Reading the newspaper today can make one easily depressed about democracy. Promising new democracies in Poland, Hungary, and Turkey have slid into illiberalism and pseudo-authoritarianism while long-standing democracies in the West are under attack most notably by populist parties whose liberal and perhaps even democratic commitments are uncertain. Some commentators, most notably Yascha Mounk and Roberto Foa, worry that “the warning signs are flashing red” and that it’s possible that democracy in the West is entering a period of terminal decline. What has caused this development and what is the solution to it?
One provocative answer put forward almost twenty years ago by journalist Fareed Zakaria in an influential essay on “illiberal democracy” is that democracy itself is to blame. Democracy, after all, means “rule by the people” and many elites look upon “the people” with fear: they can be uninformed, irrational, and prone to act in their own self-interest rather than with regard to the “common” or public good. Unchecked rule by the people can easily lead to illiberalism—or worse. As Zakaria put it, “today the two strands of liberal democracy . . . are coming apart. Democracy is flourishing . . . liberalism is not.”
Over the past few years concerns about “unchecked” democracy and rule by the people have exploded—but such concerns have been around as long as democracy itself. The ancient Greeks commonly equated democracy with mob rule. Aristotle, for example, worried about democracy’s tendency to degenerate into “chaotic rule by the masses” and in Plato’s The Republic, Socrates argues that given power and freedom the masses will indulge their passions, destroy traditions and institutions, and be easy prey for tyrants. Classical liberals, meanwhile, lived in mortal fear of democracy, convinced that once given power “the people” would trample the liberties and confiscate the property of elites. Great liberal thinkers like Tocqueville, John Stuart Mill, and Ortega y Gasset constantly worried about democracy leading to a “tyranny of the majority” and the masses’ susceptibility to illiberal dictators.
While concerns about illiberalism, populism, and majoritarianism are certainly well-founded, blaming such phenomena on an “excess” of democracy is not. Such arguments rest on a fundamental misunderstanding of how liberal democracy has historically developed and how liberalism and democracy actually interact.
With regard to the former, many analysts argue that the problems facing many new democracies are the consequence of democratization preceding the establishment of liberalism. In such situations the “passions of the people” run rampant, unleashing dangerous forces that make it extremely difficult to establish stable liberal democracy down the road. Zakaria, for example, argues that “constitutional liberalism has led to democracy, but democracy does not seem to bring constitutional liberalism.” Similarly, political scientists Jack Snyder and Edward Mansfield argue that if democratization occurs in countries where liberal traditions are not firmly established, illiberalism and conflict will likely result. “Premature, out-of-sequence attempts to democratize may make subsequent efforts to democratize more difficult and more violent than they would otherwise be.”
As for the latter argument, many contend that the problems facing established Western democracies are the consequence of an “excess” of democracy and a concomitant withering of liberalism. As commentator Andrew Sullivan put it, we are living in “hyperdemocratic times,” with the “passions of the mob” running rampant and posing a danger to democracy itself. “Democracies end,” the title of his piece in New York magazine reads, “when they are too democratic.”
Both of these arguments are wrong. Historically illiberal democracy has been a stage on the route to liberal democracy rather than the end point of a country’s political trajectory. Indeed, in the past, the experience of, or lessons learned from, flawed and even failed democratic experiments have played a crucial role in helping societies appreciate liberal values and institutions. And many of the problems that have emerged in Western democracies today are not the result of “hyperdemocratization”—but the exact opposite. Over the past decades, democratic institutions and elites have become increasingly out of touch with and insulated from the people, contributing greatly to the anger, frustration, and resentment that is eating away at liberal democracy today. Let’s examine each of these points in turn.
