Western liberalism is in retreat. This crisis is bigger than just the wannabe-authoritarian in the White House. Our entire society is losing faith in liberal democracy, and surveys indicate our generation has the most unbelievers by far. This illiberalism has seeped into college students, as it has for Americans across the country.

Researchers Roberto Stefan Foa of the University of Melbourne and Yascha Mounk of Harvard University have found that Westerners in general, and Western millennials in particular, are tiring of democracy, “established political parties, representative institutions, and minority rights.” Seventy-two percent of Americans born before World War II judged it “essential” to “live in a democracy”; only 30 percent of millennials agreed. Almost half of millennials surveyed in 2011 supported having a “strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with parliament and elections.”

As students attending what is arguably America’s most political university, we may have a unique opportunity to repel illiberalism. To do so, however, we must advocate liberal values, which have recently been taken for granted as “American values.” We have to champion liberalism. We have to embrace the “radical center.”

When I talk about liberalism, I am referring to the most basic — ideally nonpartisan — ideals that underpin a free society. These include democracy, pluralism, individual liberties, the rule of law and market economics. Once, very few American politicians strayed from this broad ideological center. Today, their champions include the likes of Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Gov. John Kasich (R-Ohio) and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), former President Barack Obama, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Despite their many differences, they can all support free trade and free speech and oppose the Muslim ban and the deportation of Dreamers protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, for instance. Where liberal fundamentals of our democracy are at stake, partisan differences pale into insignificance. We must fight together for what we hold in common.

That’s the “center” part of radical center. But how could the politics of someone who was president a year ago possibly be considered “radical”? The answer is that liberalism, scorned by our new president and rejected by many millennials, is out of fashion. In some contexts, the far-left or the far-right are no longer radical, as they have become mainstream.

If centrism is now radical, then centrists need to start acting like it. This means speaking up for besieged principles like freedom of speech, which is now often under attack in our national discourse. It means challenging and engaging with people with whom we disagree. And it means standing up to the Trump administration, at the ballot box and on the streets. Protests should not become the monopoly of the hard-left and antifa, but they might if no one else shows up.

In our jaded feelings towards liberal democracy, American millennials hold views that eerily mirror those prevalent in Russia, a country currently deemed an authoritarian regime. According to the World Values Survey, since 1995 an average of 26 percent of Russian respondents have gauged democracy as a “bad” form of government.  In the United States today, 23 percent of millennials agree.

If illiberalism is actually widespread, it should have left a mark on our generation’s voting record. And yet millennials chose Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump by a 55 to 37 percent margin, staying in the European Union over Brexit by 73 to 27 percent and centrist Emmanuel Macron over the far-right Marine Le Pen by 66 percent to 34 percent in France.

All these performances are reassuring, yet they hide an unsettling truth: Our generation is not as liberal as we may appear. For instance, millennials’ illiberalism becomes more apparent when there is not only a centrist and a far-right option, but also a third, far-left choice. In France’s first, multi-candidate round of the presidential election, Macron’s support from millennials flopped at just 18 percent. Fifty-one percent of young voters opted instead either for Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a far-left socialist, or Marine Le Pen, a far-right conservative, both of whom were authoritarian-minded, anti-EU, pro-Putin and anti-Semitic candidates. This result is partially due to France’s dismal youth unemployment figures. Even so, it reveals just how attracted Western millennials are to the ideological extremes, like iron filings to both poles of a magnet. As recent tensions in Charlottesville, Va.,  showed, the alt-right is a young man’s movement. And Bernie Sanders, though certainly no Mélenchon, dominated at the polls among millennial voters. If he can do so by running on a socialist platform, perhaps some future, more extreme leftist can too.

“To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle,” George Orwell once wrote. One purpose of this column is to spot illiberalism where it might not be so obvious. Nevertheless, I primarily hope to catalyze a viable alternative. Extremism needs moderation, illiberalism needs liberalism. Enter the radical center.

Once you have lost your faith, can you regain it?  Once millennials have become disenchanted with liberal democracy, can they ever trust it again? Maybe democratic liberalism is doomed. But if change is possible, as I hope it is, it will begin with us defying illiberalism in every form. It may at times feel like paddling against the current, but that is what you have to do when your back is to the waterfall.

Tanner Larkin is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service. The Radical Center appears every other Wednesday.

 

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6 Comments

  1. Radical Centrist™ says:

    You could have saved yourself the time it took to write all that and simply put “I stand for pretty much nothing” but ok

  2. Randal Ellsworth says:

    “When I talk about liberalism, I am referring to the most basic — ideally nonpartisan — ideals that underpin a free society. These include democracy, pluralism, individual liberties, the rule of law and market economics. Once, very few American politicians strayed from this broad ideological center. ”

    and this

    “If centrism is now radical, then centrists need to start acting like it. This means speaking up for besieged principles like freedom of speech, which is now often under attack in our national discourse. It means challenging and engaging with people with whom we disagree. And it means standing up to the Trump administration, at the ballot box and on the streets. Protests should not become the monopoly of the hard-left and antifa, but they might if no one else shows up.”

    Nonpartisan doesn’t mean “nothing”. There are purple problems that can and should be addressed by people both to the left and the right.

    He lists some of those issues in the article.

  3. Many thanks to The Hoya for publishing these views. These truths needed to said. The author makes some very important points in a refreshing, new way.

  4. That the author quoted Orwell, who literally fought fascists in the Spanish Civil War, to equate antifa to Neo-Nazis and white supremacists is not only laughable, but insulting to people who have died fighting back the rising tide of fascism and authoritarianism. Also, I would like the author to cite a single piece of evidence that Jean-Luc Melenchon is anti-Semitic; for the author to equate a candidate of the Holocaust-denying French far-right with a socialist simply because both stand in opposition to the neoliberal center is, once again, laughable and insulting to the communities of people who have suffered at the hands of fascism.

  5. Pingback: LARKIN: Moving Toward the Radical Center

  6. Pingback: Moving Toward the Radical Center — Political News

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