Since the tumultuous geopolitical events of 2016, analysts of all stripes have been struggling to come to terms with what appears to be a general and decisive shunning of Western liberalism. Those analysts who have ventured into explanatory territory have consistently cited reasons such as (i) the chasm between the super-rich and practically everyone else; (ii) the rise of the alt-right; and (iii) external interference in the smooth functioning of democratic procedure by ‘spoiler’ authoritarian states.
All of these rationales have their merits. But there is one other catalyst behind Western liberalism’s apparently sudden decline which virtually no one seems to have seriously raised, let alone expounded upon: the disenchantment engendered by political ‘products’ which desperately failed to live up to their sales pitches.
Rewind to 2008: the world is becoming engulfed in a financial crisis of gargantuan proportions; the wildly misnamed Operation Iraqi Freedom is on its way to accounting for the deaths of over one million people; and the American working and middle classes are starting to feel material squeezes of a kind not sensed since the Second World War. Barack Obama is not perceived so much as a solution to these intractable problems as a messiah: the man who is going to resurrect the United States economy, empower the disenfranchised demographics and bring about world peace. Yet after a solid eight years of Obamadom, systemic fiscal instability, unyielding militarisation and gross inequality were at least as bad as they were on 20th January 2009, when the indubitably iconic African-American first took office.
Aung San Suu Kyi is another exemplar of the same ilk. Consistently portrayed as a secular saint for decades, she became synonymous with the very concept of human rights. Yet in power, she has spectacularly – some would say, cynically – permitted a human rights catastrophe within her own jurisdiction.
When Nobel Peace Prize laureates promise salvation in opposition but deliver infernal outcomes once inaugurated, it should come as no real surprise that the general public is less than enchanted with a system that they perceive as fundamentally broken. The deeper tragedy is that Western liberal values risk being permanently degraded – not because they are necessarily thought of as exceptionable per se, but because their purported champions are viewed as essentially fraudulent.