Our understanding of liberal democracy begins with a contradiction. The universality of liberalism, which establishes the basis for human rights and the rule of law, collides with the radical freedom of democracy. Both ideas embody the principle of self-determination, but they reflect different aspects of the same idea. Liberalism is the self-determination of the person, while democracy is the self-determination of a people. Nonetheless, this insight gives hope for a resolution. They are two sides of the same coin. Different aspects of the same idea.
Neither liberalism nor democracy is clearly defined. Their meanings are contested, debated and repurposed to support new theories and ideas. Francis Fukuyama begins to define liberalism as the idea of inalienable human rights and the rule of law but goes on to incorporate an economic classical liberalism. Liberalism has also come to symbolize economic freedom and a market economy. But this meaning is lost in the United States where liberalism has become reinterpreted after the Presidencies of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson to represent support for a social welfare state. Amartya Sen clarifies the evolution of liberalism albeit indirectly. He demonstrates an advocacy for social welfare policies does not require a rejection of a market economy.
It is not necessary to pinpoint the meaning of liberalism here. Rather all the different meanings aim towards a fundamental truth applicable to all circumstances. This is the basis for the liberal education. It does not consist in a specific course of study so much as a reshaping of the mind to use human reason and logic in analysis, study and argument. Thus, human rights become central to the liberal worldview. They are considered universal throughout time and place. China has tried to justify its failure to meet this standard as a cultural difference. But liberalism never considers culture. Its precepts apply universally, in all circumstances.
Democracy, on the other hand, demands a radical freedom. Any limitations on democracy are limitations on the principle of self-determination. Of course, there are different manifestations or definitions of democracy. The differences between direct and representative democracy are significant on both a philosophical and practical level. But they both incorporate possibility and creativity into their decision-making process. There is an unpredictability inherent within the democratic process. Efforts to control or direct democracy become antithetical to the spirit of democracy.
There is a moral relativism necessary for the acceptance of democracy. The democratic process may not deliver a desirable political outcome. It may conflict with deep ingrained political principles. Communism was never compatible with democracy because communists place greater value on their political principles than the political process. Lenin famously repeated that the end justifies the means. But all political ideologies face this same moral conundrum. How far are they willing to go to put their laws and policies into place?
Ayn Rand was a fierce opponent of communism. She reinterpreted selfishness as a moral virtue. But her credo that the end does not justify the means was never consistent. The democratic process requires humility and commitment from its participants. Rand felt any compromise of her political principles was a challenge to morality. There is no room for the democratic process within her political theory. Rather, her political vision allows for the ends of an ideological vision to justify the form of the political process. A dictator or aristocracy is perfectly compatible with objectivist theory if her political principles are incorporated into public policy.
Rand based her moral philosophy on the ideas of Immanuel Kant. His categorical imperative was radically deontological. Her political principles were derived from a deontological process. But their implementation required a teleological political system. The political system existed to create moral public policy. Democracy is deontological because it reflects a process driven approach to public policy. The laws and policies become justifiable not because they reflect a moral code but because they were approved through a moral process.
This Kantian defense of democracy redefines the political process. Democracy is no longer a means to achieve ideological aims. Rather it becomes an end unto itself. It departs from traditional Enlightenment ideals to become a postmodern phenomenon. Democracy is not practiced for the sake of human rights, economic equality or world peace. The political process is valued more than the outcome of the political policies. The radical freedom of democracy allows any possible policy to emerge. The value of democracy does not rely on its outcome. Democracy is valued for its own sake.
Both direct and representative democracy rely on institutions to fulfill their promise. The two different forms of democracy will diverge in dramatically different directions, but their intentions are largely the same. Both aim to establish a political process where political policies reflect the will of the people. They each strive to achieve a form of self-governance for the people. Institutions establish a relational framework between the people. This makes them indispensable in any political system. Or rather a political system becomes a composite of different institutions.
The Western evolution of democracy has produced a package of “democratic institutions.” Key to these institutions has been the election. A common aphorism among democracy scholars and advocates has been that democracy is more than elections. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine without a representative assembly, independent judiciary and a constitution complete with a bill of rights. But this may simply reflect the European and American evolution of democracy. It is possible to establish a democracy using a very different institutional framework. David Van Reybrouck has advocated using lot rather than elections to choose representatives. His idea is based on the Athenian method of selecting leaders. Indeed, the Greeks considered elections to reflect an aristocratic rather than democratic spirit. The lot system of representation has seen limited use in a few circumstances over the years but will require an entirely new institutional framework.
No matter how democracy is constructed the process itself must become sacred in order to succeed. Political scientists have overemphasized the role of institutions. Dating back to the creation of the American constitution, there is always great debate about the outward forms of political systems. But within recent years scholars have continued to emphasize the role of institutions. Juan Linz wrote of the “Perils of Presidentialism.” I do not mean that institutions have no role in the success or failure of political systems. Nor do I mean to imply institutions do not influence the way political systems function. But a successful democratic political system is not simply the collection of its institutions. The American experience in nation building in Iraq has demonstrated how democracy cannot be simply imposed.
Its difficult to divorce democracy from the mere presence of elections. For many the mere existence of elections is the essence of democracy. Moreover, the institutions beyond elections can look like limitations on democracy itself. It is difficult to differentiate democracies from nondemocracies without a reliance on the existence of elections. But elections are not always the instruments of democracy. They can represent a tool of repression. This nuanced view of elections complicates our understanding of democracy. It allows us to ask more penetrating questions toward a true discovery of the idea known as democracy.
jmk, carmel, indiana, email@example.com