News / Opinion / Columns

William Saunderson-Meyer
3 minute read
6 Jul 2019
9:35 am

Putin hits the soft spot on liberalism’s vulnerabilities

William Saunderson-Meyer

If liberal democracies are to survive the rise of popular authoritarianism at home, they will have to become more palatable to the masses.

Russian President Vladimir Putin. Picture: POOL / AFP / File / Alexander NEMENOV

The headlines were grim. Liberalism is obsolete. Liberalism is dead.

The demise of a rights-oriented philosophy that has, for centuries, underpinned the struggle for individual freedoms – and which, post World War II, has increasingly dominated the world – is big news.

It came to us via Financial Times editor Lionel Barber’s interview with President Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit.

Putin, who has through a variety of totalitarian stratagems survived for nearly two decades as Russia’s nominally democratically elected leader, is not one’s natural choice as a political coroner.

Donald Tusk, the European Council president, spoke for most of the EU when he “strongly disagreed” and, in a dig at Putin, said: “What I find really obsolete is authoritarianism, personality cults and the rule of oligarchs.”

Virtually without exception, the mainstream anglophone media responded along the same smugly dismissive line. But the verbatim transcript of the FT interview presents a slightly different picture.

Putin’s analysis of liberalism is more deserving of consideration than the knee-jerk reaction it received. Liberalism is not dead. It is not obsolete. But it is enervated. And it will die if it does not escape its hijackers who, through extremist positions – most notably on borders and migration, multiculturalism and sexual diversity – have alienated substantial numbers of the very voters on which a liberal philosophy’s survival depends.

Some of Putin’s barbs against liberalism:

  • On popular alienation: “Liberals cannot simply dictate anything to anyone just like they have been attempting to do over decades. The ruling elite have broken away … The obvious problem is the gap between the interests of the elite and the overwhelming majority of the people.”
  • On immigration: “Elements of the liberal idea, such as multiculturalism, are no longer tenable. The interests of the core population should be considered when the number of migrants is not just a handful of people but … hundreds of thousands.”
  • On sexual diversity: “We have no problems with LGBT persons … but some things appear excessive. They claim now that children can play five or six gender roles … Let everyone be happy, but this must not be allowed to overshadow the culture, traditions and traditional family values of millions.”
  • On tradition: “Have we forgotten that all of us live in a world based on biblical values? Even atheists and everyone else live in this world. We do not have to every day show that we are devout Christians or Muslims or Jews. However, deep inside, there must be some fundamental human rules. Traditional values are more stable and important for millions than this liberal idea.”

No doubt, the defenders of liberalism will provide detailed rebuttals to many of Putin’s arguments. Often the most useful critiques come from one’s enemies. Appropriately for a former KGB analyst and consummate champion of Russian interests, Putin is unerring in his identification of liberalism’s vulnerabilities.

If liberal democracies are to survive the rise of popular authoritarianism at home, they will have to become more palatable to the masses.

It would be the ultimate irony if liberalism were to be defeated by the mechanism it played such a critical role in establishing – the ballot box.

William Saunderson-Meyer

William Saunderson-Meyer.

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