Liberalism vs democracy

It’s a habit, almost a tic, for many of us to put liberalism and democracy together. We live, or like to think we live, in a “liberal democracy”. This combination has seemed so natural that Francis Fukuyama famously argued it might be “the end of history”, the telos towards which human affairs are inevitably drawn. In our current politics, it is people who think of ourselves as liberals in a broad sense of the term who feel like democracy is under attack by a motley mix of populists, reactionaries, post-liberals, integralists, and fascists. We are the democrats. They are threats to democracy.

Within the vanguard of that they, there are intellectuals and leaders who gleefully accept that role. Everything they say we are we are and we are very proud of ourselves. The neoreactionaries are overt monarchists. It is the law that must teach the public, rather than the other way around, according to “common good constitutionalists”. Right-wing pseudohistoricists proclaim “We are a republic not a democracy.” Peter Thiel, who bankrolls so much of this stuff, declared democracy and freedom incompatible, and that he was for freedom, as early as 2009.

This colorful troupe of outcasts and intellectuals would matter very little but for the fact that much of the public votes for political candidates enthralled by their ideas. But the vast majority of these voters — let’s call them the Trumpists — are not overtly antidemocratic. On the contrary. Trump doesn’t proclaim, as some of those intellectuals might, that democracy is a feeble system that should be discarded so that our betters can rise to the service of rule. Trump appeals to his supporters in the name of democracy. The election was stolen! The voice of the people was muzzled by the ventriloquism of a shady and, yes, liberal elite.

Many Americans, I think, perceive liberals as the enemies of democracy, and quite plausibly, because liberalism can yield plainly antidemocratic outcomes! Who voted for shutting down the mills and factories of the midwest and sending that work to China? I didn’t. Did you?

Liberalism, or at least the version of liberalism to which we’ve subjected ourselves over the last few decades, stands in real tension with democracy. In both economic and social affairs, it valorizes and places above interference by the demos certain freedoms that have profound effects beyond the individuals who consent and choose. The state could not pick winners and losers, with respect to the location of industry. That was for business leaders and shareholders to decide. Then they were the winners, and the rest of us losers. The state should not impose parochial norms over gender identity, and now the most basic stuff we used to take for granted — this is the Ladies’ Room, this is the Men’s Room, you are either he or she — is overthrown. Nothing makes sense and the governor says they are mutilating our kids. “If you like what you have you can keep it” is the claim liberals always make, you do you but let other people make very different choices. Fine, you said. It’s a free country! But we are not in fact atoms, we live in a society. The domain of privacy that liberalism constructs is artificial and always leaky. It is not neutral. Some freedoms are assiduously protected, while others must give way. It turns out you can’t actually keep what you had, you never can, even though you liked it. The bathrooms are changing. Aspects of humanity so fundamental they are embedded in the very structure of language are obsolete and offensive. Now you must learn new language or be relegated a bigot, by your own children even, whose schools (that your tax dollars paid for) have assimilated them into this brave new world you do not recognize and cannot navigate. That seems weird, ugly, just plain wrong. What happened to your freedom? Your choice? Your rights? Did some majority actually vote for this? No they did not, as far as you can tell.

The issue, to be very clear, isn’t that there is anything wrong with trans rights. It’s that what begin as private rights claims under liberalism carry social implications that create wedges between outcomes and democratic preferences. This divergence becomes especially acute subnationally, within communities upon whom the rights claims themselves are imposed in the name of universality rather than embraced democratically. Illiberal political entrepreneurs will predictably polemicize these ruptures between democratic choice and outcome, rather than work to manage and reconcile them.

Liberals say they — we — are the democrats, on procedural grounds. Yes, we had the elections and wanted everybody to vote. But we constructed a system that took much of what the demos might care about out of reach. Vote for whom you like, it’s a free country! But whomever a majority chooses, government has no right or capacity to deliver the society that a majority actually wants. In both the economic and social sphere, every liberalism (many are possible) carves out particular, critical domains and makes them exempt from deference to the public. Liberalism emasculates democracy even while it sanctimoniously attends to the bureaucracy of it. Should this really count as democracy, or just a fig leaf for its opposite? The system is rigged. Perhaps Viktor Orban’s “illiberal democracy” is the more natural conjunction after all, and “liberal democracy” an oxymoron?

I don’t think so. I am still a strong enthusiast of liberal democracy, and would argue that “illiberal democracy” in practice collapses to ugly autocracy. But we have to continually work to reconcile these ideas, liberal and democracy. They are not mutually reinforcing. Quite the contrary. Respecting and celebrating individual choice while also tethering broad outcomes to the interests and (evolving) values of the demos is, I think, achievable. But it is not automatic or preordained. We have to be clever, and much more careful than we have been, if we hope to mitigate and manage the contradictions. Who knew that preserving the end of history would demand from us so much agility?

