Feb 14th 2018

The Double Threat to Liberal Democracy

CAMBRIDGE – The crisis of liberal democracy is roundly decried today. Donald Trump’s presidency, the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, and the electoral rise of other populists in Europe have underscored the threat posed by “illiberal democracy” – a kind of authoritarian politics featuring popular elections but little respect for the rule of law or the rights of minorities.

But fewer analysts have noted that illiberal democracy – or populism – is not the only political threat. Liberal democracy is also being undermined by a tendency to emphasize “liberal” at the expense of “democracy.” In this kind of politics, rulers are insulated from democratic accountability by a panoply of restraints that limit the range of policies they can deliver. Bureaucratic bodies, autonomous regulators, and independent courts set policies, or they are imposed from outside by the rules of the global economy.

In his new and important book The People vs. Democracy, the political theorist Yascha Mounk calls this type of regime– in apt symmetry with illiberal democracy – “undemocratic liberalism”. He notes that our political regimes have long stopped functioning like liberal democracies and increasingly look like undemocratic liberalism.

The European Union perhaps represents the apogee of this tendency. The establishment of a single market and monetary unification in the absence of political integration has required delegation of policy to technocratic bodies such as the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the European Court of Justice. Decision-making increasingly takes place at considerable distance from the public. Even though Britain is not a member of the eurozone, the Brexiteers’ call to “take back control” captured the frustration many European voters feel.

The United States has experienced nothing quite like this, but similar trends have made many people feel disenfranchised. As Mounk notes, policymaking is the province of an alphabet soup of regulatory bodies – from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Independent courts’ use of their prerogative of judicial review to promote civil rights, expand reproductive freedom, and introduce many other social reforms have encountered hostility among considerable segments of the population. And the rules of the global economy, administered through international arrangements such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) or the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), are widely perceived as being rigged against ordinary workers.

The value of Mounk’s book is to highlight the importance of both of liberal democracy’s constitutive terms. We need restraints on the exercise of political power to prevent majorities (or those in power) from riding roughshod over the rights of minorities (or those not in power). But we also need public policy to be responsive and accountable to the preferences of the electorate.

Liberal democracy is inherently fragile because reconciling its terms does not produce a natural political equilibrium. When elites have sufficient power, they have little interest in reflecting the preferences of the public at large. When the masses mobilize and demand power, the resulting compromise with the elites rarely produces sustainable safeguards to protect the rights of those not represented at the bargaining table. Thus, liberal democracy has a tendency to deteriorate into one or the other of its perversions – illiberal democracy or undemocratic liberalism.

In our paper “The Political Economy of Liberal Democracy,” Sharun Mukand and I discuss the underpinnings of liberal democracy in terms similar to those Mounk uses. We emphasize that societies are divided by two potential cleavages: an identity split that separates a minority from the ethnic, religious, or ideological majority, and a wealth gap that pits the rich against the rest of society.

The depth and alignment of these divisions determine the likelihood of various political regimes. The possibility of liberal democracy is always undercut by illiberal democracy at one end and what we call “liberal autocracy” at the other, depending on whether the majority or the elite retain the upper hand.

Our framework helps to highlight the fortuitous circumstances under which liberal democracy emerges. In the West, liberalism preceded democracy: separation of powers, freedom of expression, and the rule of law were already in place before elites agreed to expand the franchise and submit to popular rule. The “tyranny of the majority” remained a major concern for elites, and was countered in the US, for example, with an elaborate system of checks and balances, effectively paralyzing the executive for a long time.

Elsewhere, in the developing world, popular mobilization occurred in the absence of a liberal tradition or liberal practices. Liberal democracy was rarely a sustainable outcome. The only exceptions seem to be relatively egalitarian and highly homogeneous nation-states such as South Korea, where there are no obvious social, ideological, ethnic, or linguistic divisions for autocrats of either kind – illiberal or undemocratic – to exploit.

Today’s developments in Europe and the US suggest the vexing possibility that liberal democracy may have been a passing phase there as well. As we rue liberal’s democracy’s crisis, let us not forget that illiberalism is not the only threat that confronts it. We must find a way around the pitfalls of insufficient democracy as well.


