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Reports of Liberalism’s Demise Have Been Greatly Exaggerated
How the war in Ukraine and protests in Iran show the enduring power of the liberal idea in the face of severe challenges
It’s become fashionable over the past few years to claim that liberalism has somehow failed as a political philosophy. For the most part, these assertions have come from the right – particularly self-proclaimed “national conservatives” who idolize Hungarian despot Viktor Orban and often champion Catholic theocracy as the ideal form of government. Other more mainstream voices on the right don’t go that far but still denounce the “decadent society” allegedly produced by liberalism. The left also has anti-liberal streaks of its own, including one faction that seeks to use institutional bureaucracy to enforce ideological conformity and another that finds common cause with the post-liberal right.
In the view of these strange bedfellows, liberalism represents a decrepit, impotent past while their ideologies – never mind their lack of specifics or internecine disagreements – are once again the wave of the future. And there’s no denying that illiberal political movements and parties continue to gain ground in the United States and other democracies around the world; election results in Sweden, Italy, and Brazil over the last few weeks testify to that. But the war in Ukraine and protests in Iran show that the appeal of liberalism – and the underlying human appetite for freedom – remains as strong as ever.
Let’s take a look at both cases.
The War in Ukraine
Ordinary Ukrainians have displayed great courage defending their country and its democracy against the Russian military onslaught. Over the past month, moreover, Moscow’s supposedly “manly” military has found itself on the defensive in the face of Ukrainian counteroffensives, leaving Putin to fulminate darkly against the United States and its allies in yet another rambling and incoherent public speech justifying his aggression against Ukraine. The fact that Ukraine has withstood the best that Moscow could throw at it and is now pushing Russian forces out of its territory represents liberalism’s greatest victory in at least a decade – if not since the end of the Cold War itself.
Critical to this success has been Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s leadership. While his prewar performance left much to be desired, since the start of the war on February 24 Zelenskyy has certainly risen to the occasion and become an exemplary wartime leader. He’s drawn comparisons to Winston Churchill – in the conservative defense expert Eliot Cohen’s phrasing, “the indispensable man in a mortal crisis” – but it’s easy to see more than a bit of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Zelenskyy as well, especially in his recent statement announcing Ukraine’s application for NATO membership.
Unlike American or European leaders who talk of an abstract “rules-based liberal international order” and deliver laundry-list speeches at the United Nations, Zelenskyy lays out the stakes clearly and without equivocation: “It is in Ukraine that the fate of democracy in the confrontation with tyranny is being decided… It is here, in Ukraine, that the values of our Euro-Atlantic community have obtained real vital energy. The strength of the nation that fights for freedom, and the strength of the nations that help in this fight.”
Nor has there been any sign of the “Ukraine fatigue” many elites predicted would inevitably take hold among the American and European publics. Indeed, some 70 percent of Germans recently told pollsters that Berlin should continue to back Ukraine despite high energy prices. This sort of steadfast support even in countries most affected by the cut off of natural gas supplies from Russia indicates a willingness to sacrifice on behalf of a fellow democracy that few would have predicted before the war.
Protests in Iran: Woman, Life, Freedom
In Iran, women of all ages have bravely stood up for their freedom across the country against the repressive religious regime in Tehran. These protests were sparked by the death in police custody of a twenty-two-year-old young woman named Mahsa Amini, thrown in a Tehran jail by the country’s “morality police” for minor violations of the regime’s draconian compulsory veiling laws. As Masih Alinejad – an Iranian-American journalist targeted by the regime for her activism – puts it, “The compulsory hijab [veil] is not just a small piece of cloth for Iranian women; it is the most visible symbol of how we are oppressed by a tyrannical theocracy.” Her Twitter feed is filled with Iranian women defying the authorities and removing – even burning – hijabs as they protest against the Islamic Republic.
It’s also a direct challenge to the regime that’s ruled Iran since 1979: as analyst Karim Sadjadpour observes, compulsory veiling is one of the theocracy’s three ideological main pillars alongside “death to Israel” and “death to America.” If one of these pillars falls, so does the regime – and the regime knows it. No wonder the ailing and elderly Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei made a recent public appearance to call Masih Alinejad an “American agent” and blame her for the broad-based, mass protests against his sclerotic, geriatric tyranny. In 1979, Iranians – and Iranian women especially – became what Azar Nafisi called “the figment of someone else’s dreams,” a someone else who “now wanted to re-create us in the image of [an] illusory past.”1 Today, Iranians – and Iranian women especially – are doing their best to reclaim their own liberty under the rallying cry of “woman, life, freedom.”
Their courage is all the more remarkable given that they all know the vicious repression they’re likely to face. Past protests have been violently suppressed by the regime and its security organs, with at least 321 killed in the last round of demonstrations in 2019. Dozens have already been killed during the recent protests, and regime security services launched a crackdown against students at the elite Sharif University of Technology in Tehran. More repression is likely to come, with Khamenei seeming to signal a wider clampdown in recent remarks and the regime more broadly having learned bloody lessons from its Syrian ally. No matter the outcome of these protests, though, scores of Iranians have shown the world they’re willing to risk everything for freedom.
As inspiring as the fights for freedom in Ukraine and Iran have been, there’s no reason to sugarcoat the wider picture - it’s still an unhappy one, with illiberal political forces gaining ground and holding power around the world. After all, any world in which Herschel Walker still stands a good chance of becoming a United States Senator cannot be considered one overly hospitable toward liberalism.
But there’s still much room for optimism. In just the last month, the Ukrainian people and Iranian women have demonstrated the enduring power of basic liberal ideas – and done so in the face of two of the most illiberal regimes on the planet. They’ve shown us that freedom remains worth fighting for, even against daunting odds.
The least we can do here in the United States is to keep the faith, especially amidst the stormy political weather we’re likely to suffer over the next few years. It’s not a faith that holds that we’re on the right side of history, but one that doesn’t take freedom for granted – and stands by those who fight for their own freedom, wherever they may be.
Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran, p. 28