By “liberalism” I mean what is considered under this term in the US. By “to blame” I mean “for the rise of Trump and similar nationalist-populists”.
What are the arguments for seeing liberal triumphalism which began with the collapse of Communism in the 1990s as having produced the backlash we are witnessing today? I think they can be divided into three parts: economics, personal integrity, and ideology.
In economics, liberalism espoused “neo-liberalism” which was the replacement economic ideology for social-democracy. It championed, especially under the Clinton-Blair duo, financial liberalization, much smaller welfare state, and so-called “meritocracy” which essentially meant the ability of the rich to place their kids into the best schools out of which 90% would graduate and thus “meritocratically” claim later in life huge wage premiums. Free trade agreement privileged, as Dean Baker has written, the interests of the rich in advanced economies through protection of patents and intellectual property rights and with scant or no attention to labor rights. In the international arena, through the World Bank and the IMF, Clintonite neo-liberalism was associated with Washington consensus policies. They are in many respects reasonable policies, but were applied dogmatically and mindlessly especially with respect to privatization and often with the principal objective of ensuring that the debts be collected regardless of the social effects on the population. Greece is the best known example of such policies because it sits in the middle of Europe and the results of “debt collections” are easiest to see. But the same principles were applied across the world.
Underpinning such policies was an ideology that saw economic success as the only dimension (in addition to the acceptance of certain liberal tropes which I will mention below) in which worth of an individual is expressed or measured. That ideology found broad acceptance across the world, fanned by globalization and by what that ideology has pleasing to the human psyche which craves acquisition of more. It was thus consistent with human nature and probably helped increase world output several-fold and reduce world poverty. But it might have been pushed too hard to the exclusion of other human characteristics and helped create especially among those who were economically less successful resentment and estrangement from the values promoted by liberals. …
The high priests of liberalism, ruling the media, loved to hold, at the same time, logically contradictory beliefs which somehow were both “good”. Thus they created terminological or behavioral contortions that were either direct attacks on common sense or examples of hypocrisy as “supporting the troops” while being “against the war” or giving enormous donations to private schools (in order to get their names emblazoned in classrooms) while “supporting public education”. They were not embarrassed by contradictions, nor accepted trade-offs: you could support soldiers killing civilians “because soldiers protect us” and be against the war and killing of civilians at the same time; you could send kids to private schools and be in favor of public education; you could fret about climate change, berate others who do not, and emit more CO2 than 99% of the mankind. It was ideologically an extremely comfortable position. It required very little mental effort to accept five or six essential tenets (you could just read a couple of writers who repeated ad nauseum the same ideas in the main liberal publications), and it allowed you to do wherever you liked while claiming that every such action was ethically unimpeachable. Everybody was a paragon of virtue and indulged all their preferences.
Others who failed to appreciate the advantages of such a position were ignored until their dissatisfaction exploded. No one among liberals seemed to think it odd (much less to do something about it) that the best educated country in the world with one of the highest world per capita GDPs, could have a third of the population who believed in creationism or in aliens running our lives. It really did not matter to the elite so long as these people existed in the Netherworld.
Is liberalism to blame?