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Is the Liberal Order Really in Crisis?

When considering Trump's behavior, it is important that we distinguish between those actions that are simply policy preferences and those that are, in fact, illiberal.
President Donald Trump is displayed on a monitor as he addresses the United Nations General Assembly on September 19th, 2017, in New York City.

President Donald Trump is displayed on a monitor as he addresses the United Nations General Assembly on September 19th, 2017, in New York City.

Last week, I attended a conference at the University of Denver's Korbel School of International Studies that promised to "explore the roots of discontent with the liberal international order." Much of the discussion, particularly that which centered on the United States, was definitional: What, that is, do we mean when we say the liberal order is in crisis?

It's first helpful to have a clear explanation of the liberal order. This generally refers to the rules and norms that have guided the behavior of the major democratic powers since World War II and are enshrined in institutions like the United Nations and the Bretton Woods Agreement. It advances such liberal values as the rule of law, competitive elections, an independent judiciary, an executive that is constrained by a legislature, a free press, tolerance of people of different backgrounds and traditions, free trade, and cooperative security. (Note that this version of liberalism is not the same as the American liberal ideology that pervades the Democratic Party, even if there is some overlap.)

Within the U.S., when academics consider the behavior and opinions of President Donald Trump, it is important, as Jennifer Victor noted in Vox, to distinguish between those things that are simply policy preferences and those that are illiberal—that is, threatening to liberal democracy. Trump's claims, for example, that climate change is a hoax and that we should reverse efforts to regulate greenhouse gases are not supported by climate science. However, this is also basically where the Republican Party has been for several decades on this topic. Regardless of what one may think of this policy priority, Trump and his Republican allies in Congress have been pursuing it through democratic means—making public arguments in attempts to persuade and rally, proposing and advancing legislation, and making regulatory changes within the purview of the presidency. Criticizing judges' decisions while abiding by them, dramatically cutting taxes through the legislative process, seeking drastic reductions in immigration, etc., all have long histories within American politics. They are certainly subject to political pushback, but they in themselves are not a threat to liberal democracy.

Conversely, when Trump vows to jail his political opponents, when he fires and threatens those charged with investigating him, when he calls into question the legitimacy of American elections but protects Russia from reprisals for interfering with the last election, when he defends Nazis marching on an American city, when he calls the news media the enemy of the American people, and so forth, this theoretically goes beyond the range of acceptable political discourse. Here, he is undermining the norms and institutions of liberal democracy. It is fair for scholars and other political observers to decry such actions without fear of being called leftists or partisans. Those who critique the president's illiberal behavior are simply defending the democratic system.

This is a useful distinction, but one that is increasingly running into trouble. The problem occurs when a major political party endorses and champions illiberal attacks on democracy. Specifically, the Republican Party has been working to undermine democratic traditions for some time. Its continued defenses and rationalizations of Trump's attacks are one thing, but they have hardly come out of the blue. Senate Republicans' refusal to consider President Barack Obama's choice for an open Supreme Court seat in 2016 was a massive norm violation that made future bipartisan governance far less likely to succeed. North Carolina Republicans' efforts to sharply reduce the power of elected Democrats was an assault on liberal democracy. So is restricting voter participation, threatening national credit defaults, seeking to undermine institutional constraints on the presidency, etc. Democrats themselves are hardly innocent of norm violations, including Obama's unilateral actions on immigration reform, but they simply don't come close to the Republicans in this regard.

This is certainly a quandary for scholars seeking to figure out whether it is acceptable for them to criticize a political figure or party for illiberal behavior. But it's also generally a problem for a liberal democracy. Voters don't seem to have much interest in punishing a party for illiberal behavior; a party that cares about democratic norms appears to have just about the same chance in an election as one that doesn't, all else being equal.

The U.S. is hardly the only nation facing such problems. Those committed to the liberal order are increasingly struggling with how much illiberalism to tolerate in liberalism's defense. It's not a great position for any nation to be in, but it's what the struggle of our time looks like.