Recent events – from Black Lives Matter protests to a show trial for an impeached president, to the poorly managed spread of COVID-19, to Stormtrooper-like tactics in American cities – demonstrate that liberal democracy is under siege. To better understand this unique moment in the history of this worldview, a brief look at its past can help.
Liberal democracy has a long history. With modernity, the rise of market society, the decline of feudalism, a greater capacity for individual action and the emergence of reason as a new secular deity, came liberalism. Here, liberalism calls for liberating the individual from the oppressive institutions of the past, such as feudalism, divine right, and the church. Over time and with the rise of industrialization, democracy – the idea that citizens should have the right to elect those in power – became attached to liberalism and became liberal democracy.
Democracy has not always been very popular. At least as far back as Plato and Aristotle, it was considered a specific type of society and an illegitimate form of government. However, in the middle of the 19e century in the West, democracy slowly developed in popular support as thinkers adopted liberalism’s emphasis on the rational and free individual, and thus stressed the ethical necessity of giving the vote to de such individuals.
James Madison, “father of the Constitution,” was a liberal, if not a supporter of democracy; he preferred to limit the vote to owners. Thomas Jefferson, on the other hand, was among the first to endorse the idea of universal suffrage for white manhood independent of property. After the passage of 15e, 19e, and 26e Amendments, implemented by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, could be seen as one step closer to becoming a legitimate liberal democratic government as suffrage extended to all citizens.
And yet, representation in the Senate has never been democratic, as it over-represents the smallest states. Even more significant is the undemocratic nature of the Electoral College. The election of President Donald Trump was legal, but not democratic; Hillary Clinton received nearly 3 million more votes than Trump garnered. However, democracy is no longer seen simply as a mechanism for selecting leaders where the majority of voters decide; on the contrary, it has slowly evolved into a type of society where, in addition to being able to vote, social norms are such that individuals enjoy an equal and effective right to realize their human potential. In sum, contemporary liberal democracy values individual freedom, the rule of law, tolerance of differences, a free press, science and reason, and equal and effective rights to the pursuit of a meaningful life.
The words and actions of Donald Trump, as candidate and president, raise questions about his ideological identity. The only liberal democratic characteristic that it seems to embrace is individual freedom, but even that it does not extend to everyone. Since he does not believe in liberal equality, his notion of individual freedom only applies to “real” Americans. Other behaviors he demonstrates that make up his ideology include belief in himself as an infallible and charismatic leader, his myth embrace of science and reason, anti-intellectualism, nationalism, xenophobia, intolerance, violence and his desire for a press that approves rather than challenges it. Unlike charismatic leaders of the past, Trump’s powers are greatly amplified by his ability to use social media as a “chief twitterer,” where he can speak directly to his base without anyone challenging his version of reality. Whether one considers these Trumpian characteristics to be more compatible with fascism, populism or authoritarianism, they are clearly not welcoming to liberal democracy. The crucial question at the moment is: can the political system Madison designed meet this challenge? Or are the days of liberal democracy receding into the night of Trumpism?
Madison’s brilliant plan assumed that individuals and institutions are interested actors, and with its guiding principle that “ambition must be made to counter ambition,” it follows that a strong but not tyrannical government could be built. In the Federalist 51 he sums up the problem faced by editors: “You must first allow the government to control the governed; and then get him to control himself. That the early Americans did not want a king should be an obvious truth; indeed, the twin ideas of self-government and that no one would be above the law, be it the President or the King, propelled the American Revolution.
Madison also worried about a second type of tyranny – that of a majority of citizens, those without property, dominating the possessing minority. Therefore, those who govern, he believed, should be representative of the owners. Madison hoped to build a system that would eventually control itself and, with the clear exception of the Civil War, the system worked well. Until now.
The system built on self-interest motivating individuals and institutions relies at least on individual goodwill or human virtue. Madison argued that each institution should be controlled and balanced by other institutions: the president by Congress and the courts; Congress by the president and the courts; the courts by the President and Congress; and if necessary, the three branches by the people through elections.
Moreover, since it viewed Congress as the most powerful branch, it also required an internal balance by having two independent bodies – the House and the Senate – controlling each other. If the Electoral College accidentally picked someone who thought he was King, there would be plenty of checks Madison designed to thwart that individual. Congress and the Supreme Court could control this person, as could all federal and state justice systems. Federalism offered an additional mechanism, as states, with their own constitutionally protected authority, could thwart an over-ambitious president.
Elections, and possibly impeachment, were additional methods of countering tyranny. Nonetheless, Madison surmised that self-interest would motivate these bodies to protect their own power. The House would like to check for encroachments by a president, just like the Senate. He assumed that each legislative branch would vigilantly guard its power and not allow a president to become too powerful. Under Trump’s reign, the Senate clearly did not fulfill its oversight function. In contrast, multi-level courts have blocked President Trump, as have some states.
That said, Madison’s system to date has only offered speed bumps to slow Trump’s momentum. Even the 2018 election – when the House turned to the Democrats, allowing them to impeach the president – ultimately failed to limit his power. Madison’s last check and the arbiter of liberal democracy’s life or death will be the 2020 election. Here, candidate Trump, who violently responded to Black Lives Matter and played Neville Chamberlain with his “War on COVID-19”, is subject to direct judgment.
For those of us who believe that liberal democracy could become a kind of society where every individual has the chance to realize their potential, a constituency-proof vote is essential. No wonder so many humans see the impending election as a defining moment for dreams of liberal democracy and the future of the world.