The fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the USSR in the late 80s and early 90s is often referred to as “the end of history” – that cathartic moment when capitalism finally got to celebrates its the long-awaited triumph over communism. The end of history was supposed to set the political consensus for the rest of eternity. The ideological battle was done and dusted, and, at that moment, the political landscape looked like a wide, open road stretching out over the horizon, unobstructed progress as far as the eye could see.
We who sit to the left of the political centre – lefties, liberals, progressives, label us what you will – suffer from this collective delusion that liberal democracy is the inevitable end-point of the political process: the final destination for all societies and peoples. And for the past 27 years we had reason to think this was true – it certainly seemed to be going that way. But then Brexit happened, followed by the suckerpunch that was Donald Trump’s impossible election night victory on November 8. The EU is crumbling; Marine le Pen will make it to the final round of the French elections; Angela Merkel is losing ground to the far-right Alternative for Deutschland; and 2016 will be forever remembered as the moment in history that the liberal delusion shattered.
Progress is almost universally viewed as a linear process. We often look back to historical stains like racial segregation or sodomy laws with incomprehensible shock; a dumbfounded disbelief that makes us wonder how such heinous ignorance was ever possible. We juxtapose the then and the now like one of those cliched before/after gym adverts, basking in smug self-assurance, certain that history is a one way street towards enlightenment. Bad things have happened in the past, but they don’t really happen now, or at least, they don’t happen round here.
Maybe it’s a matter of semantics: conservative/progressive. Conservatives want to freeze time or take it back to some sort of gilded golden age that might be real or simply imagined (or, in the case of neo-conservatism, as consciously fabricated as Saddam Hussein’s WMDs), but historical precedent stands stubbornly against them. The New Testament when contrasted against the Old Testament, the renaissance, the American Civil War and the post-war consensus all serve as irrefutable proof that eventually, sooner or later, the injustices of the present will become the wrongs of the past.
We can see from our chronological vantage point that the world is consistently becoming a more liberal place: even in the wake of Trump’s electoral triumph, eight states (including some that voted for the perma-tanned demagogue) loosened marijuana laws or legalised it outright – a move that would’ve been downright subversive a decade ago, never mind half a century back when the hippie counterculture was at its peak. Because of this, progressivism is viewed as a political given, an unstoppable force that conservatives can only delay rather than halt, in the same way that energy can only be converted, not destroyed. And once the Pandora’s Box of progress has been opened, it can never be re-sealed.
Or so we thought. This is why Trump’s victory feels like a bad dream. For as long as you and I have been alive people simply couldn’t voice the sort of unrepentantly racist views that swept him to power. Not in public, at least. If you did, you’d either get shouted down or punched in the mouth, depending on who overheard you. We were naively certain that civilised society had moved beyond that, that peddling such bluntly hateful rhetoric was like arguing against the merits of sanitation in this day and age. Once the righteous indignation at seeing him announce his presidential bid by deriding Mexicans as “murderers and rapists” had subsided, we reclined into a feeling of smug complacency, convinced that we were watching a political suicide in real time. In any other year it would’ve been. Or so we tell ourselves.
How could we be so naive? This liberal presumption that the political process moves in only one direction now makes us look as deluded as Bush administration neocons who thought that democracy would flourish in a post-Saddam Iraq as naturally as the dawn follows night. Just as there is historical precedent for unstoppable progress, democratic victories are also prone to lapses: Russia, Hungary, Turkey and Serbia have all slipped back into authoritarian demagoguery after brief periods of relative liberalisation. The Shah’s Iran was a very different place to the Ayatollah’s Islamic Republic. The sordid decadence of the Weimar Republic made way for Nazi Germany. I’m sure that an archetypal gun-toting, Republican-voting, roadkill-eating American patriot would tell you that these people simply hate freedom, but is that really the case?
Don’t be stupid; of course not. The reality is that most people aren’t ideologues, they’re reactionaries whose politics are largely governed by emotion and self-interest. Their votes aren’t driven by principle, but by prospective personal gain.
The “Reagan Democrats” who contributed to Ronnie’s landslide wins in 80 and 84 weren’t really Democrats, they were opportunists. The tens of thousands of voters in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania that switched their allegiances from Obama to Trump last month quite evidently weren’t driven so much by idealism in 2008 and 2012 as they were by personal preference. People will vote progressively as long as it serves them, but will flee like rats at the first sign of choppy waters.
Just look at Turkey: for a long time it was held up as a bastion of secular stability in a region prone to volatile fundamentalism, but Recep Erdogan seized power in a populist revolt by appealing to the working and lower-middle classes who had been long-neglected by a succession of comparatively moderate political elites (sound familiar?). An unabashed Islamist, he threatens Turkey’s proud secular tradition – which was one of the factors that drove the army’s failed coup d’etat back in July. And what happened? The people took to the streets to defend him. Obviously liberal-minded values like the separation of mosque and state or a free press don’t matter as much to the Turkish people. Or maybe we’d abandon them just as quickly under the same duress. In recession-era America, many already have. Either way, progress has never looked so impermanent.
Liberalism has an inbuilt weak spot. By appealing to high-minded ideals it demands a sizeable dose of faith, much like religion. I don’t think it comes instinctively to most people, and I include self-described liberals in that estimation. It’s certainly true in my case. Right wingers have it easy: they appeal to base animalistic instincts that fester in all of us. Nationalism and low taxes are an easy sell because they’re explicit and tangible. Arguing that the welfare state serves us all, even if you’re the one footing the bill for someone else’s benefits, isn’t. Faith is easy in the boom years – nobody ever questions why everything’s going right because they’re too busy revelling in an orgy of prosperity. This is why economists and politicians were caught napping at the wheel as the global economy hurtled towards an iceberg in 2007, but when it all goes tits up everyone suddenly has questions and demands answers. Or a scapegoat; either works.
It’s a bleak state of affairs, but the fickleness of humanity can be as much of a source of hope as despair. Faith in progressive politics might be down right now, but it, and the masses, will return someday. They always do. After all, 18 years of Tory rule were superseded by a hattrick electoral victories for Labour. Or maybe this is just another political delusion. Liberalism has arguably never recovered from the setbacks of the 60s, which gave birth to both the neo-cons and neo-liberalism, a double pincer blow that shifted the entire political centre rightwards. After the year we’ve had we should take nothing for granted. Instead, be ready: the night is long and it’ll get darker yet.