Janan Ganesh: The US is a more liberal place due to Trump

Attitudes towards free trade, immigration have almost completely flipped in 25 years

Janan Ganesh: ‘The populist shock has enlarged and intensified a liberal movement that was atrophying through sheer lack of stress.’ Photograph: Zach Gibson/Bloomberg

Janan Ganesh: ‘The populist shock has enlarged and intensified a liberal movement that was atrophying through sheer lack of stress.’ Photograph: Zach Gibson/Bloomberg

 

In 1994, the North American Free Trade Agreement came into effect, the US ceased its economic embargo on Vietnam after two bitter decades and Madonna swore like a sailor on the David Letterman Show without sinking either her career or his. Such was the belle époque of liberalism. We can only imagine how much kinder people were to outsiders than they are now.

Except we do not have to imagine. We have the survey data, and it is confounding. In 1994, 63 per cent of Americans told Pew that immigrants were a burden on the country. Just 31 per cent said they strengthened it.

A quarter of a century later, in this nativist hell of ours, this low point for the human spirit, those numbers are almost exactly the other way around.

Americans are pro-immigrant by two to one. This crossover has occurred over time, and in fits and starts. Much of the change, though, has taken place since 2016. It is almost as if some event that year focused millions of minds.

The same trend is observable in Britain, where once-tepid fans of the EU now all but weep at the sound of Ode to Joy

Openness to migrants is one proxy measure of liberalism. Support for trade is another. In the mid-2000s, the headiest phase of the boom, protectionists must have been as rare and as ridiculed as those geocentrics who still think Galileo was bluffing. In fact, more Americans told Gallup that free trade was a “threat” than named it as an “opportunity”.

Cause and effect

In 2019, after the crash, after the moral rout of capitalism, 74 per cent say trade is an opportunity. Just 21 per cent disagree. Pro-traders started to build this lead several years ago. But again, the real surge has come since 2016.

Perhaps this is nothing. Cause and effect are tricky to establish. Data can only illuminate the zeitgeist so much. But it does seem to chime with the anecdotal: think of the size and confidence of recent Pride marches.

It also squares with the commercial buoyancy of liberal newspapers (such as the New York Times) post-2016. And then there is the progressive trend of the Democratic Party, whose presidential hopefuls vied to extol migrants – in serviceable Spanish – during televised debates last week.

Just because a philosophy envisions a looser society, it does not itself have to be held in a loose way. There is such a thing as militant liberalism

At some point, the conclusion becomes futile to resist: the US is a more liberal place than it would have been had the presidency of Donald Trump never happened.

I do not propose that millions of hardened conservatives have been won over. Rather, people who were once fuzzy or complacent in their liberalism have been radicalised by the trauma of 2016. The populist shock has enlarged and intensified a liberal movement that was atrophying through sheer lack of stress – that was, in truth, not a movement at all, so much as a cloud of assumptions, weakly shared. The same trend is observable in Britain, where once-tepid fans of the EU now all but weep at the sound of Ode to Joy.

Populists should wonder whether their present triumphalism, which has them crowing of liberal obsolescence, is self-defeating. The more dangerous they seem, the more liberals rally. And, bucking Newton’s third law, there is no reason to believe that this will be an equal and opposite reaction.

It could be more than equal, both in raw numbers and fervour. For the first time in many liberals’ lives, it is they who are the counterculture. Populists should know how intoxicating that subversive glamour can feel.

Monopolised resource

None of which is to say that the new liberalism is well-judged. It will over-reach and duck hard questions. The US really does, for example, have a problem with migration at its southern border.

Its foreign-born population is nearing the all-time high. And voters who admire immigrants do not necessarily want more of them (though a third do and another third are happy with present levels). You would know little of this from the Democratic debates.

Still, it should trouble populists that righteous energy, a resource they used to monopolise, is spilling to the other side. The smarter among them will listen to what liberals are intimating: we can do anger too.

Liberalism’s enemies have always had it down as a pale and watery thing. Italy’s strongman-saluting futurists called it “utilitarian cowardice” a century ago. Clerical authoritarians thought it too decadent to withstand them.

But just because a philosophy envisions a looser society, it does not itself have to be held in a loose way. There is such a thing as militant liberalism. If it is a coming force, there was nothing inevitable about this. It was inadvertently awakened by populists. Those who despise liberalism might yet be the making of it. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019

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