The rise of low liberalism
Recently in the UK, the liberal views of Gary Lineker have attracted controversy. Lineker, the host of the BBC's football coverage and a star ex-player, compared government rhetoric on asylum to the Nazis, igniting a debate about free speech, BBC impartiality and Nazi comparisons. Previously, Lineker has been outspoken, supporting causes such as Remain and Palestinian self-determination.
Lineker's views and conduct highlight an important trend in liberalism. Historically, liberalism is an elite ideology, being associated with intellectual classes and most voters not thinking in ideological terms. But this has changed. Following the expansion of higher education and diffusion of postmaterial values, liberalism is increasingly popular among non-elites. Whilst such voters think ideologically, their conceptual understanding is limited and they embrace populist methods, failing to understand that, in a liberal democracy, politics should have limits. Borrowing Anglican terminology, let us call this low liberalism.
Admittedly, low liberalism buttresses democracy. The emergence of the ideology during the Brexit and Trump revolts was no coincidence. For years, pre-conditions had existed, yet the right-populist moment activated low-liberal constituencies in defence of the status quo. Some may see low liberalism as part of liberal democracy’s immune system, yet others emphasize its pathologies. Is the cure as bad as the disease?
Substantively, low liberalism is paradoxical. Though reflecting traditional liberal concerns with freedom and self-expression, low liberals opposing right populism on these grounds, the ideology has elements which stray from traditional liberalism. Prior to the populist wave, many low liberals had limited interest in politics, entailing limited understanding of ideological organization.
Reflecting this, low liberals embrace certain authoritarian and radical left positions. Some favour draconian measures against MPs, such as depriving them of pay. Others embrace extreme anti-Israel positions, Lineker mourning the death of a Palestinian terrorist. More generally, low-liberal discourse can be degrading. Lineker’s Nazi comparison, and widespread support for it, was revealing. Traditionally, such language is taboo, and for good reason; it is coarse and divisive.
Yet low liberalism’s most significant innovations are procedural, many resembling populist tactics and straining liberal democracy. If we take Müller’s definition of populism, low liberalism is not a populist ideology – it does not claim to be the sole representative of the people, regarding many of the people as stupid (!) – yet shares the populist tendency to pathologize the views of opponents. Rather than acknowledging the preferences of opponents as legitimate, low liberals dismiss conservative leaders as dissemblers and damn ordinary conservatives as stupid and/or greedy. During the Brexit debate, this discourse was prominent.
But if preferences are not genuine, what is their origin? Explaining this, low liberalism can stray into dark territory, embracing the shadowy and conspirational. For the FBPE [Follow back pro-European] community, a group of pro-European Twitter low liberals, Russian influence was behind Brexit. The pandemic saw a nadir. Following the Johnson government’s initial laissez-faire response, consistent with advice from scientific experts, certain low liberals asserted that the government was undertaking a genocide, evoking infamous conspiracy theories. Revealingly, a prominent FBPE personality emerged as a 9/11 truther.
More generally, low-liberal inability to understand the limits of politics is concerning. Recently in the UK, there have been multiple examples of the politicization of once apolitical spheres. During the World Cup final, commentator Gary Neville made disparaging comments about the government. On New Year’s Eve, the London fireworks featured pro-Ukraine and LGBTQ+ fireworks, the same display having pro-EU fireworks in 2018.
This reflects the conditions which produced low liberalism. Increasingly, political conflicts permeate society, following greater ideological awareness. In an important article, Hare demonstrates that attitudes among American voters have become more unidimensional. Yet this undermines the civility upon which liberal democracy depends. If supporters of losing candidates are to accept defeat, they must regard opponents as tolerable. In America, this is increasingly not the case, reflecting the long-term erosion of civility.
Relatedly, low liberals regard the state as a partisan organ, contrasting with traditional liberalism’s vision of a neutral state. Widespread support for the anonymous civil servant who tweeted excoriating criticism of the government, from the official civil service account, was revealing. Civil service neutrality is a crown jewel of British democracy, other countries envying it, yet low liberals failed to recognize the corrosiveness of the act.
Pandora’s box will not close soon. Like alt-rightism and social justice ideology, low liberalism is an ideology of the social media age, meaning it is bound up with wider social developments. It is becoming part of liberalism’s wider path dependency. Certain members of traditional liberal professions, such as the law and academia, have been central to the development of low liberalism, being particularly active on social media. The ideology will leave its mark on the liberal canon.
We may reflect on how low liberalism compares with its rivals. Though I favour the ideology over online versions of conservatism – for example, alt-rightism has most of the flaws of low liberalism, but none of the saving graces – perhaps this is of secondary importance.
Such ideologies have developed in reaction to one another, entailing an online arms race which disfigures liberal democracy. Thus far, they have inflicted considerable damage. We may worry about the end point.
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