A potted history of liberal democracy in Europe
France—the birthplace of both modern democracy and illiberal democracy—is a critical and revealing case. When the French rose up against the world’s most powerful dictatorship in 1789 many hoped it was the dawn of a new era but the transition soon went awry. In 1793 the king was executed and a republic with universal male suffrage and a commitment to a broad range of civil and political rights was declared. But Europe’s first modern democracy did not last long, descending quickly into the so-called “Reign of Terror” in which 20,000–40,000 people were executed for “counter-revolutionary” activities. The English political theorist Edmund Burke was only the most well-known conservative critic to argue that France’s experience showed the dangers of democracy and the need to restrain the people and their passions. But Burke and the other critics were wrong. Even though France’s first democratic experiment slid quickly into illiberalism and then dictatorship, eliminating the ancien régime made a profound contribution to the eventual development of liberal democracy. It did so by replacing a feudal economic and social order with a market system based on private property and equality before the law, and embedding in France (and spreading across Europe) the idea that society was composed of equal citizens, rather than functionally different hereditary groups (such as nobles or peasants).
And so even when a new Bourbon king came back to France after Napoleon’s demise, he had to rule under a constitution that required limited suffrage and the protection of basic civil liberties. When kings tried to water these things down in 1830 and 1848, the people revolted. The latter uprising led to yet another transition to democracy, which also failed, resulting in the rise of a populist dictator—Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte (the previous Napoleon’s nephew). When Louis-Napoleon’s regime fell after France’s defeat by Germany in 1870, a bloody uprising occurred (the Paris Commune of 1871), followed by yet another transition to democracy with the Third Republic. This third try at democracy produced France’s most stable regime since the revolution and the one that came closest to liberal democracy. The Third Republic eventually fell in 1940, weakened first by the difficult interwar years and then conquered by the Nazi war machine, but democracy returned to France after the war. Supported by a propitious regional environment, the backing of the United States, and the benefits of having learned from the past, liberal democracy finally came to stay in France during the postwar period. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that France’s earlier inability to sustain liberal democracy did not preclude success later on; indeed, previous attempts were part of a long-term process that began with the French Revolution whereby non-democratic institutions, elites, and culture were eventually eliminated and their democratic successors forged. Similar stories could be told of other European countries.
Italy, for example, democratized just before the First World War and was plagued by chaos and conflict from early on. The First World War and its aftermath accelerated the country’s turmoil: between 1918 and 1922 urban and rural areas were plagued by uprisings and violence. In October 1922 the Italian king, urged on by conservatives, asked Mussolini to form a government. The shift to fascism was applauded by many within Italy and without who believed that a dictatorship would be better able to provide the order and development the country desperately needed. Such views were, of course, wrong. Not only was the fascist regime more violent and destructive than the weak democracy that preceded it, the problems that helped bring it to power were not the result of either democracy or the passions of the Italian people.
Instead, the disorder that beset Italy during the early twentieth century was to a large degree the consequence of the way in which the non-democratic regime that ruled Italy before its transition governed—by dividing and manipulating Italian citizens and by not providing proper channels for their legitimate demands and growing discontent to be expressed. The largely liberal elites that governed Italy after unification ignored the interests of the people rather than working to integrate them into the political system. They also ruled through a system of institutionalized corruption that delegitimized political institutions and created resentment and frustration since certain groups were denied access to political power and the benefits that went with it. And because the political system was not responsive to the people’s concerns and demands, the divisions within Italian society—between secular and religious; an advanced, industrial north and a backward, even feudal south; and politically “in” and “out” groups—were never effectively addressed. When a transition to democracy occurred, therefore, these divisions rose to the surface and the new regime was burdened with a huge variety of problems. To claim, in other words, that the chaos and conflict that plagued Italy during the interwar years was primarily caused by the “dysfunctionality” of democracy or the inherent “immaturity” or “irrationality” of the Italian masses is a dramatic misreading of history.
The same was true of Germany, which democratized after the First World War. The young Weimar Republic was immediately plagued by conflict and extremism, all of which were fed by the Great Inflation of the early 1920s and the Great Depression of the early 1930s. In response to the latter, mainstream political actors dithered, allowing extremists to gain ground; in January 1933, Hitler was offered the chancellorship and Germany’s democratic experiment came to an end. Critics claimed that Weimar and other failed interwar democratic experiments showed that democracy and rule by the people were disasters waiting to happen. Only authoritarian political systems ruled by a strong leader, they claimed, could ensure order and head off social strife, political instability, and moral permissiveness. Once again, however, the critics were wrong. Weimar’s fate had less to do with any inherent deficiencies in democracy than it did with problems created by the non-democratic regime preceding it.
