As the world watches with awe and awe the greatest democracy on the planet go to the polls, why should anyone worry about the decline of liberal democracy? Shouldn’t the sight of 900 million people in India electing their politicians reassure those who believe we are on the verge of an existential crisis? The pity is that in many countries liberal democracy is on the verge of collapse and authoritarianism appears to be a real alternative. It is a huge ideological and strategic challenge. In a new tonic, much-admired former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright even warns of the revival of fascism.
Those who benefited from the post-1945 settlement and the development of democratic institutions have become complacent with liberal democracy, losing interest in its ideals and forgetting how to defend its values. When it’s around us, we take it for granted. It’s kind of like the old story of two fish swimming together, when an older fish walks by and says, “Hello, boys, how’s the water?” After the old fish walked away, one said to the other, “What is water?”
One problem is that many do not know exactly what liberal democracy is. In many books and articles on the subject, the authors seem to cross each other or go around in circles because they use different definitions of the terms. A common mistake is to confuse liberalism with democracy. The two subjects are not synonymous. “Democracy” is derived from a Greek word meaning “to rule by the people”, while “liberal” and “liberalism” derive from the Latin word meaning “free”. Confusedly, some authors use the word “democracy” as a shorthand for “liberal democracy”, thus incorporating features such as the rule of law, freedoms of speech, assembly, religion and the press, which are more correctly classified as liberal. In short, “democracy” is an answer to the question of who rules. In contrast, “liberalism” does not prescribe how leaders are chosen, but what are the limits of their power once in office.
The election of Donald Trump, despite the loss of the popular vote of three million, has tested the limits of people’s faith in democracy. Many have questioned whether the result was distorted by overseas interference, questionable activity as listed in the Mueller report, or by unaccountable tech companies. There is a growing consensus that American democracy is in danger; The Economist’s index even places the United States in the category of “imperfect democracy”.
In the wake of the Brexit referendum, a recent development of deep concern in Britain is the language of the autocrats, calling skeptics of the outcome ‘enemies of the people’. The questioning of democracy polarizes politics and pushes the debate beyond healthy limits. Efforts to delegitimize the referendum result are based on the premise that politicians lied and misled, leaving voters to choose based on poor or flawed information. An old joke is resurrecting: Question: “How do you know a politician is lying?” Answer: “When his mouth is open.
Elsewhere in Europe, democratically elected leaders challenge liberalism. Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban even prides himself on having created an “illiberal democracy”. Orban’s close friend in neighboring Serbia, Aleksandar Vucic, also bowed to nationalist sentiment. They have a lot in common. Both are strong men of roughly the same generation, with little interest in checks and balances, free media, or even free speech. Both entered politics in the turbulent era of the collapse of the communist bloc. These two men matter in Europe. Orban’s Hungary is a magnet for the far right elsewhere on the continent, while Serbia holds the key to stability in the Balkans, a region that forms Europe’s strategic and vulnerable belly. Winston Churchill once described this region as “producing more history than it can consume”.
Strong men with nationalist characteristics are a sure sign of danger to liberal democracy. In Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud is in pole position to form a coalition with small, hard-right parties. Democracy certainly, but not liberal democracy; just ask Israeli Arabs or Palestinians. In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro’s victory last October promises large-scale illiberalism.
Turkey under Recep Erdogan has become a classic example of illiberal democracy, closely followed by Honduras, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Iran. The hopeless cases are of course North Korea, China and the Gulf states, which are neither Democrats nor Liberals. Russia moved towards a period of democracy in the early 1990s, to withdraw from 2004. Elections remain in place in Russia, but they are bogus, as state control over the media is almost complete and the opposition is not welcomed by President Vladimir Putin.
Why is this important? The collapse of liberal democracy leads to autocracy, and history tells us that autocracy frequently leads to war. World War I was truly a war between liberalism and authoritarianism. When President Woodrow Wilson took the United States to war in 1917 in the hope of making the world “safe for democracy”, it was to defend the “liberal” Atlantic Community against Germany’s illiberal ideology. . The rise after the war of two even greater challenges to liberalism, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, marked the failure of hope for the interwar period. Their defeat in World War II, in which 87,000 soldiers from the Indian subcontinent were sacrificed, gave new birth to liberalism.
All of this is now in danger. We ignore the demise of liberal democracy at our peril.
John Dobson worked in the office of British Prime Minister John Major between 1995 and 1998 and is currently President of Plymouth University of the Third Age.