Simon Jenkins: How liberals paved way for populism to emerge

I have no tribe. I have no comfort blanket, no default button that enables me to join the prevailing hysteria and cry in unison, “Of course, it’s all the fault of X.”

Meanwhile we everywhere see the familiar landscape clouding over. There are new partings of the ways, disoriented soldiers wandering the battlefield, licking wounds. The liberal centre cannot hold. It cries with Yeats, “ What rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

I confess I find all this somehow exhilarating. Cliches of left and right have lost all meaning, and institutions their certainty. Even in France and Italy, European union is falling from grace.

A rightwing US president wins an election by appealing to the left. In Britain, Ukip can plausibly claim to be supplanting Labour. A Tory prime minister attacks capitalism, while Labour supports Trident. Small wonder Castro gave up and died.


Conventional wisdom holds that it is the "centre left" that has lost the plot. The howls that greeted Brexit, Donald Trump and Europe's new right are those of liberals tossed from the moral high ground they thought they owned.

Worse, their evictors were not the familiar bogeys of wealth and privilege, but an oppressed underclass that had the effrontery to refer to a “liberal establishment elite”.

Paul Krugman, field-marshal of an American left, stood last week on his battered tank, the New York Times, and wailed of Trump's voters: "I don't fully understand this resentment." Why don't the poor blame the conservatives? He had to assume the answer lay in the new Great Explanation, the politics of "identity liberalism" . He is right.

‘Strong man’

It is 20 years since the philosopher

Richard Rorty

predicted that a Trump-like “strong man” would emerge to express how “badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates”.

This prediction has now gone viral . Likewise, the historian Arthur Schlesinger warned that a rising campus intolerance, of "offence crimes" and "political correctness", would endanger America's national glue, its collective liberal consciousness.

The latest guru on the "what Trump means" circuit is the US political psychologist Jonathan Haidt. Conversing with Nick Clegg at an Intelligence Squared event in London last week, he was asked over and again the Krugman question: "Why did poor people vote rightwing?" The answer was simple. There is no longer a "right wing", or a left. There are nations and there are tribes within nations, both growing ever more assertive.

To Haidt, Trump's appeal is to groups alienated by competing groups. Identity liberalism elevated the "sacred victim", uncriticisable ethnic minorities, women, gay people and migrants, to whom Hillary Clinton explicitly deferred in every speech. Thus to favour one group is to exclude another, in this case the so-called "left-behinders", identified as the "pale, stale, male – and failed".

Abuse and exclude

In America, as in


, older, white men are the only group that liberals can abuse and exclude with impunity. It is a group clearly dominant in small towns and rust belts, gazing out at far-off cities, globalised, digitised, college-educated and “correctly” liberal. The poorest place in America with a non-Hispanic white majority,

Clay County



, voted 87 per cent for Trump. For Clinton’s liberals, ignoring these people was a category error, one that could change the course of western politics.

Last week, the US academic Mark Lilla joined the why Trump? circuit with an analysis of identity liberalism as "a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity". It granted selective rights and privileges, but never duties. "Expressive, not persuasive . . . it distorted liberalism's message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force."

Lilla is scathing of the “whitelash” excuse, which licenses liberals to abuse those voting for Trump and Brexit as racists, and political correctness as yet another rightwing conspiracy. To him, these voters are poor people who fear for the integrity of their communities and see globalism as a mis-selling scam. They may be wrong, but they’re not evil.

Across the Atlantic, this onset of electoral realpolitik has created a discourse. Trump may indeed be a nightmare, but what shall we do about it? In Britain, liberalism shows no such intellectual robustness, rather a denial clothed in hysteria. The attempt by the remain tribe to undo June’s Brexit vote is ludicrous, a sign not of bad losers but of stupid ones. They should fight for soft-Brexit, not no-Brexit.

Rip up the rule books

For myself, I cheer as people protest that it no longer “means” anything to be left or right, liberal or conservative. If the left is so lacking in confidence it needs to launder itself as “progressive”, that is fine by me. But I just want to kick over the tables, rip up the rule books, get on with the debate. I want to re-enact the glorious revolution of 1832.

As for the future, commentators such as Haidt and Lilla seek a “post-identity” liberalism, built round a restoration of the nation state as repository of agreed values. This may mean accepting such majority concerns as the pace of immigration. It is one thing to ask a small community to take in two Syrian families, but impose 200 and liberalism will have an eternally uphill struggle.

There is always a balance to be struck in any community, between its right to order its own identity and a wider obligation to welcome strangers, particularly refugees. Even Poland's Europhile Donald Tusk admitted this year that the EU had been wrong to pursue an unqualified belief in "a utopia of a Europe without nation states".

British liberals, of whatever party, have spent the past six months fleeing one trauma after another, hurling insults over their shoulders. But as John Stuart Mill said: "He who knows only his own side of a case, knows little of that."

The apostles of identity liberalism have fallen into Mill’s trap. They see authoritarianism in others, but not in themselves. They see discrimination in others, but not their own. In guarding their chosen tribes, they fail democracy’s ultimate test, of tolerance for the concerns of those with whom they disagree. Someone else is always to blame.

Such tunnel vision has jeopardised the progress made by the cause of European liberalism over the past half-century. It has been given a bloody nose, and there are more on the way. – (Guardian service)