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Do I believe liberal universalism is being abandoned across the political spectrum? The short answer to this question is no. This sometimes surprises people because I dedicate so much time to defending the need for a consistent and universal liberalism and criticising failures of it in relation to right-wing and left-wing identity politics. I clearly see a problem happening in which this core feature of liberalism, universality, so central to a productive and harmonious society, is being neglected.

Nevertheless, I do not believe that many Britons have abandoned the idea that all individuals are entitled to common rights, freedoms and opportunities regardless of their identity. I doubt that many on the political right oppose this principle, even though they have on their fringes those who support white nationalism and oppose LGBT rights and gender equality. It is highly unlikely that many on the political left oppose it even though they have, on their fringes, those who call for censorship and the demonisation of groups in society perceived as privileged.

I think the vast majority of Brits continue to hold an individual sense of fairness and reciprocity, in which they seek a society that allows all individuals to access all the freedoms and opportunities the UK has to offer. I believe most of us are suspicious of those who don’t support this conception of society but instead seek to promote the interests of special groups and advocate for rights and privileges based on identity.

The longer answer to the initial question is no, but the desire to protect it from various threats is causing well-intended people to undermine it.

When I wrote about this phenomenon with my American collaborator, James A. Lindsay, we termed it ‘Existential polarisation’. We meant that there is a reactive quality to politics at the moment in which people are highly motivated to defend society against the illiberalism of the other side – leading them to condone, downplay or even defend illiberalism on their own side. Issues such as the Syrian refugee crisis and Brexit in the UK, as well as rapidly increasing ideological polarisation in the US, has led to an increase in the perception that the extremes of the other side are presenting an existential threat.

It is very uncommon to hear someone express a sentiment like “I hate brown people and they shouldn’t be allowed to live in our country”, but much more common to hear “Islam presents a threat to liberal democracy and we should ban it.” You occasionally hear someone say “I hate white men and they should be denied human rights”, but it’s much more common to hear “Patriarchy and white supremacy are oppressing women and BAME people.” What even these extreme statements reveal is not a mindless hatred of demographic groups but a (catastrophising) perception of illiberalism which must be opposed urgently.

This makes the problem much harder to address because the concerns they speak to are present in the moderate and liberal majority who lean either way. If you are a ‘liberal conservative’, you won’t want to ban Islam and Muslims from the country, but you might well think there are illiberal aspects of Islam that need to be addressed. But you could be way more concerned about the extremist fringe on the political left which tells you that to talk about these concerns is white supremacy, Islamophobia and ethnonationalism. You could easily make the mistake of thinking this fringe is much bigger than it is, whilst thinking your own extremist fringe is too small to be much of a threat.

If you are a ‘liberal leftie’, you probably won’t believe yourself to be living in a white supremacist patriarchy, but you might well think there is still a way to go before gender and racial equality are fully achieved. Yet you are likely to be far more concerned about the extremist fringe on the political right, which tells you that if you are not white and culturally Christian, you don’t belong here. You could start to believe that these attitudes are widespread on the political right and feel that, while your own extremist fringe is a bit mad, its heart is in the right place. And so the polarisation grows.

When Bright Blue asked me if I felt universal liberalism to be being abandoned across the political spectrum, I appreciated that the question encouraged me to consider illiberalism on both sides. However, I think we must be wary of seeing it as ubiquitous. It is my, and James Lindsay’s, belief that what we are seeing is the extreme fringes of both the political left and right abandoning liberal universalism and the moderate majority of each side reacting to that and unwittingly reinforcing it.

It is encouraging that whether it is ‘lefties’ catastrophising about the extreme right or right-wingers catastrophising about the extreme left, they highlight their illiberalism. Liberalism still seems to have considerable cultural cachet. However, we must be careful not to feed into the perception that such illiberalism defines either side or both. This can only result in withdrawing into apoliticism, or picking a side to react unhelpfully against.

Bright Blue is a liberal conservative organisation so I urge its presumably mostly conservative readers to avoid catastrophising about the political left as a whole. Instead, they should keep their criticisms measured, while focusing on those on the political right who undermine their efforts to build an ethical, liberal conservatism. I, for my part, will avoid catastrophising about the political right while disagreeing with you, and continue to focus on getting through to those illiberal lefties who undermine my attempts to build an ethical and liberal left. The best hope we have for a peaceful and fair society is for liberals on both sides to marginalise their extremists so we can have reasoned and productive debates with each other about real issues.

Helen Pluckrose is the editor of Areo magazine. This article first appeared in our Centre Write magazine Identity crisis?. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.