Yascha Mounk mistitled his latest book. He calls it The People vs. Democracy. But he should have called it “The People vs. Liberalism.” His recent work is based on the conflict between liberalism and majoritarianism. Eastern Europe has revolted against the West. The rise of Viktor Orban is just one example where a populist leader has captured wide public support. He is also the boldest. His vision of the “illiberal democracy” has raised questions about his true meaning. Does he really intend to create a democracy without a foundation built on human rights? Or is he referring to the Western vision of economic liberalization that has had mixed results in the Post-Communist world?
About twenty years ago, Fareed Zakaria wrote about the rise of the illiberal democracy. He described it as a pejorative term. He saw the rise of electoral democracies who failed to establish basic guarantees of civil liberties for their citizens. In a controversial essay, he argued liberalism was more important than democracy. He argued nations like Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand who were not democratic were preferable to nations like Slovakia or Ghana who had elections but failed to protect human rights.
The divide between liberalism and democracy is not limited to developing nations. The tension exists in Western Liberal Democracies. The politicization of the Courts is not limited to the United States. Renewed polarization has produced distrust and frustration with the courts in democracies around the world. Poland’s descent into “illiberalism” began with a dispute with the courts.
Around the world the court systems have expanded their power and expressed new powers to limit elected representatives. The decision of the Constitutional Court in Colombia to annul a constitutional amendment that would have allowed a third Presidential term is beyond any attempt in the United States. But the United States is unique in the difficulty to amend the constitution. It is surprisingly simple to amend the constitution in other nations. This has led the Colombian court to establish the precedent of the unconstitutional constitutional amendment. They held an amendment that affected the meaning of the greater document required a wholesale constitutional revision.
But the debate is larger than liberalism and representative government. The debate is really between effectiveness and representation. When is representative government no longer effective? Does it matter? And can government be effective when it has few limitations from the people or their representatives?
Mounk’s Undemocratic Dilemma encompasses the growth of bureaucracy, central banks and trade treaties. New institutions like the World Trade Organization have been established to negotiate disputes over trade. These institutions have reduced tariffs, increased trade and accelerated the growth of the global economy but have reduced sovereignty and eliminated any representative element from global economic policy. The European Union has received criticism for its democratic deficit.
Ironically, this is the debate between China and the West. China has not liberalized its political institutions because they value effectiveness over representation. It argues it represents “democratic centralism.” Yascha Mounk sees the same tension in the West. Institutions have been established for their effectiveness. Not only have they neglected to become representative, but their existence is based on the belief that representation is ineffective. This is the Democracy Paradox.
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