What is Douthat’s Threat to the Liberal Order?

Ross Douthat notes that extremist parties and candidates are getting more votes than they used to, and warns of a “threat to the liberal order.” But – even putting aside the absurdity of including Bernie Sanders in a list of extremists – Douthat’s piece is oddly selective in its list of causes.

It mentions “immigration” and “the challenge of Islam” but not the way the very rich, in Europe and the United States, have managed to hog all the growth in income. Why should it be surprising that some Greeks vote Syriza after their pensions are expropriated in order for financial institutions to avoid a haircut on Greek debt? Or that crazy “austerity” policies that generate mass unemployment lead some French voters to vote for the FN or some British voters to pull the lever for UKIP? (Note that, in Europe, “austerity” never includes cracking down on tax evasion by the wealthy.) Or that middle-aged non-college-educated white Americans, whose mortality rates are actually rising – an event that generally marks war, pestilence, or massive social dislocation – are tempted to vote for Donald Trump, or that some of their college-age children think about doing the same when “austerity” at the state level means that they can’t graduate from college without a load of debt? One of the bulwarks of the liberal order in postwar America was the trade-union movement, relentlessly smashed by Douthat’s ideological allies. Note that Canada, which never suffered from Reaganism, doesn’t suffer much today from extremist politics.

If the liberal order can’t deliver the goods for the majority of the population, then of course its legitimacy is going to be subject to challenge. But equally of course illiberal policies are likely to make things worse. Change the campaign finance systems so that candidates without plutocratic support can run (perhaps with voucher system), eliminate the barriers to voting, undo the gerrymanders that allow Republicans to hold majorities of seats while getting less than half the votes, hold fewer elections to increase turnout, and we can create a political system that serves the entire population and not only the top tenth of a percent. That will handle the “extremism” problem quite nicely.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.