During the recent election campaign Donald Trump made suggestions including banning Muslims from entering the USA and keeping Muslims’ details on a database.
A hashtag trending since Trump’s victory in November, it shows some Americans’ refusal to accept his authority.
Over 70% of Americans described themselves as Christians in 2014, according to a Pew poll. Christian voters tend to be more conservative, and to vote for the Republican party.

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