The Decline of Western Liberalism and You

Ethan Eyre currently attends the University of Houston where he studies Political Science and Economics. 

BoatBoyIn June of 2016, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, better known as Brexit. Beyond demonstrating a surge of Euroscepticism, the vote, as well as the politics surrounding it, mark a divergence from liberal theory toward nationalism.

In recent years, this shift in politics has manifested itself in numerous countries. Whether it be the rise of Victor Orban in Hungary or the relative success found by Marie le Pen in France’s most recent presidential election, it is clear that Europe is experiencing a major shift in the political attitudes held toward the liberal order that has characterized the Eurozone for decades. While largely political, this phenomenon is ripe for philosophical inquiry.

To be clear, the use of the word “liberal”, especially when accompanied by “order” or “governance”, is used in the context of international relations theory, rather than how it is often used and associated with the Democratic Party in United States politics. This means that “liberal order” refers to an international system of governance that is founded upon the symbiotic cooperation of its member States. The European Union has been one of the world’s most prominent and successful liberal International Organizations, making the political changes in the region all the more significant, and establishing it as a case study for the philosophical implications for increasingly anti-liberal attitudes. 

What is Social Epistemology?

The philosophical value of Europe’s condition comes from the liberal order’s dependence on social epistemology. This dependence is well documented (Buchanan) and arises from the inherent need for cooperation within the liberal system, as that is where it derives its benefits. This means that both the governments and citizens of member States must regard both the order and its components as working toward their interests. This requires social cohesion in constructing the order as something collectively positive. Recently, we have seen a departure in this construction with the results of the Brexit referendum. This departure is where our inquiry lays. 

In most cases, the reason for the shift in attitude comes from the collective view that the order is no longer working toward the interests of that member. From here, a demarcation is formed between the member State and the order itself, creating a fissure that may epistemically separate the member from the order, as has happened in the UK. While an epistemology of demarcation is important here, it also plays a critical role in establishing the factors that create fissures between members and the order in the first place. When British politicians express concerns over issues they feel the EU is not addressing adequately, they are implying that these issues are a threat to British security, economic health, etc. 

Harnessing Threats

The acknowledgment of these threats relies, first, on their construction. Many theories of threat construction (Pan, Said, etc.) attribute the categorization of “threat” to racial and/or ethnic demarcations. The most recent European migration crisis demonstrates that some of these threats, especially those concerning security, are informed by race. In Italy especially, the migrant “other” is seen as a threat to security (Agi) – a construction that is informed almost exclusively by race. At the same time, the epistemology of Euroscepticism also, perhaps more prominently, stems from non-racial issues. The United Kingdom has negotiated with the EU to opt-out of several policies such a common currency and Schengen area. (McBride) 

These exceptions formed the initial fissures that began to establish the UK as separate from the EU. As time passed, trade disputes, as well as concerns over sovereignty were commonly seen as threats to the UK, causing these fissures to become deeper until a majority of British society considered the United Kingdom as completely separate from the European Union. The construction of these threats led to a shift in the social epistemology of British society significant enough for the two political bodies to soon function completely independent of each other. 

As the epistemological divide between the order and member becomes larger, this sentiment is harnessed, whether in good faith or for strategic purposes. This kind of rhetoric serves to legitimize the shift in social epistemology, as it has evolved from social discontent to an influential political movement. Here, populism is an especially effective political strategy, because populists garner political support by focusing on social concerns, especially those deemed as threats to the State or its economy. This dynamic between social discontent and politics widens the epistemological gap between the order and the member, since the rhetoric of departing from the liberal order is echoed by political institutions, which reifies the social commitment to the cause.

As the discourse of removal from the order becomes more successful, its focus seems to become more narrow. Once considering possibilities of how to improve the order to remain in it and exact its benefits, some political movements have forgone the idea of preserving the order completely. This shift away from liberalism is exemplified by the United Kingdom. 

The Individual’s Response (That’s you!)

Brexit did not happen overnight but was the product of years of increasingly anti-liberal attitudes toward the European Union. With former prime minister David Cameron attempting to change the terms of membership, rather than remove Britain from the order outright, we see that Brexit was not spontaneous, but evolved through a continual narrowing of focus. This is where the individual becomes important. 

Society is comprised of individuals, meaning that social epistemology is shaped by individual perspectives. Unfortunately, however, many individuals do not consider political questions as deeply as they may think. Whether because of a lack of background in the field, or a simple unwillingness to engage in a multi-faceted dialogue, many people do not consider the theoretical implications of political actions or even refer to political theory at all. This posits the individual as vulnerable to manipulation since agenda focused discourse from the media or political communities is much more likely to persuade them. (Gervais) Here, then, it is the individual’s responsibility not to be swept away in the current of social epistemology, but to provide and engage in healthy and open discourse. 

This has not been an indictment of a specific political view, but an analysis of the epistemology spurring recent shifts in attitude when it comes to the liberal order. In the last week, Boris Johnson, a British politician with a hardline stance on Brexit, became Prime Minister. The future of Europe’s liberal order is uncertain and will continue to unfold with time, as will the epistemology that surrounds it.

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Buchanan, Allen. “Political Liberalism and Social Epistemology.” Philosophy Public Affairs, vol. 32, no. 2, 2004, pp. 95–130., doi:10.1111/j.1088-4963.2004.00008.x.

Gervais, Bryan T. “Following the News? Reception of Uncivil Partisan Media and the Use of Incivility in Political Expression.” Political Communication, vol. 31, no. 4, 2014, pp. 564–583., doi:10.1080/10584609.2013.852640.

“Il Trucco Tedesco per Spedire i Migranti in Italia.” Agi, Agenzia Giornal Italia, 16 June 2019,

McBride, James. “What Brexit Means.” Council on Foreign Relations, Council on Foreign Relations, 22 July 2019,

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