Does Liberalism Unfold Democracy or Constrain it?

Liberalism - Liberty Bell
NPS Photo

Liberalism and Democracy have a long history. Most theorists now refer to liberal democracy as a more complete form of democracy, but the role of liberalism is rarely clarified. Is it a counterweight to democracy or its cornerstone? This is the eight part of the Democracy Paradox, a comprehensive theory of democracy.

Liberalism and Democracy

The specter of democracy has long been the “tyranny of the majority.” John Stuart Mill wrote in his classic On Liberty, “‘The tyranny of the majority’ is now generally included among the evils against which society requires to be on its guard,” while Alexis de Tocqueville warned, “A majority taken collectively may be regarded as a being whose opinions, and most frequently whose interests, are opposed to those of another being, which is styled a minority.” Skeptics of democratic governance raise this concern as an excess of democracy. Of course, most advocates of democracy believe liberal rights and democracy belong together or as Marc Plattner eloquently put it, “You can’t have one without the other.” The relationship between liberalism and democracy is well established. But the nature of this relationship is largely ignored. The question I raise is whether liberalism is a condition for democracy or a constraint upon it. 

Democracy as a Process

In many ways, democracy is a process for the creation of public policy. In this light, democracy remains agnostic towards the goals, aims, or even consequences of public policy. It merely reflects the process for public policy formulation without any judgement upon the policy itself. Democracy as an idea does not challenge this interpretation, but rather recognizes the formalization of the democratic process may permit its manipulation to violate its original intent. Moreover, formalization forces choices that may undermine some aspects of democracy in order to ensure others. Democracy as an idea escapes tradeoffs to recognize the goals and aspirations of democratization. Nonetheless, democracy must eventually be put into practice and from this perspective it helps to think of it as a process. 

Of course, all politics involve some distinction between policy and process. Policy refers to the ends of politics, while process is the means. A stable political regime will consolidate the political process to focus on the creation of public policy. Autocratic and democratic regimes will fundamentally differ in their approach to the political process, but not necessarily in their actual policies. Some authoritarian regimes may favor capitalist economies, while others heavily regulate them. Democracies can develop different economic policies as well, although it’s less likely to adopt extreme positions in a pluralistic society. Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan noted no democracy can be a purely capitalistic or a purely socialistic economy. I believe this is a likely outcome of democracy in practice, but not a theoretical requirement. In other words, it’s possible, but unlikely. 

Liberalism as Public Policy or Political Process

Of course, democracies and dictatorships frequently have different policies on human rights. As I have emphasized, it is difficult to disentangle liberalism from democracy. The two fundamentally belong together. And yet, the imposition of liberal policies removes them from the democratic process. Indeed, too often scholars describe liberalism as a box to contain democracy rather than as a precondition to strengthen it. We must determine whether the adjective “liberal” in the phrase “liberal democracy” is descriptive or emphatic. Does “liberal democracy” imply a form of democracy or a richer, fuller sense of democracy?

The question has relevance in the current political environment. Politicians like Viktor Orbán in Hungary have embraced the term “illiberal democracy.” The term only has meaning when liberal democracy is imagined as one possibility among many. Illiberal democracy becomes a contradiction when theorists conceive of liberalism as a necessary condition for democracy. Liberalism, as such, does not merely distinguish democracy, but rather unfolds the larger aims of democratic values. The challenge though remains to determine whether liberalism describes public policy or the political process. Authoritarians believe human rights belong to the realm of public policy. Democrats, on the other hand, reinterpret human rights as a component of the political process. 

A Paradigm Shift

Indeed, democracy forces a paradigm shift in how political regimes consider fundamental human rights. An authoritarian regime may gradually liberalize and protect human rights as a matter of public policy, but democracies defend human rights as a condition of the political process. In this light, the shift from an authoritarian to a democratic regime involves more than elections or representative government. It involves a paradigm shift in its relationship to civil liberties. In contrast to an authoritarian regime, democracies depend upon fundamental human rights like freedom of expression and assembly to participate in governance. It is impossible to imagine political freedom without political expression so liberalism becomes a part of the political process in a democratic regime. 

Sheri Berman has argued liberalism and democracy have developed together. The extension of voting rights to new groups naturally leads to greater respect for their rights. Conversely, the extension of human rights to marginalized groups often leads to the extension of voting rights. Of course, democracies do not remain immune to the violation of human rights. Again, this comes back to the idea of democracy. We describe regimes as democratic despite their inconsistencies. The idea of democracy reflects our aspirations rather than our reality. My point is democratic regimes do not always govern democratically. But this does not mean there are not fundamental differences between authoritarian and democratic regimes. 

Human Rights as Public Policy

Some authoritarian regimes, on the other hand, repress their people less than others. Some dictatorships will even respect and guarantee fundamental civil liberties. England, for an example, has a tradition of liberalism that predates its democratization. It is also a classic example where civil liberties gradually shifted from a form of policy to a form of participation. Monarchical toleration of free expression is fundamentally different from John Stuart Mill’s defense in On Liberty where society deliberates ideas in a public sphere to determine truth. Authoritarian governments tolerate civil liberties, whereas democracies depend upon them.  Once authoritarian governments begin to link civil liberties to political participation, the process of democratization has likely already begun. 

Of course, few authoritarian governments deserve the description of liberal. This is no accident. So long as human rights remains a policy choice, repression remains a viable policy. Democracy removes human rights from the policy agenda through constitutional guarantees, because any infringements on fundamental human rights become obstacles to political inclusion and participation. Now authoritarian governments may place protections of human rights in their constitutions as well. They may even defend human rights as a moral cause. But human rights remain contested as a policy decision. Moreover, civil liberties open new channels in the political process that threaten autocratic principles. they become a cancer in an authoritarian regime where democracy may gradually develop. So while authoritarian regimes may permit different degrees of human rights, they cannot fundamentally embrace them in the same manner as a fully democratized regime. 

