Following the turn of a new year, magazines and newspapers are filled with years in review, social media is flooded by various images and memories, and discussions often turn to the highlights of the previous year. This year, however, there is a noticeably less upbeat tone. We are speaking less of new innovations, new achievements, or new social progress. We are instead talking about the mountain of celebrity deaths, the worsening climate, or, most frequently, the new political climate. This new year has felt different than previous new years. I’m interested in why.
I suspect that 2016 will be recorded in history as the end of one era, and the beginning of a new one. All of my life, all of my parents’ lives, and almost all of my grandparents’ lives have been defined by the Second World War and the peace settlement directly thereafter. This settlement pitted communism against capitalism, the West against the East, the United States against Russia. Perhaps more importantly, it established, at least for the West, the values of liberal democracy—namely free trade, open borders, and close military cooperation between the countries of the West. In 2016, these once accepted postulates were rejected by many democracies across the world.
From 1946 to the present, primarily because of the creation of economic partnerships which resulted in the formation of the European Union, Europe has experienced its most peaceful 70 years in recorded history. The European powers have not fought each other, nor have they even felt the need to protect themselves from owing much of their defense to the United States throughout the Cold War.
However, the first crack has appeared in the bastion that once was the EU: Brexit. A once far-right position of rejecting free trade, open borders, and close European cooperation was victorious in Britain, surprising Prime Minister David Cameron, but also the world.
This once far-right, now, dare I say, mainstream position is not limited to Britain. Germany and France both have increasingly active far right parties which have gained seats in the most recent elections in both countries. In Austria, the far-right candidate Norbert Hoffer came close to winning the Austrian presidency.
This phenomenon, however, is not restricted to Europe—this past June, Rodrigo Duterte became the president of the Philippines. Many Americans were horrified at his vulgar use of language, and his anti-American and pro-China rhetoric.
Any analysis of the politics of 2016 would not be complete without a mention of Donald Trump. He, like Duterte, surprised many Americans throughout his campaign with his vulgar and lewd remarks, pro-Russia rhetoric, anti-NATO rhetoric, and anti-trade rhetoric. It is worth noting that many of his trade positions fall closely in line with those of Bernie Sanders, the far-left candidate. This is but another indication that perhaps the conventional liberal values and the conventional conservative values are no longer so cut and dry.
The election of Trump is indicative of a larger global shift away from the alliances created after the Second World War. Trump has stated repeatedly that he wishes for the United States to leave NATO, a mainstay of our foreign policy for 70 years, and to thaw relations between the United States and our former Cold War enemies, Russia and China. His anti-trade, anti-press, and wall-building rhetoric also attack the classic liberal belief of the free flow of peoples, information, and ideas.
These attacks are common in all these right wing movements. They all attack constructs which we have taken for granted and thought were thoroughly off the discussion table for 70 years.
To a liberal, none of this is particularly uplifting. However, some progress, depending on one’s point of view, was made in 2016: the FARC struck a peace deal with the Colombian government, ending a half-century war. Two presidents, of South Korea and Brazil, were both impeached; perhaps we the people do still have some power up our sleeves. Although impeachment is not inherently a liberal nor conservative action, it does demonstrate the power of what a liberal would call sound judgement of the people, something many liberals see lacking in the general populace of the world today.
The age since the Second World War has been the age of liberalism. Liberal movements and values such as civil rights, LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, free trade, and peace have triumphed. These victories have allowed liberals to lose sight of not only the citizenry of many countries, but also true liberal values. It is understandable why there is growing discontentment with liberals who seemingly force their views upon everybody. Nobody wants to be told what they can or cannot think, say, believe, or do. While I am a very liberal person, I recognize that we will never again be able to ignore the great many people in this country who are upset at liberals for telling them what to do.
I’ve heard liberals state that Donald Trump will be the end of America, that this growing far right sentiment will be the end of the world as we know it. Perhaps I’m too optimistic, but I have faith in the republican institutions which have been the firmament of this republic for 200 years. Furthermore, let this serve as a wake-up call to liberals everywhere. Simple things like how progress is defined, or what core beliefs are, are no longer brutally obvious. Since the Second World War, liberals have been acting on the assumption that eventually what we want and believe in will become a reality. Although I do believe that what we want is what the world wants, it is rather smug and presumptuous of us to assume that we are the only ones with the correct solution. Perhaps more central than any policy issue to a liberal is a rejection of reactionaries and an affirmation of the power of change. It seems that right now, liberals are, perhaps justifiably so, scared of change.
Ironically, Obama won his original campaign on the slogan “Change,” which is precisely what liberals are scared of now. Perhaps the true liberalism that has been lost is a belief in the power of change, whether it’s change that we agree with, or disagree with, to create a better world for us all: for the member of UKIP in Britain, for the former steel worker in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, for the liberal academic in Paris, for the terrorist in Syria. The year has now changed, a new era has begun; this we can’t change. How will we move forward, instead of simply pouting about the past?