Liberal Laments

What is a liberal to do in this new world?

These are not good times for liberals. We have a popular/populist president who ran a campaign not only against a liberal party, but against liberal values like human rights and due process. Du30’s success, as we all know, stemmed from widespread disillusionment. The restoration of liberal democracy in 1986 failed to solve large problems like economic inequality and smaller ones like traffic. Hence an inchoate but categorical call for “change” caught the imagination of everyone from the tito in a four-wheel-drive to the mother worried about the safety of her children. Candidate Duterte became a Rorschach test for the electorate’s frustrations. And as his voters stared at the inkblots of their political fantasies, the blobs of black started to turn red like the blood of criminals and the “liberals” that “coddle” them.

Last week proved how much this crisis of liberalism was global. Like Duterte, Donald Trump won on a platform that challenged the “biased” media, “elite” intellectuals, and those who coddle viruses on the national body-politic (adiks in Duterte’s case; immigrant’s in Trump’s). Like Duterte, Trump has also expressed admiration for the hypernationalist authoritarianism of Vladimir Putin—an admiration they share with other illiberal leaders of populist parties in Europe. This global decline of liberal democracy, note both Anne Applebaum and Francis Fukuyama, comes amid an emergence of a “populist internationale” of like-minded leaders who all draw inspiration from the Kremlin.

What is a liberal to do in this new world?

I thank my editors at Esquire for providing me this space and the carte blanche to write about my interests. I am an intellectual historian, and my present obsession is the history of Philippine liberalism—a history I wish to share with readers of this space.


When I started thinking about Philippine liberalism around three years ago, it was long before the election of our mayor-president and the almost election of his real running mate, Ferdinand Marcos Jr. As recent as a year ago, I had assumed that liberalism was safe, unable to predict the intensity of the authoritarian nostalgia we are now experiencing. I thus begin writing this fortnightly column as an idiot confronting his own naiveté. The illiberal resurgence has not only discredit liberal politicians, but also liberal pundits who thought their political world was too stable to collapse.

You have no reason to trust me. Especially since my class of academic intellectual is increasingly “exposed” as “bias(ed)” and elitist. You also have no reason to trust my political agenda since it was my beloved liberalism that got us into this mess in the first place. Had liberalism worked as promised, we would not have needed “change.”

I am deliberately under promising. But I hope you forgive the sleight of hand, as the aim of this column is quixotic. In the following months, I want to convince readers of the continued importance of our liberal tradition.  I aim to do this by doing what historians do best: arguing through stories. In narrating the histories of liberals past, I want to show readers that liberals have contributed to real, lasting, albeit slow, change. Theirs is a legacy we cannot afford to jettison.

This column has almost nothing to do with the Liberal Party of Noynoy Aquino and Mar Roxas. It has more to do with figures like Jose Rizal, T.H. Pardo de Tavera, Camilo Osias, Salvador Lopez, and Ka Pepe Diokno. These disparate thinkers from different periods in our history were advocates of mediation, human rights, and anti-authoritarianism. They are reminders of our tolerant past, and no dictator-in-the-can erase their contributions. If liberalism has a power, it is its capacity for resurrection. Liberalism was reborn after the Second World War in Germany. It was reborn after the Cold War in Eastern Europe. And it was reborn in the Philippines after EDSA. I do not know when, but it will rise anew after the decline of global populism.

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None of this is to underestimate the current crisis of Philippine and global liberalism. Duterte was the first president to run and win on an openly authoritarian platform. Like Mocha Uson, many Duterte voters chose him because they believe freedom is overrated. Ferdinand Marcos ostensibly ran as a liberal-democrat—a member of a mainstream party that paid lip service to civil liberties and human rights. And even after the declaration of martial law, his fairest critic, S.P. Lopez, still believed that he was a “crypto-democrat”—a dictator who was nonetheless raised by liberal democracy. Apo, after all, was a former president of the Liberal Party (yellowtard!).

Duterte, by contrast, has never denied his attraction to authoritarianism. On the campaign trail, he vowed to murder criminals, threatened to padlock congress, and had already promised to honor Marcos as a hero. That we elected someone so openly disdainful of due process shows how far we’ve come.

It is from what I consider to be this new low that I begin writing this column. I am frustrated, angry, confused, and depressed, and I will use this space as a form of catharsis (I do not deny my need for self therapy).  Yet my sincere desire is that I am able to use this column to find what W.H. Auden called “ironic points light” that may help “undo the folded lie” of Authority in a world where “enlightenment" is “driven away.”

As liberals watch their world convulsed, as we hear of more immigrants mocked by white supremacists, as we see the list of extra judicial killings climb to 4,000, as we witness a dictator descend into hollowed ground, we can do little but object. And yet object we must.

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About The Author
Lisandro Claudio
Lisandro E. Claudio (@leloyclaudio on Twitter) is an Associate Professor at the Department of History, De La Salle University.
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