Whatever Happened to Liberal Values?

This is not an article about Donald Trump. It is an article about his victory, but it is not about him, or his supporters. This article is about the death of liberal values brought about by their rejection by the very people who claim to uphold them.

Democracy is the pinnacle of all social liberal values. It represents the unique combination of tolerance, equality, freedom of speech and choice, and all of the other values than social liberals advocate. One cannot have these values and not believe in democracy – even to say that we should live in a society with liberal universalism or a benevolent dictatorship is to take away freedom of choice and the idea that all people are equal and thus entitled to an equal say.

Not all democracies are the same, but all elections are fought under the same basic premises: all candidates fight under the same system, play by the same rules, and accept the result even if they lose. That is why it matters that Donald Trump indicated he was unlikely to accept the result, and that is why it matters that his opponents refuse to accept his victory. It isn’t liberal or democratic to contest an election once you have lost – if you have an issue with the Electoral College system, protest it beforehand and keep protesting it afterwards, but if you would have been happy with your candidate winning the election and losing the popular vote, then your problem is not with the system but with the fact that people voted for your opponent.

Tolerance is another vital liberal value which has been sorely neglected since the election. There has been broad-scale use of ad hominem attacks – words like racist and misogynist have been thrown at anyone who voted for Donald Trump. Cases of assaults on Trump supporters have been reported – even on Americans based abroad who voted for Donald Trump – have soared.

That, however, is not the most worrying sign for liberal values. The number of people who have talked of the need to ‘re-educate’ voters who don’t espouse the same brand of politics as them has been, frankly, terrifying. Others have stood by and not objected to this call for re-education, and have equally failed the notion of social liberalism – whatever happened to that great tenet of liberal thought: ‘I detest what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’?

Because Trump’s supporters are (accordingly to the ever-reliable opinion polls) predominantly white, working-class men with less education than their Clinton-voting counterparts, there have been people actively and openly discussing introducing intelligence tests for elections. Perhaps, they argue, only those who are educated should be able to vote? After all, they know better what the solutions to the nation’s ills are?

Such a shift in social attitudes is beneath us. Our ancestors fought and died for progress: for the rights of all people to share an equal say in our nation’s future, an equal vote in our ballot boxes, and an equal right in our courts. Disguising illiberalism in the guise of liberal universalism doesn’t make it less illiberal. Democracy, freedom of choice, and tolerance tell us that, even if we disagree with people’s choices, they have a right to make those choices, and in 2016 we must respect the fact that America chose Donald Trump. Trump’s voters deserve to be heard as much as Clinton’s – silencing them, ignoring them, telling them that they are racist or misogynistic, these are not liberal, they are socially authoritarian actions.

The risk we run in a liberal society is that people may disagree with us, and sometimes those people win. True liberalism is about accepting dissenting opinions, challenging and debating them, and ultimately yielding and accepting new realities when we lose the argument. Social authoritarianism is about only allowing one point of view and one opinion, and saying things like (and this is more or less a direct quote from someone during a discussion of Trump last week): ‘our ancestors fought for liberal values and equal rights, and allowing people like Donald Trump to be elected is a betrayal of those values’, as a justification for denying the democracy our forefathers fought for is as much a betrayal of liberal values as anything Donald Trump could possibly do.

Democracy and liberalism go hand-in-hand. To achieve a free, prosperous, democratic, tolerant, liberal society, we must not give in to the temptation to be undemocratic. Sometimes the candidate we don’t like wins (Clinton would have been no better, but that is a debate for another time), but the way to show tolerance and liberalism is to accept the result and make the best of the new reality.

Americans unhappy with Trump’s platform should lobby him and their representatives to implement a more liberal one. People around the world should continue to fight for what they believe in. ‘Re-education’ is never the answer, removing rights is never the answer, calling people names is never the answer.

Let’s return debate to society. If you believe something is an inherent fact in politics, you’ve already lost the debate. Let’s talk about immigration without the name-calling. Let’s talk about issues objectively. To give the people who were shocked by the election of Donald Trump the answer to their question: when you refuse to debate about something, you can’t change anyone’s mind; when you issue an ad hominem attack when someone disagrees with you, undecideds are unlikely to be any more supportive of your position.

The way to be liberal is to debate, to debate, and to debate again until you have won the argument. Stop telling people what to believe, and start telling them why to believe it – because the way to beat populists like Trump is to engage with their voters, and the way to understand why people vote for something is to ask them. If you aren’t willing to talk to people and you can’t make any more argument than a vague assertion that you are right, then can you really be surprised when people disagree with you?

Trump’s victory is not the worst thing to happen to liberalism in the western world. It is the wake-up call it has needed.

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