Modern Germany was unified from above under the auspices of its most powerful state, the conservative and militaristic Prussia, and had what we would now consider a “semi-authoritarian” regime. Something resembling the rule of law existed but the executive was insulated from the full impact of elections to the lower house of parliament (the Reichstag) because the chancellor did not require its support to stay in power. The undemocratic nature of this regime created strong incentives for rulers to manipulate various social groups in order to get what they wanted. Otto von Bismarck, who served as chancellor for two decades (1871–1890), was a master of dividing, suppressing, and demonizing his socialist and Catholic opponents, deepening divisions between Protestants and Catholics, between religious and secular Germans, and between workers and elites. Bismarck’s “enemies of the state” policy also exerted a pernicious influence over German nationalism, helping to cement the idea that Germany faced enemies without and within. The result was a Germany unified politically but increasingly divided against itself, with a warped sense of nationalism, a paranoia about internal and external enemies, and rising levels of frustration and extremism since non-democratic governments proved unable or unwilling to respond to public demands. When democratization finally occurred in 1918, therefore, the new democracy inherited crippling legacies, including a divided society, radical nationalist movements, a devastated economy, and deliberately falsified blame for the loss of the war and all the political, economic, and psychological consequences that flowed from it. The Weimar Republic’s travails, in short, had less to do with democracy or the passions of Germany’s people than it did with the previous non-democratic regime’s poisonous policies.
As in France, in Germany and Italy, as well as Austria, Spain, and many other European countries, even though initial attempts at democracy decayed into illiberalism and/or eventually failed, they did not forestall the development of liberal democracy down the road; indeed, often they contributed to it in important ways by breaking down the anti-democratic legacies of old regimes and building up the infrastructure of new democratic ones. Indeed, when Western Europe got a chance at democratic reconstruction after 1945, citizens and elites looked back at the mistakes of the past and built new democracies explicitly designed to avoid them by including checks on executive power, protection for minorities, guarantees of individual rights, and provisions for social security in postwar constitutions. In most European countries, in short, it took failed illiberal and failed democratic experiments to create an appreciation for liberal values and institutions and to recognize the importance of combining them with democracy.
Even the cases most often held by analysts of illiberal democracy as “ideal types”—that is, ones where liberalism seemed to develop before a transition to democracy occurred—are often misunderstood and reveal a very different relationship between liberalism and democracy than most contemporary critics of “excesses” of the latter convey. Most notably, the purported liberalism that predated democracy was thin and limited.
Take Britain, for example, the country held up by many, including Zakaria, as exemplifying the preferred political sequence. The institutionalization of liberalism in Britain is most often dated from 1688’s Glorious Revolution, which gave Britain a constitution that limited the powers of the king, increased those of the parliament, and established important civil rights. But up through the early twentieth century Britain was as an aristocratic oligopoly where power was concentrated in the hands of an Anglican landowning elite. This elite was the most politically powerful in Europe: it dominated all high-status positions in the British civil service, military, judiciary, and Church, government as well as in the House of Lords and the House of Commons. It also controlled political, administrative, and juridical functions in the countryside as well as immense wealth. Indeed, the British landowning elite was richer and controlled more of its country’s economic resources (land) than any other elite in Europe. Up through the nineteenth century, in short, the “liberalism” that existed in Britain did not prevent the British landowning elite from enjoying a combination of wealth, social status, and political power that might make today’s plutocrats blush.
The thin or limited nature of British liberalism was directly related to the non-democratic nature of the political system: property and religious restrictions on the right to vote and gerrymandering that favored rural districts enabled the elite’s domination of the economy, society, and government and ensured that the vast majority of British citizens were excluded from the wealth, status, and power full participation would surely bring. In addition, the lack of democracy facilitated pervasive corruption. Rural, depopulated areas were often referred to as “rotten boroughs” since they were controlled by landowning elites who used them to send their own hand-picked representatives to parliament. In other constituencies, large landowners simply used their wealth and influence to control electoral outcomes. Despite its purported liberalism, in other words, the lack of democracy in Britain enabled the perpetuation of oligarchy; it also ensured that neither minority nor individual rights were fully protected. English Catholics were legally oppressed and politically excluded and the Irish, of course, fared even worse. Workers and the poor, meanwhile, were not only banned from full political participation, many of their civil liberties (for example, to organize or protest) were restricted as well. It was only as pressure built during the nineteenth century for the incorporation of hitherto excluded groups—that is, democratization—that the full “benefits” of liberalism were gradually extended to the entire population.
