Why Liberals Must Stop Wallowing in Negativity

Donald Trump at a press conference in North Dakota
Donald Trump at a rare news conference in Bismarck, North Dakota, on May 26. Progressives must avoid falling into the five stages of liberal denial in order to combat populism, writes Cas Mudde. Jonathan Ernst/reuters

If you are a liberal, like me, your Facebook and Twitter feeds are undoubtedly flooded with messages like "make 2016 stop already" and "[insert event] shows that 2016 was the worst year ever." From Brexit to the Berlin attack to the death of George Michael, almost everything seems to fit this overarching narrative: 2016 was exceptionally bad and 2017 will be better—if not bring an outright return to the "normal" state of pre-2016.

These seemingly harmless posts and tweets are illustrations of a deeper psychological process that, at its most extreme, has profoundly illiberal and undemocratic features. There are five stages of liberal denial, painfully exposed in 2016 by political developments such as the Brexit referendum and the Trump election.

1. Mockery

The first stage of liberal denial has been ongoing for decades and reflects liberal confidence in itself and the political system. Populists and other illiberal democrats are mainly mocked for being inarticulate and uninformed; amateurs that barely put a scratch on liberal self-confidence. In fact, these populists only strengthen it, their stupidity evidence that they are incapable of replacing us. Good examples of this attitude, among many, were Bob Geldof's so-called "Thames flotilla battle" with Nigel Farage or the responses to Trump's Cinqo de Mayo tweet (also know as "Taco-Bowl-Gate").

2. Outrage

The second stage is that of liberal outrage, which has dominated 2016 around the world—but particularly within liberal circles in the U.K. and U.S, the countries most shaken by the so-called populist surge. During this stage liberals are still confident about their dominance but are starting to worry about the illiberal challenge. Hence, the outrage is not just addressed toward fellow liberals but is also meant to shock potential populist supporters into submission. How can anyone support [insert illiberal challenger] given that they do/say [insert illiberal action/statement]? Among the most high profile moments of liberal outrage surrounded the UKIP "Breaking Point" immigration poster and the leaked video tape recording of Donald Trump and Billy Bush's "locker room talk."

3. Disbelief

In the third stage, liberals know that they have won but we don't yet believe it. Liberals try to come up with arguments why the initial results do not really mean the rejection of the liberal position and system. For example, in the U.K. academics and politicians continue to claim that "hard Brexit is not the will of the British people," while in the U.S. the dominant media narrative is that (white) people didn't vote for Trump's core populist radical right agenda—of nativism, authoritarianism and populism—but merely protested their " economic pain."

4. Conspiracies

When it finally has sunk in that the election/referendum has been lost, liberals enter the fourth stage of denial, slowly but steadily accepting that some voters have actually rejected the liberal consensus. However, still in denial, they argue that is not a real rejection of liberalism; or, if you wish, not a rejection of real liberalism. No, there are shadowy forces at work here: fake news and propaganda have created a "post-truth" world. Behind all of this, according to many liberal pundits, is Vladimir Putin's Russia. From the Dutch referendum on the EU-Ukraine treaty to the British EU referendum and the U.S. presidential elections, Putin has won them all. In what could be the ultimate liberal conspiracy theory, Russia was accused of hacking the U.S. presidential elections. Ironically, this inspired many liberals to donate a staggering $9.5 million for a recount in swing states to Green candidate Jill Stein, who is a regular on Russia's main disinformation channel RT.

5. Democratic Denial

The final, and ultimate, stage of liberal denial is the rejection of the democratic legitimacy of the new political reality. Whether it is because of conspiracy theories or institutional technicalities, liberals argue that the election/referendum outcome is not "democratic" and should therefore be rejected. In Britain some liberals have called for a "second referendum"—in line with a well-established EU tradition to overcome negative referendum outcomes—or for parliament to reject Brexit, a position supported by the European Parliament. In the U.S. the arguments focused primarily on the Electoral College, an undemocratic institution indeed, but largely ignored before Hillary Clinton lost the elections.

There is no doubt that 2016 was a bad year for liberals and liberal denial has not made it any better. Moreover, being in denial ensures that liberals will be unable to withstand and overcome the consequences of 2016 in 2017 and beyond. Before we can truly defend liberal democracy, we must honestly and openly reflect upon our own illiberal and undemocratic reflexes. While we should actively reject attacks on the key institutions and values of liberal democracy, and the mainstreaming of such attacks by the media and political establishment, we must do this within those same institutions and values. If we continue to wallow in liberal denial, however, liberal democracy will really be defeated, by them and by us.

Cas Mudde is associate professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia and researcher in the Center for Research on Extremism at the University of Oslo. He is author of On Extremism and Democracy in Europe (2016) and Populism: A Very Short Introduction (2017). He tweets at @casmudde.