The Double Threat to Liberal Democracy – Dani Rodrik


Dani Rodrik

The crisis of liberal democracy is today severely 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 calls this type of regime – in perfect symmetry with illiberal democracy – “undemocratic liberalism”. He notes that our political regimes have long ceased to function as liberal democracies and increasingly resemble undemocratic liberalism.

The European Union may be the pinnacle of this trend. The establishment of a single market and monetary unification in the absence of political integration required the delegation of policy to technocratic bodies such as the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the European Court of Justice. Decision-making is increasingly taking place at a considerable distance from the public. Even though Britain is not a member of the eurozone, Brexiteers’ call to “take back control” has captured the frustration felt by many European voters.

The United States has not known anything like it, but similar trends have left many people feeling disenfranchised. As Mounk notes, policymaking is a literal mix of regulatory agencies – from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The use by independent courts of their prerogative of judicial review to promote civil rights, expand reproductive freedom and introduce many other social reforms has met with hostility from large segments of the population. And the rules of the global economy, administered by international agreements such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) or the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), are widely seen as being rigged against ordinary workers. .

The interest of Mounk’s book is to underline the importance of the two constituent terms of liberal democracy. We need restrictions on the exercise of political power to prevent majorities (or those in power) from violating the rights of minorities (or those not in power). But we also need public policies to be responsive and accountable to the preferences of the electorate.

Liberal democracy is inherently fragile because reconciling its terms does not produce a natural political balance. When elites have sufficient power, they have little interest in reflecting the preferences of the general public. When the masses mobilize and claim power, the resulting compromise with the elites seldom produces lasting guarantees to protect the rights of those not represented at the negotiating table. Thus, liberal democracy tends to degenerate into one or another of its perversions – illiberal democracy or undemocratic liberalism.

In our article “The political economy of liberal democracy, ” Sharun Moukand and I discuss the foundations of liberal democracy in terms similar to those used by Mounk. We emphasize that societies are divided by two potential cleavages: an identity cleavage which separates a minority from the ethnic, religious or ideological majority, and a wealth gap which opposes the rich to the rest of society.

The depth and alignment of these divisions determine the likelihood of various political regimes. The possibility of liberal democracy is always undermined by illiberal democracy on the one hand and what we call “liberal autocracy” on the other, depending on whether the majority or the elite hold the upper hand.

Our framework makes it possible to highlight the fortuitous circumstances in which liberal democracy emerges. In the West, liberalism preceded democracy: the separation of powers, freedom of expression and the rule of law were already in place before the elites agreed to extend the right to vote and submit to power. popular. The “tyranny of the majority” remained a major preoccupation for the elites and was countered in the United States, for example, by an elaborate system of checks and balances, effectively crippling the executive for a long time.


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Elsewhere in the developing world, popular mobilization has occurred in the absence of a liberal tradition or practice. Liberal democracy was seldom a lasting result. The only exceptions seem to be relatively egalitarian and very homogeneous nation-states like South Korea, where there are no obvious social, ideological, ethnic or linguistic divisions than autocrats of either nature – illiberal or undemocratic – could exploit.

Today’s developments in Europe and the United States suggest the unfortunate possibility that liberal democracy was also a passing phase there. While we regret the crisis of liberal democracy, let us not forget that illiberalism is not the only threat it faces. We also need to find a way around the pitfalls of insufficient democracy.

Reissue prohibited. Copyright: Project Syndicate 2018 The double threat to liberal democracy

Dani Rodrik is Professor of International Political Economy at the Ford Foundation at Harvard Kennedy School.