Most of us have grown up with a particular idea of what left and right means when it comes to politics.

There are many different combinations of views, but the broad assumption has been that the left fights for socialism while the right fights for capitalism.

But since the 2010s, we’ve seen the nature of these battles change. With the rise of populism and the culture war, the factions people identify and ally with are shifting dramatically.

In the 2020s, this phenomenon shows no signs of fading away. But what is driving this sense of political realignment and what might the future hold for the ideas of liberty?

The political spectrum is changing

It seems more ill-fitting than ever to describe the two dominant political and cultural factions as representing social liberalism with economic interventionism on the one side and free markets with social conservatism on the other.

On both left and right we see advocates for government intervention in the economy; the split is no longer a relevant talking point. 

Instead, the new talking point is identity. There is now significant support in a number of countries for populist leaders who vow to implement nationalistic and nativist policies that reject the concepts of global interconnectivity, free trade, and freedom of movement

Opposition to these concepts and the immense benefits they bring is fundamentally a threat to individual liberty and flourishing.

Amid political realignment, what are the emerging ideological forces?

A number of fraught election campaigns, most notably the recent French presidential election, have exposed this new battleground. 

That is, a division pitting advocates of an open, cosmopolitan society who generally favor free trade, relative freedom of movement, and global cooperation against advocates of various forms of more protectionist, closed, nationalistic, and insular societies.

If cosmopolitanism versus nativism is to become the foremost ideological divide amid political realignment – and I firmly believe it will – then those of us who value liberty must stand firm for our values and ensure that pro-liberty ideas are at the forefront of the cosmopolitan side of the debate.

Where does liberty fit into the equation?

Traditionally, libertarians have tended to ally with the right as socialism vs. capitalism was the defining talking point of the mid-to-late 20th century.

But now, in order to make the case for liberty, we must not undermine ourselves by allying, however reluctantly, with populist factions who fundamentally reject the liberal, individualist, and cosmopolitan values that underpin classical liberal ideas.

The right, whose values were antithetical to our socially liberal ideas, now no longer has the selling point of being advocates of meaningful economic freedom. 

In this sense, the natural home of liberals and libertarians is neither with the populist right, nor the hardline socialists, who vehemently oppose economic freedom and individualism. 

Political realignment on the issue of open versus closed societies means that friends of liberty – that is, friends of free markets and individual liberties – find ourselves in a difficult position. 

Libertarians will surprise themselves with the fact that previous labels they have identified are no longer relevant, and we must keep an open mind with regard to who we ally with. 

Now that economics has taken a back seat in the political landscape, libertarians, now more than ever, must make the case for individualism. Millions of people worldwide are crying out for a return to sanity, and we must be at the forefront of that fight.

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This piece was first published on the Students For Liberty website.

This piece solely expresses the opinion of the author and not necessarily the organization as a whole. Students For Liberty is committed to facilitating a broad dialogue for liberty, representing a variety of opinions.