Sometimes the unfolding of history outpaces our ability to understand it. Twelve months ago Brexit and the inauguration of Donald J. Trump as US President were unthinkable. Today, no one – however optimistic in usual times – can dismiss Marine le Pen’s chances in France’s upcoming presidential election, or the German Far Right’s in its bid to return to the Bundestag for the first time since Hitler.
The sheer volume of panicked articles trying to make sense of it all – ‘2016 Studies’ – is now effectively a field in its own right. Within it, commentators have written articulately on what might be pushing people to new extremes along the political spectrum; globalization, immigration, and inequality forming the usual line-up, with white-lash, filter bubbles and fake news newer additions. To understand the roots of our political crisis, however, and predict how it will continue to unfold in the future, requires a wider lens. It’s time to shift the focus of our questions from ‘why are people so upset?’ to the more fundamental one of, ‘why is the system no longer able to accommodate that anger, and what kind of system will be able to?’
More specifically, ‘why does the system no longer operate as a liberal-democracy?’.
During ordinary times, liberal democracies translate economic and social grievances into political change according to a rhythm that, although hugely varying in substantive content, unfolds according to a relatively specific procedure. Women’s suffrage, the New Deal, healthcare free at the point of delivery, civil rights legislation, reproductive choice, gay liberation – although varying in substance hugely, each episode bestowed citizens with new rights through a specific procedure that captures the workings of ‘liberal democracy’ in action. Through a process of collective deliberation, mounting public pressure forced the existing system in each instance to cave in, and new rights were excavated for the individual all the while ensuring that existing advances were protected. The system is shot through with mechanisms that channel democratic energies into progress whilst ensuring that progress remains within the parameters of what the constitution allows.
In light of Trump’s victory, it’s unsurprising that the possible decline of liberal democracy has been a popular conversation topic, but still too often with a misguided focus. In particular, this conversation has been sparked by the New York Times’ coverage of Harvard lecturer Yascha Mounk shortly after Trump’s election. On the best three measures of public support for democratic systems of government, Mounk’s research indicates that ‘warning signs are flashing red’. In both the US and Britain the percentage of people who say it is ‘essential’ to live in a democracy, for instance, has fallen from just under 75 percent in the 1930s, to around 30 percent more recently.
And yet a closer look at the signs reveals that liberal democracy’s current malfunctioning has little to do with a wavering of democracy. If anything, 2016 has been a year of democratic change par excellence. It is the principles of constitutional liberalism, on the other side of the liberal-democratic coin, that are in crisis. We aren’t watching decline of democracy, but rather the rise of the illiberal democracy. It is the name that refers to the democratic impulse once it has become untethered to the guardianship of constitutional precedent and right. It is democracy, in a word, without liberalism. It is the name that befits the Trump Administration. When a democratically popular regime violates the rights of its subjects, by threatening to relegate members of religious minorities to a form of second-class citizenship, to torture suspects, or to summarily deport 11.3 million people, it participates in illiberal democracy.
The vulnerability of ‘liberal democracy’ to slide into illiberalism lies in the fact that ‘liberal democracy’ is not really one principle at all. Instead, it is a union of two quite different principles; liberalism and democracy, each with its own history independent of the other. In its core Lockean form, the principle of liberalism contends that every member of society enjoys a fundamental set of inalienable rights that no government, organisation, or other person can legitimately violate. A constitution, either written or unwritten, enshrines and protects those rights for posterity.
Democracy, on the other hand, emphasises the state’s ultimate purpose as a channel for the expression of the people’s will. Tracing its origins to the classical tradition of civic republicanism, ‘democracy’ – in the sense referred to it here – privileges the promotion of public virtue and the collective security of the people. Democracy holds that the state is instituted in pursuit of the collective interests of the community over which it rules. The reason why you probably recognise elements of each of these traditions in our current political system is because, as the name would suggest, a ‘liberal democracy’ is a blend of each.
And it’s not a particularly new idea. Since the Enlightenment this flavour is one that has been baked into the Western political project. The Declaration of Independence (1776) manages well in binding each of its principles together into a single statement of purpose. On the one hand, the text enshrines the principle of liberalism. “All men”, it reads, “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”. The number of rights that we allocate to individuals has increased considerably since the Enlightenment, but it’s still the language of liberalism that we invoke when we talk about the elimination of discrimination against minorities, equal protection under the law, and freedom from surveillance. On the other hand, the Declaration also sanctifies liberalism’s counterpart, the more collectively-minded principle of democracy. “To secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”, however “as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness”.
In short, liberal democracies intertwine the rights of the individual with the collective interests of the group. It is when an appeal to each of these constituencies is made, that liberal democracies evolve in a way we call ‘progress’.
