Liberalism seems to have gone out of fashion.
This trend should be worrying because liberalism — the ideology centered on individual liberties, pluralism and tolerance — is the foundation of our democracy.
Yet in the face of Brexit, the United Kingdom’s departure from the EU; the election of President Donald Trump; and the descent of countries like Hungary into illiberal democracy, liberalism seems almost quaint.
As I have discussed repeatedly in this column, Western millennials are growing disenchanted with democratic and liberal values. American college students in particular have been increasingly inclined to shut down speakers who may ignite a firestorm, condone brawling with political opponents or draw swastikas in restrooms. These trends indicate the growing popularity of the far-left and the far-right, which are united in their disdain for liberalism.
Liberalism can regain its previous momentum. To do so will require a new, radically post-partisan approach to politics: We must go beyond the left-right divide and fight for liberalism against challenges posed by ideologies on both sides of the political spectrum.
Though the United States is stuck in “the Upside Down” from “Stranger Things,” there is a country that is mostly right-side up. In France, President Emmanuel Macron recently ran for and won the presidency on a platform of unapologetic liberalism and centrism.
Macron is the anti-Trump: Intent on uniting and regenerating France, he is the radical center in action. Despite having never run for elected office before, the 39-year-old was able to defy all expectations to win the presidency.
The first takeaway from Macron’s victory is that the left-right divide is no longer the most relevant political division.
Two of the major candidates Macron faced —Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Marine Le Pen — railed against the European Union, globalization and foreign workers while cozying up to Russian President Vladimir Putin and denying France’s role in the Holocaust. Mélenchon was on the far-left; Le Pen on the far-right. They should have been opposites; instead, they were nearly indistinguishable.
Macron underscored the growing irrelevance of the partisan divide, promising to be “neither left nor right.” Indeed, once he led his brand-new centrist party to victory, Macron appointed cabinet ministers from center-left and center-right parties.
The left-right division is being replaced by a more pressing gulf. Fundamentally, this split is between liberalism and illiberalism, engagement and isolation, optimism and pessimism, and universalism and tribalism.
On one side are politicians like Trump on the right and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Jeremy Corbyn, the current leader of the British Labour party, on the left. These populists play up the politics of fear, identity and victimhood and pledge to reverse globalization. On the other side are leaders like Macron, who stress hope and unity and who want to adapt to globalization, rather than abandon it.
The second thing to learn from Macron is that liberalism can be politically viable. The loudest voices are often the most extreme, and many mainstream French politicians tried to capture these voters by mimicking the far-right.
Yet, Macron set himself apart by defending his liberal and inclusive vision of France and was able to unite the many voters who were turned off by hardline positions. The radical center can compete with extremism and illiberalism, if only politicians will stand up for it.
The contest between liberalism and illiberalism in France is a microcosm of a new political challenge gripping the West. This division is evident not just at the level of national politics, but also on many college campuses.
Debates over whether to silence visiting speakers, for instance, are about more than just free speech — they are about protecting our liberal society
Georgetown students who care about defending liberalism need to take action. Joining student government and political organizations like the Georgetown University College Democrats, the Georgetown University College Republicans and the Georgetown Bipartisan Coalition are some ways to get involved in this crucial defense of liberalism. These groups can be critical counterweights to the far-left and the far-right on campus.
We cannot take the future of our liberal democracy for granted. It erodes with every presidential tweet, every formerly moderate politician who adopts racist dog whistles and every student attempt to limit diversity of expression.
I hope my columns have helped call attention to the mounting crisis of illiberalism and the urgent need for action. I am, however, an optimist.
Macron’s election showed that illiberalism can be defeated if people from the left and right are able to come together to champion liberalism and the radical center. Change is possible — if we make it ourselves.
Tanner Larkin is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service. This is the final installment of The Radical Center.
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