I begin with an uncontroversial observation and will conclude with a proposal which will surprise many. The rights-based liberal component of liberal-democracy is in trouble. Political analysts identify a range of complex causes for liberalism’s apparent decline. The most obvious and commented upon of these is the emergence and electoral success of a motley collection of demagogues who offer an unstable platform and outlet for some voters’ diffuse dissatisfaction with the liberal status quo. Demagoguery is not restricted to the (far) right end of the political spectrum, but the most powerful adversary of a rights-based liberal order is to be found amongst those who base their apparently growing political appeal upon a toxic cocktail of virulent prejudice and empty, anti-minority, nationalistic slogans.
Human rights figures prominently and negatively in the demagogic right-wing assault upon the liberal order. Building upon ground already cleared by more temperate members of a deeply-compromised political elite, right-wing political opportunists persistently label human rights and their defenders as veritable, if not actual, enemies of the people. The defence of the legally established human rights of minorities and ‘foreigners’, in particular, is typically presented as elitist, undemocratic, contrary to ‘common-sense’ and downright unpatriotic. What has come to be labelled ‘right-wing populism’ routinely identifies what it calls ‘human rights’ as a key-stone of the liberal edifice which is presented as the principal cause of so many peoples’ discontent, frustration and, until very recently, invalidated anger.
For its part, much of the human rights community responds to these criticisms in a reciprocally hostile tone. The repeated condemnation of the human rights community and its specific obligation to protect the rights of minorities is itself condemned by the human rights community as intolerant, xenophobic and bigoted. In this respect, the human rights response to right-wing demagoguery is consistent with a broader sense of liberal outrage. While this outrage is understandable and often justifiable, it fails to provide an effective and sustainable strategy for confronting and seeking to overcome right-wing demagoguery. Outrage may serve to reinforce the convictions of those who succumb to it, but when fewer people share those convictions and when the strength of the outrage is a measure of the growing force of opposition to those convictions, then an alternative standpoint is called for.
We should not seek to return to a pre-2016 purportedly liberal status quo for that political order contained far too many profound contradictions. Much of mainstream electoral politics had become increasingly unrepresentative and detached from the lives of many citizens. More specifically, the practice of human rights had become increasingly and publicly concerned with the fate of a select constituency of specialised victims, reinforcing a perception that human rights involved only exceptional cases, or non-Westerners and ‘foreigners’ seeking a new life. Seen from this perspective, it is understandable why some would succumb to the view that human rights and even many liberal values were not integral to the lives of many so-called ordinary people. While human rights must continue to seek to protect the most vulnerable and weak in our societies, its defenders also need to urgently concern themselves with broader, more ostensibly banal and everyday concerns, since many of these are also human rights issues. These include; the availability of safe and affordable housing, access to health-care, being treated in a dignified manner by public officials, the provision of a fair and equitable educational system, the availability of a state pension which provides for a dignified old age for all, and yes, even the conditional freedom to express illiberal sentiments. These are human rights and are integral to the lives of many within the kinds of societies which used to be routinely described as liberal and democratic. Many liberal-democracies’ persistent failure to effectively address these concerns has grossly inflated the support enjoyed by right-wing demagogues who have no long-term interest in actually solving the problems their support is based upon.
‘Populism’ is the word of the moment. I have used it infrequently, since its meaning is notoriously slippery, contestable and is most often used pejoratively by outraged liberals and human rights defenders. It is, I believe, profoundly mistaken for those of us who are committed to constructively challenging right-wing demagoguery to unthinkingly and entirely associate ‘populism’ with the xenophobic, bigoted prejudices which have established such a presence within our polities. Constructive political activists ultimately and necessarily have to believe that the ‘people’ are not essentially ‘red in tooth and claw’. A commitment to a constructive political project has to believe that Trump and his imitators do not, contrary to their bombastic pronouncements, genuinely speak for the ‘real’ people. Or, as this is ultimately all about politics, whether they succeed in doing so, will be significantly affected by how we, their opponents, act and respond to these challenges. Whilst human rights were an integral component of the liberal order which appears to be passing, the actual content of human rights, which extends to include a comprehensive range of civil, political, social, economic and cultural goods, affords an opportunity to systematically address many peoples’ needs and concerns. An albeit more overtly politicised approach to human rights offers a potentially powerful means for a more effective, progressive and constructively radical engagement with many people who are hurting. If populism is a concern for the people, then human rights can provide populism with a much needed humane face.