In a world of populist ‘culture wars’ the liberal challenge just got harder

By Matthew Lloyd

Image created with Dalle-4.

Liberation politics within mainstream political parties has always required compromise and patience. Social media, the changing news cycle and the rise of populism mean social progress on these issues is just as difficult today.

Europe’s populists have triggered ‘culture wars’, which have become embedded in political discourse. Progressives’ electoral failures in Hungary and Italy with only glimmers of hope in Poland and Germany demonstrate the scale of the liberal challenge. ‘Culture warriors’ have targeted black, women and LGBTQ+ rights among other liberation movements.

Liberals must find a way to communicate their commitment to liberation movements without appearing to dismiss the concerns or questions of the wider electorate. Only by committing to human rights as guiding principles as part of a process of calm consideration of liberation issues, can liberals reject the populist mischaracterization of liberation groups and avoid long complicated discussions in five-minute media interviews.

Discussions about Europe’s history which include the good, the bad and the ugly, are inevitably complicated; but parts of that history have clearly left a racist legacy that impacts socio-economic structures today. It’s all the more vital, then, that a focus on tackling those issues doesn’t get lost amid accusations of indoctrinating children into ‘race ideology’.

Meanwhile, Women and non-binary people’s right to have an abortion within certain legal and medical constraints has been framed as murder. Even though different individual, socio-economic and personal factorstend to play into a decision to have an abortion including the fact that one in three women in the EU have experience physical and/or sexual violence since the age of 15 .

In 2019, the World Health Organisation no longer deemed identifying as a trans person as a mental health disorder. In response, countries updated the process used by trans people to change their pronouns on their birth certificate, pension, health records etc. Trans people who have been born into the wrong body – as recognised by UK law, the UK National Health Service and is a protected characteristic under UK law – have been mischaracterized in the UK as a group forcing ‘gender ideology’ on to children.

This is a complex issue that not many politicians or voters have thought about.  Rather than attempting to get into nuanced policy details, liberals should start by arguing simply that populism leads to bad policy based on prejudice rather than evidence. Ensuring that citizens challenge racial discrimination, that people have access to abortion and that trans people do not go through a medical process for a non-medical condition are human rights issues.

By promising to calmly consider any questions and concerns on the part of the wider population and (just as crucially) by embracing human rights as a key plank of their political platform, liberal progressive political parties can reject poisonous rhetoric, ‘hold space’ for liberation movements, and help to turn the populist tide.


Matthew Lloyd (@MattJLloyd) is a teaching associate and PhD researcher at Queen Mary University of London and a political strategy consultant.


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