Defending the ‘liberal’ in liberal democracies

by Amal Karim | Published: 00:05, Aug 28,2017 | Updated: 23:29, Aug 27,2017


IN EVERYDAY parlance, words like ‘democracy’ and ‘liberalism’ are often used without giving much thought to their nuanced definitions. In more sophisticated discourse, we might sometimes hear the word ‘democracy’ qualified by ‘liberal’, to indicate a particular variant of democracy. Is this an attempt to make the liberal underpinnings of democracy more explicit or does this imply that democracies do not have to necessarily be liberal and that there are alternatives? In other words, is it possible to have a durable democracy that is not also liberal? The treatment of this question relies heavily upon how we understand the terms ‘liberal’ and ‘democracy.’ So, first I will review the two terms critical to this question: liberalism and democracy. Then I will explain how a robust liberal tradition is a necessity for a democracy to be successful and how ‘illiberal democracy’ is a misleading term. Liberalism and democracy are essentially two-sides of the same coin. If we want to have a stable and durable democracy, we also have to have the traditions and institutions that guarantee the autonomy of the individual; similarly, to have a fully realised form of liberalism, democracy is the most desirable form of government for citizens to express their political will and confer legitimacy on their chosen government.
‘Liberalism’ is a term that packages a host of concepts together into a single word. Most famously advanced by nineteenth-century European political philosophers like John Locke and John Stuart Mill, classical liberalism is at its core a tradition that prioritises the individual over the broader community or the state. In the liberal tradition, the individual enjoys a great deal of autonomy and personal freedom from the state or ruler’s interference or intimidation. Practically, advocates of liberalism want to ensure a set of civil liberties that ensure that every citizen is considered the political equal of those in power. The basic civil liberties that are protected under liberalism include freedom of belief, opinion, discussion, speech, publication, broadcast, assembly, demonstration, petition, and freedom from intimidation or undue interference in citizens’ personal lives. In addition, liberalism is intimately tied with the right to own and manage personal property such that historically, ‘the systematic protection of property rights transformed societies. It meant that the complex web of feudal customs and privileges — all of which were obstacles to using property efficiently — could be eliminated.’
The tenets of liberalism and the liberal promise to respect civil liberties and property rights can be institutionalised in several political ways. Civil liberties are often protected in documents such as the American Bill of Rights, human rights charters, written constitutions, or even in an unwritten constitution such as that of Great Britain. Furthermore, a politically liberal society is characterised by a strong sense of the rule of law and a separation of powers in government. This point goes back to the idea that the individual enjoys freedom from arbitrary treatment by the state and that all citizens have a dignity that cannot be legitimately infringed upon by the state; instead, both ordinary citizens and people in positions of governmental power are subject to the overarching authority of the law. Similarly, the individual can rely upon the checks provided by one branch of government to prevent an overzealous exercise of power by another branch. In spite of this Fareed Zakaria also argues, ‘this bundle of freedoms — what might be termed as ‘constitutional liberalism’ — has nothing intrinsically to do with democracy and the two have not always gone together, even in the west.’ He points out that there have been many regimes throughout history that have been elected through democratic means, but have by no means been liberal such as Hitler’s Nazi regime that was democratically elected into power.
Defining ‘democracy’ is the next critical step, but this is a rather complicated matter. Scholars generally define democracy in two general methods: a thin definition and a thick definition. The thin definition relies on a procedural understanding of democracy. This is to say that if citizens of a country are able to choose and replace their leaders in free and fair elections, then we have the minimal procedural basis for a democracy. In a democracy, there is an institutionalised electoral mechanism that allows citizens to have a say in who governs and what policies they enact; citizens also have the ability to replace the governing body with another party if they are unhappy about government performance. In addition, it is generally understood that in a democracy there is no discrimination in determining who is allowed to vote – there should be universal suffrage for all adult citizens who meet basic competency requirements. Furthermore, opposition and dissent against the ruling power must be tolerated. That is to say, the electoral arena has to be open to any group that follows constitutional rules and wishes to run for office.
The thick definition of democracy is recognition that the electoral mechanism alone is not sufficient to ensure a strong democracy. This definition supplements the procedural definition by adding elements and requirements that we would recognise as similar or even identical to the bundle of freedoms in the liberal tradition, so much so that the thick definition is essentially a description of a ‘liberal democracy’. These supplements include the existence of an independent judiciary, strong rule of law, protection of civil liberties, due process of law, legal equality, and institutional checks on power, among others. Zakaria distinguishes the process of determining who will rule (procedural) from the goals government and society broadly pursue (constitutional liberalism). Larry Diamond makes a similar distinction, ‘Genuine competition to determine who rules does not ensure high levels of freedom, equality transparency, social justice or other liberal values. Electoral democracy helps to make these other values more achievable, but it does not by any means ensure them.’ However, arguing that society needs to be liberal in order to fulfil the definition of a ‘liberal democracy’ is a circular argument. Therefore, I will proceed using a thinner, proceduralist definition of democracy to prove that democracy must be liberal in order to remain democratic.