A similarly thin or limited liberalism characterized the other main case often held up as exemplifying the benefits of having liberalism before democracy—the United States. As Zakaria and others have noted, the founding fathers were very skeptical of unchecked rule by the people and so put in place a variety of features to limit it. But it wasn’t, of course, merely democracy that was limited by the original American political order—liberalism was as well. Liberal rights were restricted to white, male Americans; women, slaves, and Native Americans were of course entirely excluded from the rule of law and other basic liberties. And particularly before the Civil War an entire section of the United States—the South—was, despite our political order’s ostensible liberalism, a tyrannical oligarchy. It took the bloodiest conflict in our history—the Civil War—to begin changing this, and even afterwards it took another century for the government to be able, or perhaps willing, to protect minorities, ensure the rule of law, enforce individual rights, and guarantee that basic civil liberties actually applied to all citizens.
Too much democracy or too little?
What about the argument that “hyperdemocratization” is at the heart of the problems facing liberal democracy in the West today? This argument has as little merit as the former one. In Europe and the United States dissatisfaction with liberal democracy and a willingness to vote for populist parties is a consequence not of too much democracy but too little—of citizens viewing democratic elites and institutions as out of touch and unresponsive to their needs. A 2017 Pew survey found that a mere 28 percent of Americans thought the future of the next generation would be better. Another 2015 survey found that only 19 percent believed that the government was being run “for the benefit of all,” and a 2016 study showed that both Democrats and Republicans viewed the other party as “immoral” or “threatening.” (Similar declines characterize European electorates—studies have shown that there is a clear correlation between lack of trust in political institutions and populist voting.)
In Europe, traditional political parties have hemorrhaged members (and in many cases voters) over the past generation, removing a strong link between the people and the political sphere and, as many have argued, politicians are increasingly drawn from elite educational and socioeconomic milieus, creating distance (and perhaps diverging interests from) those they purportedly represent. Also damaging was a widespread sense that the financial crisis was caused by governments that were more responsive to globalization and market forces than to their own people, and by political elites who were too cozy with bankers and the wealthy. Discontent has also been fueled by an undemocratic, technocratic European Union (EU). During the recent financial crisis in particular, issues with immense distributional consequences were taken out of the hands of nationally elected governments and placed in the purview of unelected EU technocrats and undemocratic EU institutions. In Southern Europe this tendency was taken to an extreme: in Italy, a non–democratically elected, technocratic government favored by Brussels replaced a democratically elected one, while in Greece a democratically elected government was forced to renege on explicit promises made to its own people because of threats of financial Armageddon by the EU. It is worth noting that the EU’s undermining of national democracy did not bring any (economic) counter-benefit. Indeed, political economists Matthias Matthijs and Mark Blyth have argued that the EU’s undemocratic, technocratic nature probably made policy-making during the crisis even worse by insulating “experts” from popular pressure, and hence, the need to reconsider unpopular and ineffective policies.
In democracies citizens, by collectively voting for a given party with given policy ideas, are exercising something like a put option. They are giving the ideas a chance, but retaining the option to “sell” the ideas by voting for someone else if the ideas don’t work out. Voters can always throw the bums out, if the bums’ ideas are rotten.
In a technocracy the citizens don’t really have a put option—they are stuck with bad policy ideas, like it or not, since those in charge are not elected. Technocrats therefore have a strong incentive to keep on implementing policy ideas, even if they are bad policy ideas since their authority and legitimacy depends on them being viewed as the experts, and the rules allow them to ignore popular pressure to deliver better outcomes. In this case, the put option cannot be exercised and the bad ideas persist.
It is hard to assert, in short, that Europe’s current problems are the results of an “excess” of democracy—indeed, it’s a deficit of democracy that is more likely the problem: governments grew increasingly out of touch with many of their people and their powers were undermined by global market forces and the EU. Is it any wonder, therefore, that calls for a re-assertion of national sovereignty and of “power to the people” have resonated in many European countries?
