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The great early liberal thinkers – Spinoza, Montesquieu, Smith and Locke mercilessly skewered the elites of their day, along with human pretensions generally.


Clifford Orwin is a Professor of Political Science and Senior Fellow of Massey College at the University of Toronto.

These days, everybody is worried about populism. Its rise throughout the world, but especially among the voters of liberal democracies in both the Americas and Europe, has confounded the political, journalistic, economic and academic establishments. Donald Trump’s election isn’t the only victory that has sent liberals into conniptions.

But what if populism actually presents an opportunity for liberalism? What if liberalism could succeed in exploiting many of the same concerns that animate its rival? Two possibilities would then present themselves to liberals: Co-operation with populists on issues where the overlap of their respective stances on the issues warrants it, and greater success in competing with them where competition there must be.

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In fact, liberalism and populism have far more in common than we might think. This might seem a strange claim. Today, each perceives the other as its major rival. While both may be (as each claims) compatible with democracy, aren’t they incompatible with each other? Perhaps not quite as much as supposed.

Speaking for myself, while I have always seen myself as a liberal, I have always sympathized with populism. I even sympathize with its critique of liberalism – as should every liberal, in my opinion. And that makes me far more willing both to meet populism halfway and to compete with it on its terms where necessary.

This isn’t as odd as it may sound. Populism begins from popular suspicion of political, economic and other elites. At its best, however, and from its origins, liberalism too has cultivated such suspicion. The great early liberal thinkers – Spinoza, Locke, Montesquieu, Adam Smith, the authors of the Federalist Papers – mercilessly skewered the elites of their day, along with human pretensions generally. Lord Acton’s famous dictum that power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely restated a core liberal insight already two centuries old by his time. In keeping with this skepticism concerning power and those wielding it, liberalism has always preached the necessity of popular vigilance and of political institutions that support it. This side of the liberal argument is too little appreciated today.

Which isn’t to deny that liberal institutions were also designed to contain populism. In fact, their designers hoped both to tap populism and to contain it. They saw no contradiction here: they sought for politics a kind of Newtonian equilibrium. Hence their promotion of the supremacy of a legislative branch held accountable to the people through frequent elections, and their vindication of rights of protest and, even as a last resort, revolution where accountability to the people had failed. These early and canonical liberal thinkers saw the opposition of liberalism and populism as far less strident than we today make it out to be.

My claim isn’t that all tensions between liberalism and populism rest on misunderstandings. Populists will fret over the inevitable distance between the people and their elected representatives. So will they over limited government insofar as it protects unpopular minorities and restricts the reach of popular will. Still, because there is more common ground between the two outlooks than generally acknowledged, there is more of a basis for arbitrating their differences. Liberals should not despair of appealing to populists.

After all, Liberals, too, are supposed to be concerned with fair treatment for the little guy. In the American context we need look back no further than Franklin Delano Roosevelt, that scourge of "economic royalists,” or to the Democratic presidents that followed his New Deal with the Fair Deal, the New Frontier, and the Great Society. All these programs, while battling maleficent strains of populism, clearly sought to enlist helpful or innocuous ones. Unfortunately, the Democrats have since become mired in identity politics, a red flag in front of populists (as it well should be).

What makes the bigger splash these days is of course a populism of the right. Whether in the United States or Europe, throughout the developing world, and even here in Canada (at least on the provincial level), it is this populism that commands attention and apprehension. Its leaders may, like Viktor Orban in Hungary, go so far as to speak openly of promoting illiberal democracy.

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All the more urgent, then, for liberals to learn to mine those issues common to them and populists. They must retain such populists as remain within the liberal camp while persuading others to return to it. Since so many uncommitted voters respond to the appeal of populism, liberals must be prepared to embrace it as much as their liberalism permits.

One issue of concern to both liberals and populists is immigration. It was no accident that this proved the winning issue for Mr. Trump. The global supply of erstwhile migrants (whether immigrants or refugees) far exceeds the present or any anticipated future demand for them. This is a problem that will only increase. Indifference to the fate of the world’s wretched is appalling, hostility to them indefensible. Yet apprehension about a flood of immigrants from illiberal climes is not in itself illiberal.

True, the historical trend of liberal democracy has been toward increasing openness to immigration and to diversity among the immigrants. Liberals have supported this trend and should continue to support it today. That’s not to say, however, that anything approaching open borders is desirable or even possible. It is not, as most voters clearly recognize. If then liberals are to compete with populists on the issue, they must unabashedly affirm the right of their countries to regulate immigration as necessary. This is not an illiberal, but a liberal right. It follows from every people’s inalienable right to self-determination that it control its borders just as it rightly decides on other issues of its common welfare.

