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Three thoughts on how to reclaim liberalism

24.11.2014 Josef Lentsch

The motto of this year’s ALDE Congress in Lissabon last weekend was „Reclaim liberalism“. Quite a few large parties including the FDP in Germany and the LibDems in the UK incurred heavy, in some cases existence-threatening losses at the past national and European elections. Self-reflection and soul searching are the consequence, and at the end of the Congress it was proclaimed that the reclaiming has been successfully begun. But has it?

I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but for starters, here are three thoughts:

1. Reclaiming liberalism is as much about structure and process as it is about content

Throughout the Congress it was emphasized that in order to be successful, liberalism needs to go where the people are. I would argue it is the other way around: liberalism needs to open itself up and invite people in. But simple openness will not be enough. 21st century liberalism needs to be empowering, involving and participatory. This is as much about helping to create the necessary societal policy frameworks, as it is about providing according internal structures and processes. The liberal party of the future is not one of committees, but one of distributed networks. And it makes participation independent from time and location easy and impactful.

For political parties that have existed and grown for hundred years or more, this means painful and radical structural transformation. But it is unavoidable nonetheless. I predict that parties that shy away from this will cease to exist in the next 10 years.

2. Reclaim liberalism from the future, not from the past 

Another thing that was emphasized again and again at the Congress was liberalism’s great past. In this sense, re-claim was the fitting backward-looking motto.

Indeed, there are numerous liberal thinkers to be proud of. There are many battles of ideas that have been won. And elections too. So what? 21st century liberalism cannot win the hearts of the people by mourning about what has been lost, and being defensive about having the superior arguments that, unfortunately, people do not appreciate. People don’t care about a great past. Get over it.

Instead of fighting to reclaim 20th century liberalism, we need to newly claim 21st century liberalism.

21st century liberalism needs to create a credible vision of a better and fairer society, with opportunities for all, not only for present, but also for future generations. This vision needs to provide piloting lights on the landing strip to our bright future. It needs to be actionable, it needs to involve the great ideas of many people instead of the great minds of just a few, and it needs to end right in the here and now.

3. Reclaim liberalism by walking the talking

Materializing a 21st century liberal vision will take time, transforming organizational structures and procedures perhaps even more so. All the more important it is that we start now. But what can we deliver in the short term?

For starters, let us live up to our own expectations, and bring ourselves in line with our future. How, for example, can it be that at the session to Reclaim Liberalism at the Congress, there are only men and no women on the panel? The past of liberalism may have been male-dominated. But is this how the future will look like? How can we expect future liberal leaders to be inspired if we do not provide them with the appropriate role models? We need to start asking ourselves those kinds of painful questions, and start delivering real-life answers quick. Time is running out, and looking back in nostalgia will not help us win the next elections.

  • Anton Stemberger

    Ciao Josef,

    I envy you for the experience at the ALDE congress.

    I would also concur with you that the question is less content and more process related. In that sense, would it not be also logic to expect the disolution or – better – the reconfiguration of ideologies? What was liberal in the 20th century might not be in the 21st Century?

    As much as I love my liberty and right for self determination, I also have sympathy to some socialistic ideas or sometimes value conservative approaches… what does that make me ideological in the 21st Century (beside from a committed NEOs)?

    Greetings from the Middle East where societies still have to come to grips with themselves and venture for peaceful (conflict resolutions) politics.

    Anton