But if we don’t do this work, much of the public will perceive liberals to be the real threat to democracy. And they won’t be entirely wrong.

Update History:

  • 9-Oct-2022, 11:55 a.m. EDT: “But whomever a majority chooses, government has no right or capacity to deliver the society that a majority actually wants.” [comma inserted]
  • 11-Oct-2022, 11:20 a.m. EDT: “…what begin as private rights claims under liberalism carry broad and powerful social implications that create wedges…” [too wordy (ha!)]

8 Responses to “Liberalism vs democracy”

  1. Detroit Dan writes:

    But the vast majority of these voters — let’s call them the Trumpists — are not overtly antidemocratic.

    I’d say, in a similar vein, that the vast majority of Trumpists are not racist or homophobic. I think this is a relatively recent change for the better in our culture. Most people, Trumpist or liberal, are in favor of majority rule, minority rights.

    Where we haven’t progressed, in my view, is in international relations. The New York Times may be woke in terms of racism and homophobia, but it’s still in the 19th century with regard to international relations. The US centered global empire is not in the least democratic, but rather concerned with maintaining order in the interests of the status quo.

    Liberalism is used disingenuously to further anti-democratic ends both internationally and domestically. Worthy causes related to minority rights are diminished by such abusive faux iberalism.

    Truth is the victim of a system in which our economic incentives overwhelming favor service to status quo. Our culture needs to wake up to the fact that the conventional wisdom, woke as it may seem with regard to minority rights, continues to peddle propaganda which hinders majority rule.

  2. hunkerdown writes:

    Liberalism is the apologetics for capitalism and private property, nothing more.

    “Liberal democracy” is a church of majority rule, nothing more.

    The real solution is the total abolition of the professional-managerial class identity, and their and YOUR personal arrogance that you or your crackpot religion should be allowed to preserve the problem in a particular form.

  3. eg writes:

    These “liberals” and the institutions they have created to insulate governance from democratic control have become what their liberal forebears fought against — an aristocracy.

  4. Reply writes:

    My Will to Power is bigger and better than your will to power. Therefore, I win and will dictate what you should do.
    Said by people everywhere pretending to like democracy but really just wanting to control lives. Some say they are liberals, others not so much.

  5. Detroit Dan writes:

    I want to add that I appreciate this post which highlights an important issue in a thought provoking way. I’m a believer in both liberalism and democracy. As Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying might say, there are tradeoffs between our various values. Prioritizing freedom above all, for example, may come at the expense of security, and vice versa.

  6. Jonathan Monroe writes:

    This is a very important point, and a post that makes it better than most. I am a liberal and a democrat, and these are different things. I am also (in UK politics) a Liberal Democrat, but that is a contingent identity that stems from the way the British party system works. (If I lived in Japan, I would be a liberal and a democrat but probably not a Liberal Democrat).

    I do think that liberalism and democracy, correctly understood, are mutually reinforcing. Without liberalism, politics is a Game of Thrones in that you win or you (usually but not always metaphorically) die. And an initially democratic Game of Thrones is unlikely to stay democratic. Without democracy, liberalism goes as soon as Xi sees Jack Ma as a potential threat.

    Why do so many Westerners – including, to an extent SRW, think that liberalism and democracy are mutually undermining? In the specifically US context, it is because the White South forfeited their right to self-government for cause in the 1860’s and the terms under which they will get it back are still being negotiated.

  7. Jonathan Monroe writes:

    I also think there is a bigger issue, which is when liberalism forms alliances to the point where it loses its identity. Liberalism is the belief that most sins should not be crimes. We are therefore natural allies for people who want to have fewer crimes. But that doesn’t make them liberals.

    Economic liberalism is the belief that most acts of greed are sins that should not be crimes. Libertarianism is the belief that most acts of greed are not sins. There is an obvious and historically fruitful alliance here, but if economic liberals forget that libertarians are not liberals, then the alliance becomes a kind of false liberalism.

    Sexual liberalism is the belief that most acts of lust are sins that should not be crimes. Libertinism is the belief that most acts of lust are not sins. There is an obvious and historically fruitful alliance here, but if sexual liberals forget that libertines are not liberals, then the alliance becomes a kind of false liberalism.

    Both these false liberalisms are powerful, and really are sometimes incompatible with democracy.

  8. Gil Schaeffer writes:

    You fail to recognize that the US political system is not a democracy in the first place. The Republicans are factually right that the US is an elitist republic and not a democratic republic. The Senate and its offspring the Supreme Court are undemocratic monstrosities. The Democratic Party likes to pretend otherwise. We will make no progress in understanding the ills that afflict our society if we keep believing a falsehood.