The Mutability of the Political Process

Nonetheless, the compartmentalization of human rights outside the democratic agenda raises some problems for democratic theory. The reclassification of human rights as a component of the political process does not entirely resolve the challenge for democratic theory. Democracies do revise their political process. Sometimes the revisions strengthen democratic aspirations, while other reforms may undermine it. Still others may have little relevance for the quality of democracy at all and may reflect minor technicalities. The Ancien Régimes of the past relied upon traditions to cement the political process and its procedures. Liberalism opened the possibility to realign these traditions to accord with human reason. Democracies continue to tinker and refine their own procedures for better and for worse. 

Most democracies and even many authoritarian governments formalize their political process in a constitution. Constitutions give the impression of legal permanence. Its formality offers a security absent in an environment of purely arbitrary, autocratic rule. Nonetheless, constitutions also designate the process for their own reform. They institutionalize their own mutability. In contrast, traditional societies appealed to ancient traditions and customs which the rulers lacked a formal process to change or amend. Constitutionalism is a solution to the overwhelming possibilities modernity makes available. But in a democratic context, it means democracies have the power to transform their own process. To phrase it another way, democracies have the power to transform the very meaning of democracy. Indeed, democracies rarely remain stagnant. They have redefined themselves through the expansion of the electorate and the development of new ways for participation. 

The Consequences of Modernity

Perhaps democracy is simply a consequence of modernity. It incorporates a Kantian division of politics into means and ends where the legitimacy of the ends depend on the legitimacy of the means to accomplish them. But the divide between means and ends, process and policy, also detaches democracy from truth or rather it refines the meaning of truth in politics. Political freedom means each people determine their own laws and policies. A policy or law may work for one community, but not another. Democracy does not judge a policy as right or wrong, but as right or wrong for a community. Moreover, the community may determine a law is right one day and wrong the next.

Of course, modernity does not make democracy inevitable. Modernity ripped a divide between the political process and public policy. Democracy makes the process paramount, but divergent ideological traditions like communism and fascism gave priority to policy. They believed the ends justified the means so they established totalitarian dictatorships to bring about their policy goals. Even less dramatic forms of authoritarianism like the military dictatorships in Latin America arose from a desire to control the policy agenda. More traditional societies constrained their rulers through customs and traditions. Modernity transformed all forms of political societies through a distinction between the political process and public policy. 

A Harbinger of Postmodernity

Still democracy is more than a consequence of modernity, but also a harbinger of postmodernity. Democracies find they can place the process itself onto the policy agenda. The United States has found ways to reform multiple times through the expansion of the electorate to the abolition of slavery to the direct election of senators. However, it has also found ways to roll back reforms and become less democratic. Suzanne Mettler and Robert C. Lieberman write, “To this day, the United States remains the only functioning democracy in Western history ever to have taken away voting rights from such a large number of citizens who had been exercising them previously.” The Jim Crow era is a dramatic example where the political process became less democratic through a formally “democratic” process. 

Nonetheless, a clear difference emerges between reforms designed to democratize from those meant to rollback or undermine democratic reforms. Efforts to democratize focus on the process itself whereas efforts to roll back reforms have a policy agenda in mind. Voter suppression is never simply about the right to vote, but also about the control of public policy and law. Democracy is different, because it does not guarantee policy outcomes. It has no political ideology.

Is Liberalism an Ideology?

And yet, democracy has become synonymous with liberalism. So is liberalism an ideology? In many ways, liberalism is an ideology of inclusion. But it has also come to mean a vast range of different ideas and principles. Both Friedrich Hayek and John Maynard Keynes referred to themselves as liberals despite their fundamental differences in economics. Indeed, it is difficult to pin down liberalism into a clear set of ideas. It has become less a set of principles than a general sense or attitude. Liberalism in respect to democracy has commonly meant a respect for human rights and the rule of law. 

But liberalism also places reason above tradition. It is idealistic rather than realistic. It considers the world as it should be rather than merely the world as it is. Liberal democracy strives to realign institutions and traditions to reflect democracy as an idea. It looks to bring about the purest form of democracy into existence. In contrast, conservatism grounds these aspirations into institutions where they can take root and become established. Ironically, democracies must become conservative as they consolidate. It makes reform more difficult, but ensures democratic principles become embedded in the political system. Liberals may continue to push for new reforms, but conservatives committed to democracy focus on the preservation of institutions that democracy has learned to rely upon. 

A Conservative Democracy?

So, liberalism does find its truest expression in democracy. But the consolidation of democracy may actually depend less on a liberal sense of democracy than a conservative one. Nobody writes about the need for a conservative democracy. Obviously, conservatives had long opposed democracy as a challenge to traditional institutions. But democracy has survived long enough that many cultures have grown accustomed to its institutions and norms. The long term survival of democracy may depend less on liberalism than the adoption of conservative democracy. 

A Few Sources

Sheri Berman (2017), “The Pipe Dream of Undemocratic Liberalism,” Journal of Democracy

Patrick Deneen (2018), Why Liberalism Failed

John Stuart Mill (1859), On Liberty

Marc Plattner (1998), “Liberalism and Democracy: Can’t Have One Without the Other,” Foreign Affairs

Alexis de Tocqueville (1835), Democracy in America

Democracy Paradox Podcast

Can America Preserve Democracy without Retreating from it? Robert C. Lieberman on the Four Threats 

Takis Pappas on Populism and Liberal Democracy

More Episodes from the Podcast

Leave a Reply

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: