Liberalism Gerry OShea
The revolutionary cry from America in the 1770’s that all men are created equal shattered the prevailing political wisdom of those years. It debunked the legitimacy of monarchs and clerics who claimed that their power was unassailable because it was part of their heritage, approved from on high.
The American colonies asserted their right to independence from England and they won the war against a disgruntled king to establish a democratic form of government, the first since the Greeks of old.
Fourteen years later, the French – greatly influenced by events on this side of the Atlantic - made a similarly decisive move. Louis XV1 was convinced that he ruled with divine approval, but he and his wife, Queen Marie Antoinette, represented the Ancien Regime and were dispatched by guillotine.
Loud French proclamations about their new radical guiding principles of Liberty, Fraternity and Equality reverberated throughout the world.
These massive historical events in America and France ushered in a new era, a time of freer intellectual pursuits which can be encapsulated by one word: enlightenment. Old pronouncements about authority based on religion or bloodline were discarded in favor of scientific investigation and tentative democratic procedures.
These changes were gradual and should be seen as part of an ongoing process. Enlightenment was fiercely opposed by European monarchs and by the powerful Catholic church which saw its authority and beliefs questioned by researchers and scholars.
In time, this new progressive approach was underpinned by a belief in private ownership supported by clear respect for civil and legal rights, anchored in a ruling system of representative democracy. As part of this liberal tradition, many sovereign states agreed to join multilateral institutions like the United Nations which affirms a strong commitment to human rights.
In the United States liberalism gradually came to be aligned with the Welfare-State policies of the New Deal promoted by President Franklin Roosevelt in the name of making America, in his words, “an arsenal of democracy.” This belief system is strongly associated with the Democratic party. President Biden sees his policies, especially the important Build Back Better component, as doing for working families today what FDR did for the poor in the 1940’s.
In Europe, while evolving from a similar history, the liberal focus, often evident in Christian-Democratic parties, stressed promoting laissez-faire economic policies and highlighting the benefits of limited government, which fit comfortably with the beliefs of the Republican Party in the United States. Ironically, the Liberal Party in Australia propounds clear conservative policies.
Post-World-War-Two Europe was greatly influenced by America, led by Secretary of State George Marshall. His plan had all the marks of liberal democracy, stressing human rights and respect for the rule of law.
Today, Germany, the main protagonist of totalitarianism in the two world conflicts, has, by far, the most powerful economy in the European Union, and it plays a leading role in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Its system of government meets all the criteria of a society following liberal principles, irrespective of what party is in power.
The successful Western economies - the United States, Canada, Australia and most members of the European Union - preached a clear message: economic success and respect for human rights are indissolubly connected. People thrive in a culture where civil rights are important and the rule of law is respected. The Summit for Democracy last December involved a clear affirmative statement by President Biden of his liberal priorities in the world order.
China has a very different message and it has enjoyed great economic success in the last thirty years. They have managed to access the benefits of the open economic order without accepting the requirements of political liberalism.
It has eliminated extreme poverty at home as it encouraged inward investment and participated in almost every worldwide business organization. For instance, it heads up four departments in the UN and is playing an increasing role in other international organizations.
The new expansive China has more billionaires than any other country outside of the United States. It has embraced the acquisitive capitalist system in ways unimaginable just a few decades ago. Counted as a rich country now, they have invested strategically in major infrastructure projects in poor nations in Africa and Asia.
However, Individual freedoms, personal rights, the rule of law, the entitlement to express political opinions are all completely verboten everywhere in China. The massacre of young students in Tianamen Square in June 1989 left no doubt about Beijing’s contempt for dissent.
It is distressing to watch Chinese leaders order the forcible shuttering of newspapers in Hong Kong. Those who disagree and want to continue some level of free expression are locked up until they bow the knee to Big Brother.
Taiwan, with a population of 23 million, is facing a similar invasion from the mainland unless they fall in line, which means ending their history of free expression and independent courts. America is warning China that they will face serious consequences if they proceed with their plans to establish repressive Chinese laws on the island. The message from Beijing is that they plan to be in full charge in Taiwan by 2030.
President Biden’s goal is to build a coalition of democracies to meet the challenge of rising illiberalism (the vey opposite of a tolerant society) and, especially, to oppose Chinese and Russian efforts to remake the global order along autocratic lines.
America is far from consistent in pursuing that goal. They have to explain the disgraceful imprisonment of men in Guantanamo Bay for twenty years without charging them with any crime. Experts say that some of the internees there are innocent, but, one way or the other, this place remains a reminder of flagrant abuses of human rights, including torture, with total disregard for due process.
Also, former-President Trump, who still leads the Republican Party, openly admires autocrats like Bolsonaro in Brazil, Erdogan in Turkey, Putin in Russia and Orban in Hungary. It is fair to say that breaching the basic rights of citizens does not bother any of these leaders.
The Conservative Political Action Committee, a powerful group on the far right of American politics, plans to hold its 2022 annual meeting in Hungary. Tucker Carlson, the leading Fox News presenter, spent a week in that country recently, interviewing the prime minister and praising the maturity of their democracy.
Viktor Orban has no problem shutting down media outlets that disagree with him. In the area of academic freedom, vital for advancing science, he banned gender studies and he evicted the Central European University from the country.
The events of January 6th in the Capitol reveal a powerful strain of illiberalism in America. Over two-thirds of the supporters of one party, immersed in the politics of grievance, want to set aside the outcome of the last presidential election, and some of them attempted a coup to change the results.
We are living in ominous times when the basic tenets of liberal democracy are under serious attack in America and beyond.Gerry OShea blogs at wemustbetalking