The ebbing of the liberal wave

This liberal retreat is taking place in political, social and cultural areas
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There are strong indications that the United States Supreme Court may overturn its almost fifty-year old decision in the 1973 Roe vs Wade case which gave women a legal right to abortion depending upon foetal viability. Worldwide abortion is a very controversial subject which is also linked to faith. In some countries it is still illegal while in others it continues to be substantially restricted. This writer does not wish to delve into the morality or controversies surrounding the abortion issue but to use the likely current views of the US Supreme Court on it as an indication of the ebbing of the liberal wave which was surging in large parts of the world in the second half of the 20th century. This liberal retreat is taking place in political, social and cultural areas and it is inevitable that it would eventually creep into judicial interpretations especially in countries which are as polarised as is the US today.

The last century was marked by a great divergence among many countries on two distinct ideas. The first related to property and the other to individual choice and liberty. They were interlinked too because the ideology which relied on the collective ownership of property largely subordinated individual liberty to the ‘collective’ good of society. The Russian revolution of 1917 and later the Chinese revolution of 1949 which established communist states became the flag bearers of this view. On the other side were Western democracies which placed a premium on the private ownership of property. They also emphasised, in theory, the right to choice and of individual rights and civil freedoms. This great ideological divide also manifested itself after the Second World War world in global order with two hostile political and ideological camps.

Both camps very often overlooked their ideological positions while pursuing their national interests abroad. Thus, Western countries which sought to expand the ambit of individual rights supported repressive regimes which were guilty of transgressing them completely. At the same time communist countries did business with market economies without inhibition when required. After independence India pursued its own ideological path. It adopted a socialistic pattern of socio-economic development in which curbs were put on ownership of property and the ambit of the market economy was limited but there were no restrictions on liberties and civil freedoms. Indeed, through legislation and judicial decisions attempts were made to transform India’s traditional, feudal society into a more equal one in every respect not only in theory but in practice. Today, it is seldom realised that this attempt by India’s post-independence leadership was nothing short of revolutionary. It drew inspiration from the freedom movement.

For all its loud claims of respect for civil freedoms and individual rights the US was in practice not only an unequal society in terms of wealth but it was a discriminatory one in practice. What is worse is that these discriminatory practices especially against coloured, especially black, people had legal sanction in many US states. This was based on the horrendous doctrine of “separate but equal”. This meant that white and black people were segregated in public place with the sanction of law. It was only in 1954 that the US Supreme Court held that segregated schools were unconstitutional. And it was not till the Civil Rights movement led by Martin Luther King who was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi did the US federal government decide in 1964 to dismantle the discriminatory practices structure pursued in some US states. That expanded civil rights and set in motion movements for equality on gender issues too. The Roe vs Wade decision was part of this process.

The end of the Cold War in 1991 also coincided with disillusionment with state control of the economy and the ideal of equal distribution of wealth. This happened in Russia and the former Soviet Republics which became independent countries. With market economies becoming the norm the hope was that freer economies would lead to democratic political systems. That has not taken place over the past three decades. Instead, the tendency witnessed in many parts of the world including Europe and the US is the weakening of the liberal order and rise of conservatism and assertive nationalism. In the US the victory of Donald Trump in 2016 and the rise of right-wing forces in European countries such as France are part of this process.

The growth of conservatism is not going uncontested for there are liberal forces to counter them but such forces are weak. Also, the difference in Western and some other countries now and five decades ago was that the liberal current was strong but is now weak. In the US there are specific reasons too for this situation. These arise because of the nature of its constitution which makes its Supreme Court an ideological court. Its judges do not have fixed terms. Hence, if the majority of the Court becomes conservative—as it is now because of the appointments made by Trump---it will turn the temper of the country towards illiberal dispositions and tendencies. Often the court does so through interpretations vesting power on social and economic issues in the states instead of the US Congress. Apart from judicial decisions the fact also is that US politics is polarised. The immediate prospects for liberalism are also weak because indications are that the Republicans may gain control of both the Senate and the House of Representatives after the mid-term elections this year. That will lead to a further push towards conservatism.

What happens in the US matters for it is, whether we like it or not, the world’s pre-eminent country.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.

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