Timothy Garton Ash says liberalism failed in 2016 because it had succeeded

Historians in the News
tags: election 2016, liberalism, Timothy Garton Ash

In 2016 it became clear that liberalism—the belief in open societies, open borders, and free trade—was losing its progressive allure. Populist parties across the globe eked out wins against more liberal rivals, and upcoming elections across Europe could see this pattern continue.

So as we enter 2017, how do liberals bounce back from the bruisings of Brexit and Trump, and fight for their cause this year—and beyond? And whose job is it to do so? I put these questions to historian, writer and liberal advocate Timothy Garton Ash, a professor of European studies at the University of Oxford. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.

Quartz: You wrote some months ago that “to remedy the unintended consequences of globalization we need more liberal internationalism, not less.” If we take 2016 to be the year in which liberalism—the belief in progress through more global, open flows of trade and borders—was seriously challenged, how do you rescue it in 2017?

Timothy Garton Ash: I think there is a global counter-revolution against liberalism that’s partly a witness to the success of it. Its success has been so hegemonic for so long it’s not surprising there’s a reaction against it.

The problem is there’s a version of liberalism—globalization, the opening of frontiers, allowing the flow of goods and services across them—that doesn’t work for everyone in the West.

The reaction is three-dimensional. First: it’s economic—the “what’s happened to my job” if you’re a steel worker in Wales or in the rust belt of the US. You may blame that on immigrants but the job has just as likely gone to a computer, a robot, or someone in Asia—globalization has had a huge positive effect in lifting people out of poverty there. The second is social, about inequality and seeing people who are doing incredibly well and those who are doing badly in exactly the same period. Thirdly, it’s cultural—very rapid change, cosmopolitanism, LGBT rights, etc., and people not recognizing their country any more.

But the answer has to start with the right analysis.

So, what do liberals do about that? You have to take the social and economic dimensions together to some extent. That means much more and smarter investment in retraining so those who have lost manual jobs are fit and equipped to do other jobs by continuous learning. Plus, thinking seriously about a basic income guarantee, and taxing the very rich more.

The cultural part is in many ways much more difficult. Telling someone “you shouldn’t be xenophobic” only makes things worse—the question is how you get people to be more liberal in their attitudes. If we look at the Labour Party in the UK, part of the answer has to be making people feel that migration is being managed. We ran a study at Oxford comparing five leading democracies on how they integrated migrants, and Canada came out on top—it’s the only one that really controls its borders. Because Canadians have the feeling that they do have it under control, they can live with higher levels of migration. ...

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