Liberal Democracy and Illiberal Democracy

“Democratically elected regimes, often ones that have been reelected or reaffirmed through referenda, are routinely ignoring constitutional limits on their power and depriving their citizens of basic rights and freedoms. From Peru to the Palestinian Authority, from Sierra Leone to Slovakia, from Pakistan to the Philippines, we see the rise of a disturbing phenomenon in international life — illiberal democracy.” So wrote Fareed Zakaria in a November 1997 article in Foreign Affairs magazine.

“Democracy” is usually taken to mean liberal democracy – a political system with regular competitive elections, and a set of personal rights and freedoms – free speech, freedom of religion and assembly, free media. But democracy is defined as a system of government with supreme power vested in the people and exercised by them directly or through elected representatives. Democracy is not liberal unless it guarantees those rights. When a democratically-elected government denies its citizens any of those rights and freedoms, it is an illiberal democracy.

The history of illiberal democracy was updated in an article in the April 4, 2016 issue of Berggruen Insights. In that article, Yasha Mounk, a lecturer on political theory at Harvard University, wrote, “Over the past decade, populist strongmen have subverted liberal democracies in Turkey and Hungary. To judge by recent developments, the current leaders of Poland and India are doing their best to follow their lead.” Mounk cites powerful secular leaders in Turkey that restricted religious practices in the past, which affected the majority of Turkish citizens. As Recep Erdogan gained power, he restored religious practices for that majority, and in doing so, persecuted religious minorities, suppressed freedom of the press, undermined the right to protest, and attacked political opponents. As Mounk states, “however illiberal these policies may be, they are mostly in tune with the preferences of a clear majority of Turkish citizens.” Erdogan has not made Turkey less democratic, but rather he has made it less liberal.

Considering how such a trend could transpire in North America and Western Europe, Mounk writes:

But this marriage between liberalism and democracy is looking increasingly troubled. Throughout the history of liberal democracy, average citizens have experienced a clear improvement of their living standards from one generation to the next. But over the last thirty years, this progress has stalled—or even reversed—in virtually all countries in North America and Western Europe.

As the incomes of ordinary people have stagnated, their anger at the political establishment—as well as at unpopular minorities—has reached fever pitch. And because their support for their form of government has always been highly reliant on its ability to deliver economic growth, they are also becoming more critical of liberal-democratic institutions. If liberalism and democracy have long come as a package, they are now being unbundled.

Mounk raises the prospect that far-right populists “desire to transform their countries into illiberal democracies;” into places, that is, where minority rights are superseded by the unmediated voice of the majority.

Returning to Fareed Zakaria, when asked in a Parade magazine interview published April 17, 2016, how the world views the U.S. presidential campaign, he responded: “I worry about the nature of the rhetoric because it’s stoking fires of hatred, of xenophobia, of racism, of sexism. It’s legitimizing dark feelings and fears and phobias. We all have these; we all have our dark sides in us, but the task of a politician surely is to bring out our better angels.”

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