Recent political contests seem to have shifted from a left-right axis to an axis setting those in favor of the “open society” against the “closed society.” The political coalitions during the late 20th century across America and Western Europe split into the Left: heavy state regulation involvement in the economy, redistribution of wealth and social insurance schemes, solidarity with marginalized communities, and civil liberties; and the Right: pro-business or economic freedom approach to the economy, low taxes and low redistribution, religious and family values, law and order. It’s not hard to find exceptions and inconsistencies in these characterizations, but these outlines work to the extent that most folks know what you’re talking about when you say “right” and “left” in politics.

The terms “open” and “closed” orthogonally split the left-right spectrum. Societies are “open” along many dimensions:

  • open to ideas, in terms of a free and vigorous press, healthy and independent academic institutions, and widespread toleration and respect for diversity of beliefs as well as challenges to beliefs;
  • open to people, in terms of welcoming immigrants, integration (the free mixing of ethnicities, faiths, etc), and encouraging communication and exchange with foreigners and outsiders generally;
  • open to change, in terms of open-ended cultural evolution, technological innovation, free market dynamics, and relative tolerance for risk over security, especially when security is seen to conflict with any of the values above.

The open-closed axis corresponds with the dynamism-stasis duality Virginia Postrel discusses in The Future and Its Enemies, the title of which is a clear and apposite allusion to Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies. Stasists of all political stripes believe there is one ideal arrangement for society, whether they look to some idyllic past (as with many traditionalist conservatives and the environmental left) or to a utopian future (many others on the left). Dynamists of all persuasions, by contrast, believe society will always be and should be in constant flux as it adapts to new situations and opportunities. This dynamic picture emerges from the independent actions of people just living their own lives. This is not to say that the dynamist applauds every pattern that emerges from the distributed actions of individuals—some patterns are perverse—but merely that attempts to change society should take this evolutionary nature into account. We may evaluate social patterns (e.g., systemic racism or male supremacy), but we must not expect to preordain the specific contours of the perfect society.

The old paradigm

In the left-right paradigm, those in favor of the open society—let’s call them liberals—found a home in each political camp. In America, the country with which I’m most familiar, the North American Free Trade Agreement was, for example, passed with a bipartisan majority and signed by a Democratic president, even though Democrats were usually seen as skeptical of free trade. Republicans, often thought to favor closed borders, nevertheless put forward two presidential candidates in 1980 who both vigorously defended the common humanity of immigrants to America. Presidents and prominent legislators from both parties more or less unanimously supported the liberal international order against the Soviet threat (the ultimate closed society).

Both parties eschewed ethnic nationalism and overt racism in the post-war period. Both have of course been complicit in perpetuating systemic racist policies (e.g., racially disproportionate sentencing, mass incarceration, and the war on drugs, to name a few) but naked appeals to racial superiority have been verboten.

In Europe, meanwhile, the mainstream political question was how integrated Europe should be, not whether or not the European Union should exist at all. Broad-based support for the liberal international order was the norm there as well. Liberalizing reforms came from left parties as well as right. And the Schengen Agreement allowing free movement within the Schengen Area of the EU was widely cherished, despite some grumbling.

American libertarians may be tempted to believe they have represented the open society this whole time while progressives and conservatives were distracted by their left and right respective visions. But libertarians are themselves split. Some heartily embrace immigrants and the ideal of open borders while others vigorously oppose immigration for fear of the ways immigrants may change society—whether fiscally or by their cultural influences. Some libertarians embrace diversity and thriving multiculturalism. Others adopt libertarianism precisely because they value the freedom to discriminate against disfavored minorities, the freedom to associate only with others who look and think like them, and because they adhere to an interpretation of strong property rights that would cement in place social hierarchies (even though this interpretation is riddled with dubious assumptions).

The open-closed shift

A wave of recent elections has altered the alignments. The UK’s exit from the EU at one point seemed fanciful; the Brexit vote came as a shock to nearly everyone. It turned on the values question of whether the benefits of EU membership were worth abiding the increasing presence of foreigners. UK voters turned their backs on freer trade and freer movement of people, both core ideas of the open society.

