Just a few years ago, the term “liberal” had a very different meaning in Europe and in the United States.
Europeans had been using the word as a synonym for “neoconservative” and “neoliberal.” That is, they had been using it to label those politicians who had come out against a state social policy, a free education system, labor unions, and democracy.
The latter has been especially important since democracy, as it had developed in Europe before the European Union was created, severely hindered the new union. A serious conflict has emerged between European liberals and the national systems of power that have been based on national sovereignty.
The conflict began with Europeans not wanting to adopt the EU Constitution. In several referendums, they blocked its project, realizing full well that a liberal, foundational law for Europe would infringe upon Europeans’ freedom and social rights. In the eyes of many, liberalism acquired a negative connotation.
Prior to the 1980’s and the start of financial globalization, liberalism had had a somewhat different meaning in Europe.
It was a term that stood for moderate progress. It varied in scope, but its foundation was always the market and capitalism.
But, unlike in the 19th century, liberalism now provided for both regulation and a full-fledged social policy. It had to make peace with Keynesianism, since it was impossible in the market to do without a consumer from the working class. But were liberals perceived as the vanguard of progress? Absolutely not.
Neoliberalism made it its mission to bring society back to a “golden age,” to a time when the word “liberalism” meant economic and political progressivism. But modern society turned out to be too advanced for such a mission.
In the EU, society resisted such “progress,” and many began to use the word “liberal” as a pejorative. A liberal was no longer a tightwad politician who wanted to give something to the people, but so little that there wasn’t even much point.
No, a liberal was a reactionary, an outright enemy of progress, eager to take away various customary social and political rights. The liberal (unlike the social democrats) said bluntly that the time had come to take away from citizens free medicine, the self-administration of universities, unemployment benefits, and much more.
The very same altogether European image of modern liberalism took shape in our society as well, as a result of the reforms of the 1990s. But in the United States, before the election of Trump, it was otherwise.
Of course, a neoliberal offensive took place there, too. But it was led by both parties; before the 2008 crisis, the Republicans carried it out more explicitly, audaciously, and consistently. In fact, the liberals called themselves proponents of social progress and opponents of a neoconservative course. They stressed that their liberalism had nothing in common with European liberalism, which they considered analogous to the ideology of American Republicans.
Liberals in the U.S. were both right-wing and left-wing. Moreover, a person who held socialist views could also affiliate himself with the liberals. It was possible to be a Christian liberal or a liberal advocating for free trade and the interests of small business.
Some American liberals participated in the international anti-globalization movement, fought for women’s rights, fought to help the poor and the immigrants, and fought for a clean environment. Others advocated for this or that education program and for expanding public transportation. Finally, many dreamed of a health care system accessible to everyone.
American liberals came out in favor of special rights for sexual, cultural, and ethnic minorities. They condemned wars and the repression of weak countries by strong countries. They fought to eliminate various forms of discrimination in the armed forces and in other spheres.
In 2008, Barack Obama won the U.S. presidential election as the embodiment of the hopes of a majority of liberal voters.
However, a long period of disappointment followed. So many disappointments accumulated, in fact, that Bernie Sanders, a politician with a steadfast image as a socialist, nearly became the new presidential candidate of the Democratic Party.
Unfortunately, “old man Bernie” let himself be persuaded by a swarm of left-wing liberals who argued that the time had come to support a liberal figure who was more powerful because of her ties to the financial elite—Hillary Clinton. Her willingness to adopt Sanders’ social program was considered a major success.
But the American voters didn’t approve of this deal between leftist liberals and the right-leaning leaders of the Democratic Party. And, at that moment, the era of a peculiar American liberalism came to an end. The slogans and methods of the liberals displayed their poor efficacy.
Trump won the election, and the dyed-in-the-wool and academic left-wing liberals ended up at the forefront of the attack against him. It is they who are now furiously asserting that Trump hates gays—even though he has even had his picture taken with a rainbow flag and has not made any harsh statements against them—and that he hates women, even though he has suggested the U.S. begin celebrating March 8 like other countries.*
Trump’s desire to give jobs to American workers goes unnoticed. Strict protectionism is of no interest whatsoever to liberals, and what’s particularly important is that it is of no interest to left-wing liberals, the very liberals who, in theory, should think about the interests of wage earners. But it seems they are more concerned about the fate of laboratory mice.
No, left-wing liberals aren’t blind, nor are any American liberals. They are partisan. They are susceptible to being bribed with financial capital in its various forms.
It is necessary to put it all bluntly: many liberals are simply afraid to lose their jobs at universities or nonprofits. If they do not support the campaign against Trump, the rug might easily be pulled out from under them.
That is why American liberals, as a whole, do not want to notice anything that diverges from the attitude that Trump is a reactionary, even the most frightening reactionary in modern U.S. history.
In reality, he is a threat to them only in so far as professional liberalism in the U.S. has long since merged with financial capital. The liberals of America serve financial capital with no less zeal than the liberals of Europe serve the interests of the European financial elite and the Brussels bureaucracy.
In 2016, truly far-reaching changes began in American politics. The foundation of these changes is the ordinary American whom the left-wing and “pure” liberals betrayed, and whom they are now trying to trick into a fight against Trump. But it is doubtful they are up to the challenge.
The new liberal campaign against the president will further discredit them in the eyes of broad sections of society. And the more hysterical the liberals’ attacks against Trump, and the more they ignore his initiatives and the interests of Americans, the worse they will look.
They will lose their image as progressives for good. And they will become a thing of the past, part of a bygone era.
Such is the decline of American liberalism, which just 10 years ago seemed so full of strength.
*Editor’s note: International Women’s Day is March 8.