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Vladimir Putin’s Criticism of Liberalism and the Rise of Populist Dictators

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2nd september 2019 by mario alexis portella

Fresco of Villa Macherly. Lorenzo Tornabuoni and the Free Arts by Sandro Botticelli
A Young Man Being Introduced to the Seven Liberal Arts by Sandro Botticelli (1483-1486). The meaning of the fresco is the introduction to “true knowledge,” as it was understood by the humanists of the Platonic Academy under the influence of the teachings of Marsilio Ficino (Image: Public Domain)

A couple of months ago Russian President Vladimir Putin, during an interview with the Financial Times, in contempt for liberal democracy in America said that liberalism has become obsolete [and] outlived its purpose [since] it has come into conflict with the interests of the overwhelming majority of the population.” This echoed what Vladimir Lenin used to say about democratic governments — they were “historically obsolete” and predicted that it was just a matter of time before they disappeared. President Donald Trump concurred with his Russian counterpart by criticizing the cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco, which he said are “sad to look at” because they are “run by extraordinary group of liberal people.”

At first glance, who would disagree that today’s “liberals,” i.e., those associated with the American center-left Democratic Party are not destroying the fabric of society, spefically the institution of the family, with their socialist, abortion, and LGTB policies? Putin would appear to have a point on how liberalism has depleted us from the exercise of conscience, i.e., the judgment of the practical intellect deciding, from general principles of faith and reason, as well as government being able to act and legislate accordingly. That is not, however, what the former KGB colonel meant, especially in light that he has rolled back on human rights, such as freedom of speech and peaceful assembly of the people, to say nothing of the Russian Federation having one of the highest abortion rates in the world since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Liberalism, first and foremost, is the political and moral philosophy that emerged from the theories of John Locke, specifically his Second Treatise on Government, which is to provide people the right to be free from the control of a tyrannical or corrupt government. Its goal is individual freedom, i.e., the faculty to exercise the self-evident truths in “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is the foundation upon which the American Founding Fathers built and what Abraham Lincoln called government of the people, by the people, for the people. This is in contrast to neo-liberalism, which is solely concerned with advancing the individual interests of the propertied and the shareholder. It is unconcerned with the common good for it is against every form of virtue and happiness; it gives way to austerity and the legal recognition of promiscuity as human rights.

Russian liberalism, if it ever existed, generally emphasized the importance of legality in government and the state’s positive role as guarantor of civil liberty. Any gradual achievement of social justice through reform was shaped by circumstances: it evolved in response to challenges and developed within changing institutional and international settings.

Putin’s criticism of American democracy is pretentious at best, sustaining that the people are not heard. Hence, his scorn for the US electoral college system pointing out that as a result more than once the would-be winner, despite winning the popular vote, lost the bid to become president. What the Russian autocrat and others fail to admit that the core beliefs of classical liberals did not necessarily include  government by a majority vote by citizens, which is why the Father of the US Constitution James Madison argued for a constitutional republic with protections for individual liberty over a pure democracy. The reason was that in a pure democracy a “passion or interest of will, in almost every case, [would] be felt by a majority of the whole […] and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party.” The electoral college, as an example of a constitutional republic, gives the same voice and vote to states that do not have highly populated cities, as opposed to those that do. The purpose was to prevent such big states, which normally think homogeneously from becoming despotic — if this is not a true sense of democracy, what would be? Perhaps this is why he took it upon himself to interfere in the 2016 US presidential elections as Donald Trump publicly admitted.

Trump’s affinity for Vladimir Putin, unfortunately, as his proclaimed “great friendship” with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, has helped subvert true liberalism to populist dictators, such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and now Brazil’s Jair Bolosnaro who have consequently legitimized their anti-liberal agendas — what is meant by populist dictators are both outright dictatorships, in which despite being elected to office, the opposition no longer has a realistic chance of changing the government through elections, and competitive authoritarian regimes, in which elections retain real significance even though the opposition is forced to fight on a highly uneven playing field.

They also tend to share the same “romance” with Putin’s Russia which springs not just from practical ties of support but a shared conservative reaction against liberalism, globalization, multiculturalism. In the words of the scholar Alina Polyakova, they see Putin “as a staunch defender of national sovereignty and conservative values who has challenged US influence and the idea of ‘Europe’ in a way that mirrors their own convictions.” The most recent example of this was the announcement of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to suspend parliament in order to allow a “no deal” Brexit — I have my critiques of the European Union, especially their eradication of our Christian roots, in lieu of political Islam and the suppression of free speech.

Putin who does not have to worry about political opponents or criticism from the state-controlled press as he has periodically are arrested, harassed, and even murdered journalists and opposing politicians by agents of the state. Columnist and historian Anne Applebaum says: “That’s what happens when you don’t have the rules and practices of a liberal society to protect them. It’s a world that is more comfortable for despots and dictators, and it’s unsurprising that Putin prefers it.” The shrewd and relentless assault of a resurgent Russian authoritarian state and both its ascending global influence and acceptance by populist dictators, puts the future of liberal democracy in the world squarely where Vladimir Putin wants it: in doubt and on the defensive.

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Published with exclusive permission.

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