Failures of inference: liberalism and contemporary populism
by Akeel Bilgrami – January 19, 2018
Liberalism is complicit in generating the crisis of contemporary populism.
It is a measure of the abject inadequacy of liberal thought today that all it can bring to the political arena, and to public discourse generally, is high indignation at the tawdriness of what it dismissively describes as ‘populism’. Even when, on occasion, some of the more serious liberal ideologues try to do better, there is a tendency to produce a pattern of analysis that goes roughly like this. They observe everywhere the dissatisfaction of ordinary people (by ordinary people I just mean working and workless people away from the centres of power and privilege). They observe too — with dismay — that these dissatisfactions result in alarming electoral decisions that succumb to the dubious appeal of ‘populist’ politicians, who will often only increase their dissatisfaction. They allow themselves no good account (certainly no self-critical account) of how and why this has come to pass. They, thus, draw the conclusion that the fault lies in the people themselves for (at best) their gullibility or (at worst) their xenophobia or racism or communalism… And so, finally, they rest with the hope that the decencies of their own liberal orthodoxies (whether it is the Clintonite Democratic Party — which includes the arch Clintonite, Barack Obama — or the ‘Remainers’ in Britain, or the Congress technocratic elite represented in the past by Manmohan Singh and his economic advisers) will one day return to win the day. It never occurs to them through these smug cogitations that this analysis has no bite, hardly even a jaw.
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