7 June 2018

Everyone loses in the clash between liberalism and democracy

By Ed West

A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of democracy. It’s odd to think that back when today’s students were still in nappies an American president could say that “There was a time when many said that the cultures of Japan and Germany were incapable of sustaining democratic values. Well, they were wrong. Some say the same of Iraq today. They are mistaken.”

Well, they weren’t, clearly, and the world has sure changed since, so that today many even question whether the culture of the United States is capable of sustaining democratic values. Or at least “liberal values”, which are increasingly under threat from democracy itself, as authoritarian populists make in-roads from the US to Sweden.

It seems odd that liberalism (in the older, wider sense) and democracy might be in conflict, like the scene in Superman 3 where Clark Kent fights his alter ego in a junk yard.

The two once went together almost like a compound, with “capitalist” as the third crucial element. People spoke about fighting the Cold War in terms of defending democracy.  It was what defined our way of life — and yet increasingly intellectuals in the centre and centre-left think democracy is a problem — not in the Middle East, but in the West.

It was Fareed Zakaria who coined the phrase “illiberal democracy” in The Future of Democracy: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad, but the term has been popularised by Yascha Mounk’s recent polemic The People v Democracy, about the rise of right-wing populists who use the exclusionary and violent rhetoric of dictators in their opposition to elites and minorities.

The populists of today are not “far-right” in any meaningful sense; they do not espouse militarism, revanchism or the cult of violence. But although some have fairly liberal views on issues such as homosexuality – or, perhaps more accurately, just aren’t that interest in social issues — it is not unreasonable to describe most as authoritarian. Donald Trump, in particular, strongly appealed to people’s basest instincts, undermined long-cherished democratic norms and even suggested his opponent should be in jail. It is not inaccurate to talk of “illiberal democracy” even if it will, inevitably, become as ubiquitous and overused as “fake news” and “post-truth”.

Democracy has become unfashionable, then. In Britain the shock referendum result led some public intellectuals to question not just the outcome but even the principle of democracy. Many, pointing out that the people were lied to, suggested the vote was null and void – as if people aren’t lied to in every election.

Dambisa Moyo has even suggested introducing voting criteria. She asked in the Guardian: “why not give all voters a test of their knowledge? This would ensure minimum standards that should lead to higher-quality decision-making by the electorate. The message this would send is that voting is not just a right, but one that has to be earned. Such testing would not only lead to a better-informed electorate, but also to voters who are more actively engaged.”

(I’d quite like for this to happen, just to see how long it was before the paper realised it disproportionately disenfranchised minority groups.) The idea of a Guardian writer seemingly wanting to turn the clock back to 1867 is certainly bizarre.

But perhaps there is no particular reason why liberalism and democracy should be bedfellows.

The first democracy, in Athens, was notoriously illiberal by most measures, and prone to making rash, violent decisions. In early modern times the initial liberal states by the North Sea were certainly not democratic, and feared mob rule which they (rightfully) saw as intolerant. In more authoritarian central Europe reform was introduced by enlightened despots, among them Austria’s Emperor Joseph II whose attempts at modernising the country was hugely resented by its peasantry; he later asked for his epitaph to be “Here lies Joseph II, who failed in all that he undertook.”

More recently, reform in 1960s Britain, with the abolition of the death penalty, anti-racist legislation and the legalisation of homosexuality, all came from above and almost certainly lacked popular support.

There has always been a gap between the “liberal elite”, to use that cliché, and the more conservative masses, even if radicals have always theoretically supported “the popular will”, or at least paid lip service to it.

It was Thomas Paine who best articulated the idea that the will of the people was always correct, arguing that “It will sometimes happen that the minority are right and the majority are wrong, but as soon as experience proves this to be the case, the minority will increase to a majority, and the error will reform itself by the tranquil operation of freedom of opinion and equality of rights.”

I would suggest that Paine was simply wrong here, as he was on lots of things. Many political debates are straightforward moral or ethical issues – should abortion be legal, for instance – and it’s quite reasonable that one’s person view is as good as another.

But others are fantastically complicated. I knew a fair bit about the workings and history of the EU before the calling of the referendum, or at least I thought I did; but the more I read in the build up to June 23, the more I felt like I didn’t have a clue, any more than if someone had asked me to fix the Large Hadron Collider.

Yet most people, both Remainers and Leavers, did vote on emotional grounds, even if the former were on average more motivated by financial concerns, and – on average – better educated. It’s the very nature of politics that people most of all vote for whoever is on their side.

British people find Trump’s election baffling and the US president is indeed a man with almost no redeeming features whatsoever. Yet if I were an American conservative and I saw the two candidates I would feel quite clearly that, whatever else she was, Hillary Clinton was not on my side.

Democracies have to take account of the emotional nature of partisan politics, but this is not dangerous so long as most people feel that they have something in common with their fellow electors. This is why the nation-state, and the ideology that supports it, nationalism, is so effective, despite its faults being occasionally catastrophic.

It is this sense of common identity which causes the socially conservative public to follow their leaders, confident that they will not take them too far down a road they aren’t prepared to travel. What’s different today compared to the reforming era of the 1960s is that elites are quite self-consciously globalist, working for a common international interest, and that many voters feel they’re not on their side. Clinton or Tony Blair or Nick Clegg feel quite consciously more comfortable around fellow internationalists than compatriots with whom they share very little except perhaps the same design of driving license.

That’s inevitable in a globalised world, and doesn’t make them bad people, but it’s a problem when liberalism has become intrinsically linked with diversity and large-scale population movement between countries, a policy largely unpopular in every western country – in fact, largely unpopular in every society that has ever existed. In western Europe, the strength of the populist movement pretty much correlates with the size of the migrant, and in particular non-European and Muslim migrant, population, with Spain, Ireland and Scotland largely untouched by populism.

Eastern Europe is a somewhat different case, since even before its Communist imprisonment it had relatively little experience of liberalism and even today has far lower social capital than the west, reflected in historically low membership of voluntary associations, all of which make it more prone to illiberal government.

And yet it seems unlikely that populist strength in Hungary, Poland and elsewhere are not affected by demographic change in the West, and often violent events in London and Paris. Central Europeans, especially considering their past on the frontier of Turkish ambitions, do not want to go down that road, and so when a seemingly German-dominated EU tries to force them to accept mostly Muslim refugees it is hardly surprising that their leaders present themselves as representatives of the popular will – that’s not just authoritarian-speak, it’s the truth.

Undemocratic liberalism is therefore the trigger for authoritarian democracy, rather than any solution; or perhaps it would be more accurate to say globalised, unresponsive, undemocratic liberalism.

It is also the case that undemocratic liberalism is unlikely to remain all that liberal, since it will need to suppress populist sentiment. Although Germany was only mentioned in Freedom House’s recent report because of the AfD, the country has this year introduced tough, illiberal laws on combating hate speech online, to the alarm of the opposition.

Cosmopolitan societies have always had strict penalties against criticising other religious or ethnic groups, Singapore being the best recent example, because the risk of triggering communal violence is too great. In contrast the free press, along with other aspects of liberalism, first emerged in the most homogenous states in the world on the far western shores of Eurasia, where no such danger existed. I suspect that liberalism without democracy will not stay liberal for very long, just as democracy without liberalism won’t either. Whoever wins, we lose.

Ed West is the author of 'England in the Age of Chivalry (and Awful Diseases)'.