The Double Threat to Liberal Democracy by Dani Rodrik


Illiberal democracy – or populism – is not the only political threat facing Western countries. Liberal democracy is also undermined by a tendency to emphasize the “liberal” to the detriment of “democracy”.

CAMBRIDGE – The crisis of liberal democracy is today strongly criticized. Donald Trump’s presidency, the Brexit vote in the UK and the electoral surge of other populists in Europe have underscored the threat posed by ‘illiberal democracy‘, a sort of authoritarian politics characterized by popular elections but few respect for the rule of law or the rights of minorities.

But fewer analysts have noted that illiberal democracy – or populism – is not the only political threat. Liberal democracy is also undermined by a tendency to emphasize the “liberal” to the detriment of “democracy”. In this type of politics, leaders are isolated from democratic accountability by an array of constraints that limit the range of policies they can implement. Bureaucratic bodies, autonomous regulators and independent courts set policies, or they are imposed from outside by the rules of the global economy.

In his new and important book The people against democracy, the political theorist Yascha Mounk qualifies this type of regime – in perfect symmetry with illiberal democracy – as “undemocratic liberalism”. He notes that our political regimes have long ceased to function as liberal democracies and increasingly resemble undemocratic liberalism.

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