Hillary Clinton was no perfect candidate by any liberal measure, but—especially when juxtaposed against Trump—she represented the default liberalism of the “establishment,” the basic commitment to the open society shared by all the major American ideological strands. Trump, of course, has no ideology beyond misogyny, reflexive distrust of foreigners (at least those who are not authoritarian heads of state), and protecting his own ego and fortune. Trump is hostile to every plank of the open society. He regularly attacks the press, disparages entire belief systems he knows nothing about, plans to build a wall to keep out foreigners, has ramped up deportations, openly insults women and minorities, opposes free trade, and flirts with upending the liberal international order. He favors social change not through persuasion and bottom-up cultural adaptation, but only through the imposition of his own will to “make good deals.”

Europe has seen the rising popularity of far-right closed society parties for the past couple decades. But the most recent political contest highlights the open-closed dichotomy especially well. Marine Le Pen was a closed society anti-liberal in the vein of Donald Trump, promising to close France off from foreigners and protect it from the rest of the world. But her opponent, Emmanuel Macron, is not merely a de facto liberal like Clinton. Where Clinton politically hedged what may have been liberal instincts, Macron campaigned as an out loud and proud liberal, passionately defending the EU and engagement with the world, market liberalization, immigrants and diversity because those are the principles of an open society.

This shift is being observed all over the commentariat, and not just among liberals. In a moment of rare lucidity, the leftist philosopher Slavoj Zizek opined shortly before the election,

The true stakes of this vote [Macron versus Le Pen] become clear if we locate it into its larger historical context. In Western and Eastern Europe, there are signs of a long-term rearrangement of the political space. Until recently, the political space was dominated by two main parties which addressed the entire electoral body, a Right-of-centre party (Christian-Democrat, liberal-conservative, people’s) and a left-of-centre party (socialist, social-democratic), with smaller parties addressing a narrow electorate (ecologists, neofascists, etc). Now, there is progressively emerging one party which stands for global capitalism as such, usually with relative tolerance towards abortion, gay rights, religious and ethnic minorities, etc; opposing this party is a stronger and stronger anti-immigrant populist party which, on its fringes, is accompanied by directly racist neofascist groups. The exemplary case is here Poland: after the disappearance of the ex-Communists, the main parties are the “anti-ideological” centrist liberal party of the ex-prime-minister Donald Tusk and the conservative Christian party of the Kaczynski brothers. The stakes of the radical centre today are: which of the two main parties, conservatives or liberals, will succeed in presenting itself as embodying the post-ideological non-politics against the other party dismissed as “still caught in old ideological spectres”? In the early Nineties, conservatives were better at it; later, it was liberal leftists who seemed to be gaining the upper hand, and Macron is the latest figure of a pure radical centre.

What this means

It is unclear what has caused this shift from the left-right to the open-closed paradigm. Is this just the natural reaction of political systems to a resurgent reactionary right? What has driven the surge of support for reactionary politics? Globalization is the stock answer. The collapse of authority with the advent of the Internet is another possibility. Is it the sudden loss of social status among old elites? It is unlikely only a backlash against immigration since there have been larger migrations in the past. It’s quite likely several causal currents are driving this shift.

This is a dangerous paradigm. The open society is more politically secure when it has adherents in all major parties than when it depends on one side of the aisle. The powerful inertia of polarization and partisan loyalty will mean that closed society parties will never be permanently routed, and the stakes will keep climbing higher every election.

What is clear is that liberals can no longer assume the basic values of the open society are secure. Liberals everywhere must rouse themselves and see who their real allies are even if it involves some surprises.

Featured image is “ Liberty Leading the People ” by Eugène Delacroix.


Paul Crider

Paul Crider is a husband and father living in the San Francisco Bay Area. He daylights as a semiconductor engineer but otherwise likes to spend his time reading and writing. He grew up in Oklahoma before migrating to California for graduate school in chemistry.

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