It didn’t take long for political scientists like Tocqueville to recognise the importance of this balance. Writing his progress report on fifty years of the West’s first democracy, Tocqueville honed in on the need to encase democracy with a commitment to liberal constitutionalism in order to prevent it from sliding into tyranny of the majority. The prevalence of political rights, courts, and administrative bureaucracy within the American project acted as “hidden reefs retarding or dividing the flow of the popular will”. “When the American people let themselves get intoxicated by their passions or carried away by their ideas’, he observed in his travels, layers of constitutional precedent and procedure ‘apply an almost invisible brake which slows them down and halts them”.
So what went wrong?
Many have correctly identified the political revolts of 2016 to be essentially populist in nature. Taking the longer view, however, forces us to see ‘populism’ as just another label for the ‘democratic’ tradition freed from its liberal safeguards. After all, populism is the form of rule in which the will of the majority, however tyrannical, is privileged over the constraints of constitutional precedent and the rights of individuals. Striking, is the extent to which the political chasms of 2016 have run directly down the centre of the ‘liberal’ and ‘democratic’ divide. ‘Liberal-democracy’, in other words, is becoming unglued.
The Clinton-Trump battle encased perfectly the emerging fission between liberalism and democracy, and Trump’s victory symbolising democracy’s untethering from liberal values. Clinton’s campaign was based around an essentially liberal promise: to protect and advance the rights that various social groups had won for themselves. Even ‘Stronger Together’, her campaign slogan, captured the value attached by the liberal spirit to compromise between groups as a means of resolving the tensions generated by diversity. In the end, it was a coalition of women, the disabled, people of colour, the LGBTQ+ community, and immigrants that lined up behind her ticket on election day.
And yet it was Trump’s appeal, ‘democratic’ to the point of shrewd populism, that claimed victory in the electoral college. Based around the promise of making government a servant to the people once more, he declared in his inaugural address the date ‘will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of the nation again’. His campaign embodied the ‘democratic’ tradition in its civic republican sense to the fullest. He would listen to people’s fears about terrorism, immigration, and crime, he promised, and give them the policies they had been denied by elites too worried about offending minorities or committing constitutional violations. A ban on Muslims entering the country and the mass deportation of child immigrants – policies once unthinkable – are now open to the Trump Administration. The balance in ‘liberal-democracy’ has lost its kilter.
Even Vote Leave’s triumph in the EU referendum suggests that liberalism and democracy may not be quite as compatible as we once thought. The positive appeals that the Remain side was able to articulate was based almost entirely on the language of rights and the safeguarding of past achievements. The right to travel and live abroad, the rights of immigrants at home, the right to invest in the single market, even the right to access European Courts of Law (although this last was actually through the Council of Europe), the Remain side asked voters to reflect on the rights that European Citizenship afforded them.
Vote Leave, on the other hand, asked voters to ‘take back control’ of their government. The entire campaign, in fact, was premised on the claim that the entitlements bestowed by European Citizenship were useless to the ordinary voter, and that those rights should be trumped by the more pressing need to make the British government more directly responsive to the anxieties of the British people. The government’s position, now ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court, to refuse to consult parliament before triggering Article 50 citing the democratic mandate bestowed on it by the people in June, offers an increasingly common glimpse of democracy unleashed from the constraints of constitutional procedure.
For the first time in living memory, voters are being made to choose between democracy and liberalism. And when presented with such a decision, the choice of voters isn’t hard to predict. The result is that democracy is becoming unglued from liberalism. This is the pattern, not a decline in democracy, that connects what’s happening across the world’s former beacons of liberal-democratic government. Although these separations vary significantly in the detail, both in America and in Britain the usual hallmarks of constitutional liberalism are struggling to contain the democratic energies that have been unleashed.
What does it mean for defenders of liberal constitutionalism when the hyphen in liberal-democracy stops working? Firstly, that the liberal-democratic spectrum of values needs to be incorporated as a new axis into our political consciousness. By recognising the warning signs of liberal-democracy losing its kilter, and by being able to articulate a more coherent narrative that can explain seemingly unconnected events as part of that unhinging, the first step in defending liberalism is already achieved.
Where the considerable work needs to be done, however, is in developing arguments that convincingly defend liberalism’s place in the modern world. And this faces no shortage of challenges. In particular, it would need to withstand the critiques of elitism that are the first to be levelled at any attempt to chill the vigour of democratic populism. In addition, it will have to counter the same criticism faced by Clinton and Remain for running negative campaigns. It is a historical reality that liberalism’s role in the liberal-democratic union is to soften the blow that the democratic will can have on the rights of the individual. The set of ideas that it articulates, in other words, are inherently defensive ones. What this may mean, in practice, is that mounting a convincing defence of liberalism may have to honestly acknowledge this role before else. In other words, liberals must stop holding back in depicting, by whatever historical comparisons are available, what untethered democratic populism has led to in the past, and why the principles of liberalism can never be chips on the bargaining table.