It is an adage to say a year was full of shocks. However, 2017 was undoubtedly a year of unpredictability and one of underperformance for liberals. Liberals in the UK were drowned out of the election, firstly by the gay sex sin scandal in the Lib Dems and by a hard-left opposition internally crushing a previously centrist Labour. Across the Atlantic, Trump continued his distinctly illiberal agenda whilst becoming a wall where nothing sticks; scandal hit but still in power. However, 2018 provides an opportunity for redemption for liberals.
Examining the elections pencilled in for 2018 gives an idea of such an opportunity. 2018 is mid-term year for the US and a chance for liberals to not win power, but potentially scupper some of Trump’s agenda. The recent special election in Alabama where the deep red state went blue for the first time in a generation has been heralded as an indication of the liberal fightback gearing up. However, this election lived up to its name, with the republicans’ Roy Moore special views on abortion and gay marriage providing his own downfall. Democrats have lacked a leader since Barrack Obama’s departure; Bernie Saunders has continued to portray himself as an independent and others like Elizabeth Warren have proved uninspiring. However, Trump has done little to appeal further than his base providing Liberals with a chance to scupper the reform of DACA, the so-called dreamers program (The issue at the core of the US government shutdown). For Liberals in the US, 2018 may not be the year they take power but the year where their views become important again.
“inequality and worries over immigration that caused the populist surge remain”
Europe presents another opportunity for Liberals. In 2017, the populist surge almost provided far-right governments in Holland and France. However, since the Brexit vote polling has shown a consistent increase in support for the EU, a key pillar of the liberal dream. The Italian election organised for this year will give the biggest indication of the width of this support outside of Germany and France. Promisingly, it looks unlikely that the Eurosceptic populist Five Star Movement will enter government. However, mainstream parties continue to struggle whilst the return of the wily Silvio Berlusconi hardly enamours liberals. There is little chance of a liberal in power but the vote will be important as the composition of the government is what counts. There may be no liberal fightback in Italy but what may be more important is preventing an Italian government intent on Eurosceptism.
2018 may become the year where those populists in power struggle and haggle to retain it. In Hungary, where the most illiberal government in Europe resides, a battle with the EU over the restriction of funding will continue. Macron will continue his outward looking rhetoric providing catnip for globalist citizens whilst in Germany another grand coalition will eventually be formed. This will supply stable opposition to the ant-immigrant AfD. In the US, Trump may be forced to negotiate more with Democrats if mid-terms reduce his legislative mandate supplying liberals with the chance to supplant his agenda.
“2018 may become the year where those populists in power struggle and haggle to retain it”
In this regard, 2018 may be a good year for the liberal fightback. However, the inequality and worries over immigration that caused the populist surge remain. If liberals do return to power it will be due to failings of populist personalities, not due to ideology. Liberals have become distorted, simply an alternative to Trump with no convincing ideology themselves. As a result, 2018 may become the year where a different type of populism emerges. In the UK, the continuation of Corbynmania sows the same seeds of inequality as Trump did – just with a different message. Centrists find themselves homeless in the US as well, with Bernie Saunders dragging the Democrats to the left. Liberals risk being drowned out if they do not find a convincing voice. There is hope as Macron proved in France with his effective blueprint of credibility and positive rhetoric. Unless such a voice is found in the US and beyond, 2018 will be a year of failure. For those who believe in the universalistic and free ‘pursuit of happiness’, this is a worrying sentiment.