Similarly, in the United States it seems more likely that current problems are caused by limitations on democracy rather than an excess of it. The American political system has always had embedded in it myriad institutions designed to thwart the translation of popular preferences into political outcomes. Indeed, without these institutions it is likely we would not be in the mess we are in today. Without the blatantly undemocratic Electoral College, for example, we would not have Trump as president, and worries about the erosion of American democracy would be less pressing. Similarly, if we had a national legislative branch that more directly translated popular preferences into political outcomes than our Senate does, the more populous, liberal coasts would dominate politics at the national level, with immense policy-making consequences. Meanwhile at the state and local level voter restrictions and the expansion of gerrymandering have hindered voter participation, warped the translation of the people’s preferences into political outcomes, and turned what might otherwise be a minority party—the Republicans—into what increasingly looks like a permanent majority one. And finally, and perhaps most perniciously, the role of money in the American political system has made a mockery of the democratic ideal of equal political rights by enabling an economic oligarchy to translate its wealth into outsized political power and influence. That many Americans, in short, view democratic institutions and elites as fundamentally corrupt and unaccountable to them and are therefore willing to vote for politicians and parties who promise to blow them all up is not, unfortunately, all that hard to understand.
The democratic path to liberalism
Contemporary concerns about illiberal democracy are understandable: without basic liberal protections, democracy can easily slide into populism or majoritarianism. In the rush, however, to condemn illiberal democracy many have jumped to the conclusion that the way out of our current political problems lies via constricting democracy. This is wrong. First, because historically, liberalism and democracy have developed together—with illiberal or failed democratic experiments often being part of a long-term process via which the institutions, relationships, and norms of the old regime are eliminated and the infrastructure of liberal democracy built up.
Second, while it is true, as Zakaria put it, that “democracy without . . . liberalism is not simply inadequate, but dangerous,” it is also true that liberalism without democracy is inadequate and dangerous. In the past, liberalism without democracy has often led to some sort of oligarchy—as in Britain by a wealthy (landowning) elite or as in the United States by a dominant ethnic/religious group (white Protestants). Elites are no less moved by passion and self-interest than the people, and so, without the full incorporation of all citizens into the political system, they are likely to limit the benefits of liberalism, as well as access to economic resources and social status, to themselves. Today few (openly) make the case for oligarchy, instead what is most often advocated in response to fears of the people is technocracy—hiving off as much political life and policy-making as possible from the influence of uninformed, ignorant voters and placing it in the hands of experts instead. In an influential 1997 article entitled “Is Government Too Political?” Alan Blinder for example argued that we leave “too many policy decisions in the realm of politics and too few in the realm of technocracy”—it would be better, in his view, to have more institutions like the Federal Reserve or the European Central Bank where experts, insulated from popular pressures, could make wise, long-term decisions.
There are many flaws with this argument not the least of which is that it’s hard to make the case that insulated experts of the type praised by Blinder and others have done a great job handling the recent financial and other crises. But the more significant problem is that this “solution” would exacerbate the very problem it seeks to solve. As recent elections in the United States and Europe have made clear, the more people believe that political elites and institutions are unresponsive to them, the more likely they are to want to sideline or even eliminate them. Continuing to allow wealthy individuals and special interests outsized influence on politics, or insulating political institutions and policy-making further from “the people,” is therefore likely to increase support for populism, rather than diminish it. Oligarchy or technocracy and populism are not opposites but evil political twins: the former seek to limit democracy to save liberalism, the latter seeks to limit liberalism to save democracy. Neither is wise and they feed off and intensify the other.
Finally, these insights should make us rethink the problems we are having today with illiberal democracy and the potential solutions to them. Rather than restricting democracy, as many contemporary analysts favor, we should be revitalizing it instead. We need to find ways of making democratic institutions and elites more responsive to and representative of the people rather than the reverse. Fighting back the populist tide will require encouraging greater participation on the part of citizens and greater responsiveness on the part of elites and governments. If that occurs, our current democratic malaise may prove to be a passing phase. If not, Western liberal democracy may indeed be in peril.
Sheri Berman is a professor of political science at Barnard College and a member of the Dissent editorial board.