Consider also that illegal immigration unravels the basic fabric of a liberal society, which is that of liberty under law. It is fashionable among some so-called liberals to treat the defiance of immigration laws as something for them to applaud. It is anything but. The success of modern liberalism has crucially depended on its skillful distribution of rights and powers among the different levels of government. Just as the Canadian and American federal governments are not empowered to levy property taxes, so municipalities are not empowered to make or enforce immigration policy. Nor, therefore, are they entitled to defy such policy by interfering with its enforcement. As for the national governments, they have every right to penalize municipalities that thus show themselves unwilling to accept their legal limits. This follows not from populist doctrine, but from a fundamental liberal one: that both institutions and individuals must abide by laws within the framework of the distribution of powers. If you seek what you regard a more equitable immigration policy, you must pursue it at the federal level, and abide by the results at that level. Or you can seek judicial redress, while acknowledging that until you obtain it, the law remains the law. Anything less just supplies fodder for your populist opponents.

To acknowledge immigration as a legitimate concern of liberalism is not to prescribe a particular approach to it. These will vary with circumstance. Canada, while praising itself as welcoming, currently chooses both its immigrants and its refugees quite carefully. It is increasingly unamused by the current surge of undocumented migrants across its border with the United States. There can be little doubt that our substantial consensus on immigration issues – so rare among liberal democracies today – has depended on our rare freedom to frame and manage this issue. We must contend with neither a land border with Latin America nor a sea border with Africa and the Middle East. This isn’t the only reason why populism has sputtered at the national level in Canada while surging in both the United States and Italy, but it may be the biggest.

Another issue of equal moment for liberalism and populism is resistance to supranational institutions. While a question such as Brexit is usually posed in terms of nationalism and/or populism, it also lends itself to discussion in terms of liberalism. Britain’s assertion of its sovereignty against the grip of supranational bureaucrats was not, as such, illiberal. As we have already seen, popular self-government is also a core liberal concern. In the present mood of electorates, liberals can ill afford to cede it to populists. As the sociologist Rogers Brubaker has argued, liberal democracy at its best has practiced a nationalism that is itself liberal, promoting national unity, social cohesion and progressive social policies, an engine for the integration of immigrants rather than their exclusion. This is an issue on which liberals invoking principles authentically their own can exploit their overlap with populism to vie with it for popular support.

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There are many other matters that liberals must seek to wrest back from populists. In the United States, for instance, immigration and the reassertion of national sovereignty have proved just two of Mr. Trump’s Big Four issues. A third is the nexus between trade policy and job loss. There’s nothing illiberal in the insistence that nominally free trade be genuinely so, rather than manipulated to the disadvantage of one’s own country. Nor is there in robust policies for retraining and re-employing displaced workers and reinvigorating Rust Belt towns, or for aggressively addressing the opioid epidemic fed by industrial decline. It was a weakness of the Barack Obama presidency which dogged Hillary Rodham Clinton’s candidacy that it paid too little attention to these issues.

Mr. Trump’s final defining issue has been his robust but reticent (even neo-isolationist) stance on foreign policy. If he had his way, he would build a wall not around Mexico only. Here liberals must respond with a foreign policy that, while remaining staunchly liberal in its commitments, shares populism’s recognition of the limits of America’s capacity.

What passes for liberalism in America today, however, is legitimately obnoxious to populists for reasons that should also trouble thoughtful liberals. Both statism as a default political position and identity politics are, by any reasonable standard, more illiberal than liberal. They contract the bounds of liberty rather than expand them. So is the widespread tendency to muffle dissent under a blanket of political correctness, even to the point of infringing religious liberty. For populism, liberal gaffes in these directions are the gifts that keep on giving. Yet in all these cases the judicious application of liberal principles could help restrain the impulse to hyperliberal excess.

Some social scientists look to populism to reinvigorate democracy. Would it be too much to ask it to also do its part to reinvigorate liberalism? Not all forms of populism are liberal, and populists cannot be expected either to clearly distinguish the liberal forms from the illiberal ones or to reliably prefer them. It will be up to liberals to make this distinction and to persuade the populist-minded of the superiority of the liberal version. This may not be easy. Like everyone else in politics, however, liberals must play the hand they are dealt. For reasons almost too numerous to mention (of which politicians with itchy Twitter fingers are just the first) the politics of the West is likely to turn increasingly populist. It would be not merely snobbish but foolish for liberalism to turn a deaf ear to this. Only by exploiting its overlap with populism will it vie with it for the public’s support.

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