Dani Rodrik, Professor of International Political Economy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, is the author of Straight Talk on Trade: Ideas for a Sane World Economy.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2018.
www.project-syndicate.org

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Apr 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "When we examined the development of nations worldwide since 1820, we found that among rich Western countries like the United States, the Netherlands and France, improvements in income, education, safety and health tracked or even outpaced rising gross domestic product for over a century. But in the 1950s, even as economic growth accelerated after World War II, well-being in these countries lagged.
Apr 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Some presidents indulge in the “Mount Rushmore syndrome” making an obvious effort to achieve greatness. Normally soft-spoken and apparently modest Biden is making his own bid for immortality."
Apr 9th 2021
EXTRACT: "New ways of thinking about the role of government are as important as new priorities. Many commentators have framed Biden’s infrastructure plan as a return to big government. But the package is spread over eight years, will raise public spending by only one percentage point of GDP, and is projected to pay for itself eventually. A boost in public investment in infrastructure, the green transition, and job creation is long overdue."
Apr 7th 2021
EXTRACT: " One can, and perhaps should, take the optimistic view that moral panics in the US blow over; reason will once again prevail. It could be that the Biden era will take the sting out of Trumpism, and the tolerance for which American intellectual life has often been admired will be reinvigorated. This might even happen while the noxious effects of American influence still rage in other countries. For the sake of America and the world, one can only hope it happens soon.  "
Mar 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "By refusing (despite having some good reasons) to end electoral gerrymandering, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., has directly enabled the paralyzing hyper-partisanship that reached its nadir during Donald Trump’s presidency. By striking down all limits on corporate spending on political campaigns in the infamous 2010 Citizens United decision, he has helped to entrench dark money in US politics. And by gutting the 1965 Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, Roberts has facilitated the racist voter-suppression tactics now being pursued in many Republican-controlled states."
Mar 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "the UK’s tough choices accumulate, and the problems lurking around the corner look menacing. Britain will have to make the best of Brexit. But it will be a long, hard struggle, all the more so with an evasive fabulist in charge."
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "Over the years, the approach of most American policymakers toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been Israel-centric with near total disregard for the suffering endured by the Palestinian people. The architects of policy in successive US administrations have discussed the conflict as if the fate of only one party (Israel) really mattered. Israelis were treated as full human beings with hopes and fears, while Palestinians were reduced to a problem that needed to be solved so that Israelis could live in peace and security.  ..... It is not just that Israelis and Palestinians haven’t been viewed with an equal measure of concern. It’s worse than that. It appears that Palestinians were judged as less ​human than Israelis, and were, therefore, not entitled to make demands to have their rights recognized and protected."
Mar 8th 2021
EXTRACTS: "XThere’s a global shortage in semiconductors, and it’s becoming increasingly serious." ...... "The automotive sector has been worst affected by the drought, in an era where microchips now form the backbone of most cars. Ford is predicting a 20% slump in production and Tesla shut down its model 3 assembly line for two weeks. In the UK, Honda was forced to temporarily shut its plant as well." ..... " As much as 70% of the world’s semiconductors are manufactured by just two companies, Taiwan Semiconductor (TSMC) and Samsung."
Mar 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Back in 1992, Lawrence H. Summers, then the chief economist at the World Bank, and I warned that pushing the US Federal Reserve’s annual inflation target down from 4% to 2% risked causing big problems. Not only was the 4% target not producing any discontent, but a 2% target would increase the risk of the Fed’s interest-rate policy hitting the zero lower bound. Our objections went unheeded. Fed Chair Alan Greenspan reduced the inflation target to 2%, and we have been paying for it ever since. I have long thought that many of our economic problems would go away if we could rejigger asset markets in such a way as to make a 5% federal funds rate consistent with full employment in the late stage of a business cycle."
Mar 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Under these conditions, the Fed is probably worried that markets will instantly crash if it takes away the punch bowl. And with the increase in public and private debt preventing the eventual monetary normalization, the likelihood of stagflation in the medium term – and a hard landing for asset markets and economies – continues to increase."
