The Brexiteering Trump supporter narrowed his eyes, curled his upper lip, glared at me and sneeringly stuttered: “You…you…LIBERAL.”
I removed the handkerchief from my pocket, wiped away what I believe was unintentional spit from just below my left eye, and gave him an infuriatingly rueful smile.
To many conservative-minded folk a liberal is a threat to their way of life. Liberal tolerance of other religions, genders and cultures forces conservatives into politically correct language which sticks in their throats. The liberal emphasis on equality threatens their supremacy and culture. And liberal generosity is seen as undermining livelihoods and threatening security.
The word liberal is derived from the Latin root liberalis which means noble, gracious and munificent; character traits which I would love to have.
Liberalis is also the root for the word liberty which runs golden thread-like through modern western civilisation. “Give me liberty or give me death,” shouted Patrick Henry. The single word “liberty” was emblazoned on an early American revolutionary flag and it plays a key role in the Preamble to the US constitution.
Liberté is the first word in the catchy slogan of the French revolution, and in 19th century European liberalism was equated with parliamentary government and political reform based on equality.
Adam Smith regarded natural liberty as the highest form of human existence and liberal—or free—trade between nations was his ultimate aim.
For the ancient Greeks a liberal arts education was the summit of learning and culture.
A free press, free speech, freedom of thought, freedom of assembly, a free and independent judiciary, free elections and freedom to pursue life, liberty and happiness. These and the parliamentary democracy which protects them are all generally regarded as Western liberal values. They are all enshrined in the American constitution and legal documents in “liberal” societies across the world.
The phrase ‘liberal values’ and the institutions established to protect them were previously considered sacrosanct. No longer.
All of this was made clear in a recent article by an international team of political scientists writing in the Journal of Democracy. They used data from political polls conducted in Europe, the United States and Canada between 1995 and 2011. The results were shocking and help to explain why the word liberal and the phrase liberal values are now uttered with disgust by a growing number.
In 1995 American voters were asked if they thought it would be best if the military overthrew the elected government and ran the country. Five percent said yes. By 2011 that figure had grown to 16 percent. In Europe the figure went from five to 13 percent.
The researchers had more questions, including: “Would it be better to have a strong leader who does not have to bother with congress/parliament or elections?” In the United States in 1995 the figure was 24 percent yes. In 2011 it was 32 percent. In Europe the figure was seven percent in 1995 and 17 percent in 2011.
Not surprisingly, the authors of the report concluded that “a serious democratic disconnect has emerged.” They add: “If it widens even further, it may begin to challenge the stability of seemingly consolidated democracies.”
The alternatives are keen to offer themselves. President Putin said that it is about time that Western liberal values collapsed. The Chinese preach that the shambles of the American presidential elections are proof that their authoritarian system is superior. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan is busily perverting his country’s democracy into a dictatorship.
Democracy, liberalism, and liberal values are under attack as never before from within and without. As for myself, well, Trump supporters, Brexiteers, alt-righters, Putinites, and any other authoritarian-leaners, feel free to call me a liberal. I am proud of the label. But, please keep the spittle to a minimum.
Tom Arms is editor of LookAheadnews.com—the free diary of the world’s major forthcoming news events.
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