[Thesis] Anna Oline Tronstad: “Liberalism as Politics”

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Liberalism is one of the most contested political concepts around. For centuries, scholars and politicians alike have sought to define it in accordance with their various agendas to mobilize it as a discursive tool. In the US, this was recently evident in the presidential election of 2016 where opposing figures such as Donald J. Trump and Bernie Sanders both drew upon liberal perspectives in the promotion of their individual political agendas. But the discursive battle is not limited to the land of the free. In Norway, a country who’s social structure differs significantly from that of America, the Progressive Party (FrP) is also drawing on liberal narratives to legitimize their political program.

Anna Oline Tronstad engages the various interpretations and mobilizations of liberalism today by looking specifically at Trump, Sanders and the FrP. In her thesis, she draws on the work of Reinhart Koselleck and a host of other philosophers of liberalism to explore how liberalism is a narrative that is constantly changing and currently, through the force of populism, moving away from solidarity toward more extreme solutions. She argues that contemporary movements find legitimacy by arguing that the current liberal society is in crises and that such crises make for radical solutions.

The thesis in its entirety can be found here.

Anna Oline Tronstad is an MA in International Studies from Aarhus University and a BA in Culture and Communication from the University of Oslo. She has also studied Political Science and Anthropology at the University of Queensland. Tronstad has lived in Kansas and Texas, working in the latter at the Norwegian Consulate General in Houston. She has been involved in various international NGOs to promote and teach inclusion, cultural diversity and peace, primarily in coordination and management roles. She currently lives in Aarhus.

Summary:

Anna Oline Tronstad’s thesis explores the construction of political discourses and their consequences in our crisis led societies. She seeks to expose liberalism’s position in Western contemporary politics and in the creation of new political constellations. By doing this, Tronstad explains similarities and differences between political approaches as well as the mobilization around anti-political sentiments in Norway and the US. Further, she reveals transnational tendencies of conceptualization and operationalization.

Reinhart Koselleck’s ideas of societal development and change through critique and crisis serve as outset as Tronstad proceeds to present Norman Fairclough’s critical discourse analysis, tools from Laclau and Mouffe’s discourse theory and Hagen Schulz-Forberg’s positioning of concepts as methodological approach. This compound apparatus allows a deconstruction of discourses identified in current political articulations in Norway and the US. The theoretical framework and hybrid-perspective, liberalism as politics, is built on Michael Freeden’s pillars of liberalism and a trilogy of concepts consisting of liberalism, the good society and the welfare state.

Norway and the US are chosen as cases because they in separate ways and both quantitatively and qualitatively are experienced as good societies. The current political climate, external pressure and crises have resulted in political shifts, and alterations of how “the American Dream” and the “Scandinavian Dream” should be perceived and operationalized. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump represent two alternative approaches in the US, and their contributions to the 2016 Presidential primaries will serve to exemplify the dynamic political sphere. The success of the Progress Party (FrP) serves to demonstrate the shift and changes in Norway.

The analysis is subdivided in three parts, where each part is devoted to Sanders, Trump and FrP respectively. Tronstad identifies each entity’s ideology, approach to individualism and equality and perspectives on the good society. Furthermore, she looks at how the pressure of immigration fits into the different perspectives and narratives, and pinpoint who the good society is meant for. Based on the findings, it is possible to isolate some similarities: all have an anti-establishment and anti-political message, and they all use populism to get this message out to their supporters. They all depend on ideologies and approaches that challenge the conventional politics within the two different political domains. Thus, they all challenge the established narrative and the status quo, and they use in- and out-groups and alternative layering of society to legitimize their views. However, their approaches differ – especially regarding how they relate to the political spectrum. Sanders stays true to the traditional economic left-right spectrum and belongs to the far-left of this scale. Trump swings back and forth on the same spectrum, depending on issue and the voters’ preferences, but all the same with a major focus on economic questions and prosperity. FrP can be said to rely on two parallel scales depending on topic: the traditional economic right-left scale and a socioeconomic right-left scale.

In the discussion, it becomes clear that crises in combination with low trust in government seem to have caused the rise of new political schemes and approaches. The history, ideology and philosophy of liberalism seem to indicate how the politics are structured, and thus also how the crises are answered. When mobilizing to face pressure and challenges, critique of the status quo through targeted discourses, division and prioritization of people and peoples, and balance of concepts seem to be particularly important and effective tools. The system is being challenged from external factors, which again has resulted in internal challenging of the very same system.

This is where Tronstad draws her conclusion. History has shown that liberalism is a liberty narrative, and that critique and crisis can lead to change and implementation of new ways, new politics and new freedoms. The tendencies seen in the US and in Norway indicate erosion of solidarity, inclination to extreme solutions and a crisis of politics. If the development continues in the current path, we might be witnessing the next turn of the liberty narrative – the turn towards political freedom.

Photo c/o of www.sanders.senate.gov

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