Way back in the mists of time, when I was a callow A-level History student, I sat one of the more popular thematic papers entitled ‘The Development of Democracy in Britain 1867-1997’. The title spoke volumes for the instinctive certainties that my generation absorbed as we grew up. Despite its imperfections, liberal democracy was a continually evolving and expanding process, and its ultimate destiny was to ensure that people of every social class, nationality, gender, race and sexual orientation would have full rights to prosperity, self-expression and self-determination. There would be bumps in the road, of course, and sometimes media distortion or the actions of extremists might succeed in setting the timetable back a few decades. But the ultimate trend was benevolent, and inexorable.
They don’t run the ‘Development of Democracy’ course any more. Such fairy stories were fine for the turn of the millennium, when even the shocks of 9/11 and 7/7 failed to dent the belief in the fundamental unity and moral superiority of western civilisation, but there is no room for complacency now. The liberal illusions cherished by millennials and middle-aged academics alike in the post-Cold war era have been shattered by a succession of democratic revolts. Blinking in the half-light, we sense an unfamiliar and uncomfortable truth: where once they sat snugly together, ‘liberalism’ and ‘democracy’ are now an antithesis: in 2016, it would seem that we can be liberals or democrats, but not both.
The answer has come in the flowering of identity politics, which is now the dominant and unifying cause of the international left. Ridding the world of racism, sexism and homophobia is a cause that is demanding, morally serious and necessary. But it is an agenda that has regenerated the forces that now seek to destroy liberal politics for good. Unapologetically illiberal politicians now pose as the champions of those left behind by economic change and abandoned by their former representatives. To an extent, this backlash can be justly represented as the disappointed rage of an army of white men, who have found to their frustration that their automatic superiority over others can no longer be taken for granted. But it should also be recognised that identity politics can often appear to be little more than demonstrative moral posturing with placards and hashtags: #BlackLivesMatter, #RhodesMustFall, #EverydaySexism, #RefugeesWelcome. No argument is actually being won, and few minds are being changed. Indeed, for all their apparent embrace of diversity and pluralism, the liberal left can at times appear decidedly narrow-minded. For who was it who argued that anti-abortion speakers and ‘transphobic’ feminists should be no-platformed on university campuses? Who called for the prosecution of bakers who refused to make cakes for gay couples? Who decided that every opponent of unrestricted migration was either a racist, or a charlatan? The likes of Trump and Farage are not the opposite of these modern zealots but their mirror image. All reduce complex issues to the level of simplistic slogans, creating a political world populated solely by heroes and villains. The groups of people energised by the ‘new right’ are the ones who have already lost their illusions about liberal democracy: economic prosperity has dried up, and their political champions have found new more morally satisfying causes. Liberals no longer care what they think, unless it is to snigger at them for displaying national pride or for exhibiting low-brow cultural tastes; they have repaid us in kind.
Once upon a time, when guilty liberals like me were nourished by the confident certainty that our democracy would last forever, such contradictions and tensions didn’t seem to matter very much. We could ignore and even mock the Putins and the Erdogans, for what could be expected from simple people stumbling awkwardly towards their liberal and democratic destiny? It is therefore with some degree of shock that we confront the possibility that Russia and Turkey might prove to be a decade or two ahead of us on the unrelenting path towards illiberal democracy.