Mar 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Massive fiscal and monetary stimulus programs in the United States and other advanced economies are fueling a raging debate about whether higher inflation could be just around the corner. Ten-year US Treasury yields and mortgage rates are already climbing in anticipation that the US Federal Reserve – the de facto global central bank – will be forced to hike rates, potentially bursting asset-price bubbles around the world. But while markets are probably overstating short-term inflation risks for 2021, they do not yet fully appreciate the longer-term dangers."
Feb 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "To be sure, calls to “build back better” from the pandemic imply some awareness of the need for systemic change. But the transformation we need extends beyond constructing modern infrastructure or unlocking private investment in any one country. We need to re-orient – indeed, re-invent – global politics, so that countries can cooperate far more effectively in creating a better world."
Feb 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "So, notwithstanding the predictable release of pent-up demand for consumer durables, face-to-face services show clear evidence – in terms of both consumer demand and employment – of permanent scarring. Consequently, with the snapback of pent-up demand for durables nearing its point of exhaustion, the recovery of the post-pandemic US economy is likely to fall well short of vaccine development’s “warp speed.” "
Feb 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "Human rights abuses under Erdogan are beyond the pale of inhumanity and moral decadence. The list of Erdogan’s violations and cruelty is too long to numerate. The detention and horrifying torture of thousands of innocent people for months and at times for years, without being charged, is hard to fathom. Many prisoners are left languishing in dark cells, often in solitary confinement. The detention of tens of thousands of men and hundreds of women, many with their children, especially following the 2016 failed coup, has become common. It is calculated to inflict horrendous pain and suffering to bring the prisoners to the breaking point, so that they confess to crimes they have never committed."
Feb 20th 2021
Courtyard of the Amsterdam Stock Exchange, circa 1670, (Job Adriaenszoon Berckheyde).
Feb 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "Global regulators will no doubt be concerned about a potential volatility spillover from digital asset prices into traditional capital markets. They may not permit what could quickly amount to effective proxy approval by the back door for companies holding large proportions of a volatile asset on their balance sheets."
Feb 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Since Russians began protesting opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s imprisonment, the security forces have apparently had carte blanche to arrest demonstrators – and they have done so by the thousands. If Russians so much as honk their car horns in solidarity with the protesters, they risk personal repercussions. The official response to the protests goes beyond the Kremlin’s past repression. It is war."
Feb 6th 2021
EXTRACT: ".......like Biden, Roosevelt was certainly no revolutionary. His task was to save American capitalism. He was a repairer, a fixer. The New Deal was achieved not because of Roosevelt’s genius or heroism, but because enough people trusted him to act in good faith. That is precisely what people are expecting from Biden, too. He must save US democracy from the ravages of a political crisis. To do so, he must reestablish trust in the system. He has promised to make his country less polarized, and to restore civility and truth to political discourse. In this endeavor, his lack of charisma may turn out to be his greatest strength. For all that he lacks in grandeur, he makes up for by exuding an air of decency."
Feb 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Europe must not lose sight of the long game, which inevitably will center on China, not Russia or relations with post-Brexit Britain. China is already establishing a presence in Iran, and demonstrating that it has the capital, know-how, and technology to project power and influence beyond its borders. Should it succeed in turning the Belt and Road Initiative into a line of geopolitical stepping-stones, it might soon emerge at Europe’s southeastern border in a form that no one in the EU foresaw."
Jan 29th 2021
EXTRACT: "One sign of this change is that, unlike all recent Democratic administrations, Biden’s hasn’t paid obeisance to Wall Street by giving bankers top jobs. The new Secretary of the Treasury, Janet Yellen, is a former Federal Reserve chair and academic who has made it clear that she understands the country’s pressing social needs. Moreover, Biden consulted Warren on her economic views, and has named a former Warren adviser as Yellen’s deputy. Yellen’s appointment demonstrates that Biden shares the insight that enabled Trump’s rise: that too many Americans feel that they cannot get a fair share. "