Limit democracy to save liberalism?


While illiberal democracy is certainly worrying, many of its critics fundamentally misunderstand how democracy’s historical relationship with liberalism and how democracy has traditionally developed, notes Sheri Berman, a professor of political science at Barnard College. Rather than the norm, liberal democracy has been the exception. Moreover, illiberal democracy is most often a stage on the route to liberal democracy rather than the endpoint of a country’s political trajectory. In addition, although democracy unchecked by liberalism can slide into tyrannical majoritarianism, liberalism unchecked by democracy can easily deteriorate into elitist oligarchy, she writes for the Journal of Democracy.

While commentators like Fareed Zakaria are correct to worry about illiberal democracy, the increasingly common argument that liberalism can best be protected by constricting democracy is empirically wrong, Berman writes for The Washington Post:

  • First, the two have historically developed together. Illiberal or failed democratic experiments have often been part of a long-term process via which the institutions, relationships and norms of the old regime are eliminated and the infrastructure of liberal democracy built up.
  • Second, the idea that dictatorships are somehow better at creating the infrastructure of liberalism because they are better able to resist the “passions of the people” is false. Too often scholars and observers praise the “order” and “stability” offered by dictatorships without recognizing that these are purchased at the price of greater disorder and instability down the road. Much of the current hand-wringing over the illiberal nature of many newly democratized regimes and the idealized views of dictatorship often accompanying it are based on a misreading of the historical record.
  • Finally, although it is true, as Zakaria put it, that “democracy without … liberalism is not simply inadequate, but dangerous,” it is also true that liberalism without democracy is inadequate and dangerous. In the past, liberalism without democracy often led to oligarchy — as in Britain by a wealthy elite or as in the United States by a dominant ethnic/religious group, white Protestants. Elites are no less self-interested than anyone else. Without democracy, they are likely to limit the benefits of liberalism, as well as access to economic resources and social status, to themselves.

The encroachment of illiberal politics in Turkey, Venezuela, Russia and elsewhere has been closely monitored by Freedom House, which has won Prospect magazine’s Think Tank Award for International Affairs.

“It approached the urgent problem of the threat to liberty in all these countries with what one judge called ‘compendious knowledge,’ as well as ‘rigor and policy prescriptions [that] make it the point of reference within its area,” Prospect noted.  Freedom House won Prospect magazine’s Think Tank Award for International Affairs this year.

Liberal democracy faces challenges in several different categories, according to Stanford University’s Francis Fukuyama. “There is a category of an external threat from authoritarian countries like Russia and China, which are large non-democratic entities that are in different ways challenging the global order and also trying to interfere – particularly the Russians – in the internal politics of democracies, he tells Nikola Burazer, Program Director at the Centre for Contemporary Politics and Executive Editor at European Western Balkans:

You have an internal challenge that expresses itself in terms of populist nationalism, where you have democratically elected leaders who want to undermine the liberal part of liberal democracy, challenge the rule of law, the independence of the courts and the independent media, and try to delegitimate opponents who get in the way of their agendas. You have to step back and look at what is standing behind this challenge, and I think part of that has to do with inequality and the fact that with globalisation there has been a vast increase in the wealth of countries, and it has not been distributed particularly well.

Poland is proving that the greatest threat to the West is not radical Islam. The greatest threat is not even external: It is internal, says analyst Anne Applebaum, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy. In Poland, a democratically elected but illiberal government has, in the past few days, escalated its attack on its own constitution, pushing new laws openly designed to create a politicized judiciary, she writes for The Washington Post:

For a quarter-century, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent triumph of Central European democracy were together perceived around the world as one of the great achievements of the West. For the past decade, Polish advice on democratic transition was sought around the world, too, from Burma to Tunisia to Ukraine. A Polish pivot away from democracy will undermine not only the unity of the West, but the broader appeal and the attraction of the West in those countries, too, allowing other “oppressive ideologies” from the “South or the East” to take its place.

The European Commission should take a tougher stance against the Polish government, whose ongoing assault on the judiciary is making a mockery of the EU, argues Carnegie analyst Judy Dempsey.

On top of liberal democracy’s domestic problems, there is also the external threat, notes Richard L. Hasen is a professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine:

According to a report by various government agencies, Russia engaged in a concerted effort to undermine the election process in 2016 by leaking stolen documents, hacking voting systems and disseminating “fake news.” Attempted Russian cyberattacks on voter databases were widespread, with hacking hitting systems in up to 39 states. According to a report in Time magazine, hackers successfully changed voter data in a county database in one state, although the database was corrected before the election, he writes for The New York Times.

The crisis facing liberal democracy has prompted calls for a democratic renaissance or re-assertion of liberal democratic values. Democracy’s supporters must unite to halt the retreat and wage a “battle of ideas” for its moral, intellectual, and political renewal, according to a new Coalition for Democratic Renewal, which aims to serve “as a moral and intellectual catalyst for the revitalization of the democratic idea.”

But political science research has documented the challenge of embracing democratic values, Vox’s Julia Azari writes:

In Stealth Democracy, Elizabeth Theiss-Morse and John Hibbing found that their respondents lacked understanding of the free speech and assembly, favoring outlawing political parties and interest groups, and had a generally low level of appreciation for their fellow citizens’ values and lifestyles. In a classic study of political knowledge, Michael Delli Carpini and Scott Keeter found that those who know more about politics are more likely to embrace democratic values like political tolerance.

“History suggests that if one wants to support liberalism, one cannot simply look to firewall it from popular discontent with the presumption that it will thrive under undemocratic circumstances after replacing democracy with markets, experts or unelected bureaucrats,” adds Berman. “One needs instead to address the problems in democracy and liberty together — by looking, for example, to revitalize civic engagement and ensure that elites and institutions are responsive to as broad a cross-section of the population as possible, rather than to a narrow sector.” RTWT