The liberal era (the small l is important) arguably began, in earnest, in about 1860, while Lord Palmerston (who began his political career as a Tory then became a Whig (about 1830) and became the first leader of the British Liberal Party in 1859) was prime minister of Great Britain and the year that Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the United States, just after John Stuart Mill published “On Liberty.” It may have started to unravel about 100 years later when John F Kennedy was elected as the first US president, and brought a quite illiberal suite of political ideas from the US North-East and Europe to “middle America.” But, now, for the past year or so, the media has been full of stories suggesting that “We are witnessing the end of the liberal era,” and saying “Goodby to the liberal era,” and even asking: “Is America still safe for democracy?“
Before on can begin to address the issue one must define liberal and, also, conservative and illiberal. (I made one stab at defining a conservative democracy over a year ago.) Fareed Zkaria explained, in an essay in Foreign Affairs, ten ear ago, the rise of illiberal democracy and, also, its deep roots in Europe. I explained my own liberalism ~ and why, perforce, I must be a Conservative in the 21st century Canada ~ almost a year ago.
There is a spectrum, of sorts, it seems to me, on which one places values: individual rights and liberties for liberals and duties towards the community, beginning with the family, for some principled conservatives who believe in e.g. the Confucian tradition. There is also a spectrum between individual liberty and responsibility for the liberal and the collectivism and statism of the illiberal. In fact, of course, there are various spectra depending on how one measures liberalism, conservatism, illiberalism and success.
But the very prescient question with which Fareed Zakaria dealt almost ten years ago needs to be modified a bit: given the rise of illiberal democracies and the recent success of some populist eruptions ~ decent (Brexit) or not (Trump) ~ is the liberal era over and done with?
It’s not dead, yet, but it is on “life support.” Somehow the modern welfare state, which began in Germany, under Bismarck in 1881, morphed into an all powerful statist system that encourage government by elites, sometimes trained at Grandes Écoles and promote the notion that the state is “better” than the private sector or the individual ~ think of the “Quebec model” ~ which seems to be what many so-called progressives want. The liberal order is, mostly, in the hands of a few parties that are Conservative or are called conservative.
It is not surprising that Lord Palmerston switched parties: so did Winston Churchill because being liberal and being a member of a Liberal party were, then, as now, often very different things. In my opinion: I, a registered Conservative, am a good liberal; Justin Trudeau, on the other hand, the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada is not a liberal ~ he holds many, many very illiberal views. There are, to be sure, some liberals in the Liberal Party, but it is dominated by illiberal power brokers; equally, not all Conservatives are liberals ~ many are just as illiberal as Prime Minister Trudeau and some are worse.
The liberal era saw the rise of bigger and bigger governments, even though many liberals resisted the trend, because respecting the rights of the individuals included respecting his and her right to make his or her wishes known through the ballot and people, not surprisingly, want things that meet their everyday needs and government funded (seemingly free) social programmes were high on the list; Bismarck, not a liberal, opened a floodgate of popular demand and, by the middle of the 20th century big spending, big, intrusive government came to be synonymous with the word liberal, in art because fiscally prudent (self described) Conservatives resisted the trend.
But it seems, from Scandinavia to Australia, that governments (Justin Trudeau’s might be an exception) understand that the fiscal well is almost dry and that the sorts of social programmes that started in the 1930s, ’40s and went full speed ahead in the 1960s and ’70s are financially unsustainable. In that respect, alone, one (useless) part of the liberal era might be over … but the core liberal values which started to be discussed (John Locke), back in the 17th century, and kick-started the liberal era and kept it alive until today, need to be preserved, protected and enhanced.