Robert Dahl argues that we need three guarantees for citizens to be able to make their preferences known to the government and government to be responsive to these preferences. This is a rephrasing of the procedural definition – that citizens in a democracy must have the ability to choose their government and that government is subject to the will of the majority (in most cases). Dahl states that citizens have to be able to formulate their preferences, to signify their preferences, and that these preferences have to be weighted equally in the conduct of the government. Note that in these opportunities, there is no mention of civil liberties or rule of law – it is simply a description of the necessary procedural dimensions of democracy. However when we step back a step further, we see that in practicality the proper manifestation of these opportunities relies upon a set of preconditions and a particular political/social climate. For the first opportunity, citizens who seek to formulate their preferences have to be able to form and join organisations, enjoy freedom of expression, the right to vote, and have access to alternative sources of information. Then in order to signify their preferences, citizens must have the ability to run for public office and participate in free and fair elections, in addition to the previously mentioned guarantees. While Dahl chooses not to elaborate on the necessity of these perquisites, it is not difficult to see the connection. For example, without a liberal institution like a free press, the electorate will remain uninformed about government abuses of power. Or if the right to assemble is not respected, government dissenters will face obstacles in their mission to organise into a cohesive opposition. If citizens live in constant fear that they could be whisked away from their families on a politically motivated charge and be at the mercy of a compromised judiciary system we cannot expect a robust and genuine arena for electoral competition. Lastly, if there is no guarantee of peoples’ freedom to associate, we cannot expect a civil society that acts as intermediary bodies between the state and the individual.
Thus Zakaria’s term ‘illiberal democracy’ is misleading in important ways. It implies that a state can be democratic and illiberal when in fact a state’s illiberalness voids its ability to function fully as a democracy, even in its most minimal definition. For example, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez was democratically elected into power and continued to enjoy the supposed support of a majority of the population. However, he also curbed individual freedoms and gained a stranglehold on the press. So even if he ostensibly functioned as a democratic leader, Chavez was denying citizens the ability to openly and meaningfully formulate and signify their preferences. What is more, ‘illiberal’ regimes such as Chavez’s are not bound by the package of liberties and checks on power that liberalism entails. Procedure without effect is just an empty gesture. Liberalism provides the framework within which a successful democratic state operates. Without the limiting bounds of the liberal tradition, an otherwise textbook-defined democracy can descend into a completely autocratic state and ceases to be democratic at all. Then the other side of this argument is that democracy is the logical and inevitable political expression of liberalism. To an avowedly liberal society, democracy represents a political system where equality and competition for power is intrinsic to its success. People who enjoy freedom in their personal lives will want the ability to exercise their freedoms in the political sphere and make the government responsive to their actions.
Thomas Carothers offers a useful analysis of a concrete example – situations where liberalism and democracy have not quite lined up. He writes of the many countries that made a ‘transition’ to democracy during what Huntington termed the third-wave and became mired in a ‘gray zone’ that is neither fully autocratic nor completely democratic. These countries are usually procedurally democratic but are not entirely liberal and often feature dominant-party politics. In these countries, the line between the state and the ruling party is blurred, the arena for opposition is limited, and elections can just barely be considered free and fair. The ‘ruling group [is] able to keep political opposition on the ropes while permitting enough political openness to alleviate pressure from the public.’ This type of system is procedurally democratic but illiberal because the prospect that any other party, group, or movement can gain power is so minimal that elections and opposition are rendered futile. Again, procedure without effect or prospect is meaningless.
Larry Diamond’s The Spirit of Democracy advances the argument that democracy requires more than just the procedural minimal of elections. Any judge will agree that while the letter of the law is critical, equally important is the spirit of the law. When considering democracy and democratic governments, elections seem to fulfil the literal, procedural, ‘letter of the law,’ but the spirit of the democracy is in fact liberalism. Democracy and liberalism may have only recently become intertwined in practice, but theoretically, democracy and liberalism are two-sides of the same coin. A democracy that is not also liberal is not in fact a democracy. Without the guarantees of individual freedoms found in constitutional liberalism and institutionalised checks on power, citizens’ ability to make their preferences known are hindered, throwing the entire democratic project into jeopardy.

More about:

Want stories like this in your inbox?

Sign up to exclusive daily email