Ideas

Is Liberalism Doomed?

By the end of the Cold War, liberalism had emerged triumphant around much of the developed world -- until the recent rise of populism in Europe and the U.S. Suddenly, the political landscape is looking ominous. What is liberalism's future? A debate among public intellectuals from London's "Battle of Ideas" festival.
Hard-line Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán delivers a campaign speech. He won his third consecutive term on April 8, 2018. (Ferenc Isza/AFP/Getty Images)
Listen to the full episode53:59

By the end of the Cold War, liberalism had emerged triumphant around much of the developed world — until the recent rise of populism in Europe and the U.S. Suddenly, the political landscape is looking ominous. What is liberalism's future? A debate among public intellectuals from London's Battle of Ideas Festival.

To many, Brexit seemed like a strange kind of glitch. 

But the rise of "illiberal" democracies in Hungary and Poland, and the popularity of an alt-right party in Sweden, are creating a lot of uncertainty around the future of liberalism. 

Everybody now is a Democrat...Vladimir Putin? Perfectly democratic. Orban ... Erdogan. They say they are just different kinds of Democrats ... they just don't want the liberal part of democracy.- Dr. Lukasz Pawlowski

As writer James Traub recently asserted in The Atlantic, 'the death of liberalism constitutes the publishing world's biggest mass funeral since the death of God half a century ago'. And he wonders: 'how can the quintessentially rationalist faith of liberalism flourish in an age that systematically demeans rationality?'

A campaign poster featuring Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, with the message: "For us Hungary is first". (Adam Berry/Getty Images)

U.S. libertarian journalist Nick Gillespie says first we must recognize that we are in crisis — political authority around the world has greatly eroded to the point where what binds us together is weaker than what is pulling us apart. 

In Hungary's illiberal democracy, Prime Minister Viktor Orban states that when individual rights and national interests collide, it is national interests that must take precedence. That's why his government has put up billboards and produced radio and TV campaigns with its anti-immigrant message — a message that's now in school textbooks. Mr. Orban's party has also engaged in rewriting the national constitution and reshaping the judiciary.  According to The New York Times, President Trump's former strategist, Steve Bannon, describes Orban as: "a hero, the most  significant guy on the scene right now."   

Dr. Lukasz Pawlowski is the managing editor of Poland’s leading liberal magazine. 1:56

Dr. Lukasz  Pawlowski, managing editor of Poland's leading liberal magazine, reminds us that leaders like Orban say they have been elected, and that being elected nominally makes them democrats. However, Mr. Pawlowski concludes, you can sit in this electric chair called democracy, and be quite comfortable in it — until somebody flicks the switch.   

In this third episode from The Battle of Ideas Festival, Dr. Lukasz Pawlowski, Rowena Davis, Nick Gillespie, and  Dr. James Panton discuss a central issue of our time: What is Liberalism? The event was held at the Barbican Theatre in London, England. 


Further reading:

(Academy of Ideas)


The Battle of Ideas Festival is presented by the Academy of Ideas at The Barbican in London. Battle of Ideas 2018 will take place on 13 & 14 October. 


**This episode was produced by Mary O'Connell.

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