As the world looks on in awe and with huge admiration at the greatest democracy on the planet going to the polls, why should anyone be worried about the decline of liberal democracy? Shouldn’t the sight of 900 million people in India electing their politicians provide reassurance to those who believe that we stand on the precipice of an existential crisis? The unfortunate fact is that in many countries, liberal democracy is at the point of collapse and authoritarianism is appearing as a real alternative. This is an immense ideological and strategic challenge. In a bracing new book, the greatly admired former US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, even warns of the revival of fascism.
Those who have benefited from the post 1945 settlement and the development of democratic institutions have become complacent about liberal democracy, losing interest in its ideals and forgetting how to defend its values. When it’s around us we take it for granted. It’s rather like the old story of two fish swimming together, when an older fish swims by and says “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” After the old fish swims away, one says to the other, “What the hell is water?”
One problem is that many don’t really know precisely what liberal democracy is. In numerous books and articles on the subject, authors seem to speak past each other or go around in circles because they are using different definitions of the terms. A common mistake is to conflate liberalism with democracy. The two subjects are not synonyms. “Democracy” is derived from a Greek word meaning “rule by the people”, while “liberal” and “liberalism” derive from the Latin word meaning “free”. Confusingly, some writers use the word “democracy” as a shorthand for “liberal democracy”, thus incorporating such features as the rule of law, freedoms of speech, assembly, religion and the press, which are more properly categorised as liberal. In short, “democracy” is an answer to the question of who rules. By contrast, “liberalism” prescribes not how rulers are chosen but what are the limits to their power once in office.
The election of Donald Trump, despite losing the popular vote by three million, has tested the limit of people’s faith in democracy. Many have asked if the result was warped by overseas interference, questionable activity as listed in the Mueller report, or by unaccountable tech companies. There is a growing consensus that American democracy is at risk; the Economist’s index even categorises the United States as a “flawed democracy”.
Following the Brexit referendum, a deeply worrying recent development in Britain is the language of autocrats, casting sceptics of the result as “enemies of the people”. The questioning of democracy is polarising politics and taking debate beyond healthy bounds. Efforts to delegitimise the referendum result are based on the premise that politicians lied and misled, leaving voters to choose on the basis of either poor or wrong information. An old joke is being resurrected: Question, “How do you know when a politician is lying?” Answer, “When his mouth is open.”
Elsewhere in Europe, democratically elected leaders are challenging liberalism. Hungary’s Prime Minister, Victor Orban, even proudly boasts of creating an “illiberal democracy”. Orban’s close friend in neighbouring Serbia, Aleksandar Vucic, also panders to nationalist sentiment. They have much in common. Both are strongmen of roughly the same generation, with little interest in checks and balances, free media or even free speech. Both entered politics in the turbulent era of the crumbling of the communist bloc. These two men matter in Europe. Orban’s Hungary is a magnet for the far right elsewhere on the continent, while Serbia holds the key to the stability of the Balkans, a region which forms Europe’s strategic, vulnerable underbelly. Winston Churchill once described this region as “producing more history than it can consume”.
Strong men with nationalistic characteristics are a sure sign of danger to liberal democracy. In Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party is in pole position to form a coalition with the smaller hard right-wing parties. Democracy certainly, but not liberal democracy; just ask the Israeli Arabs or the Palestinians. In Brazil, last October’s victory by Jair Bolsonaro promises illiberalism on a grand scale.
Turkey under Recep Erdogan has become a textbook example of illiberal democracy, closely followed by Honduras, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Iran. The basket cases are, of course, North Korea, China and the Gulf States, which are neither democratic nor liberal. Russia moved towards a period of democracy in the early 1990s, only to retreat from 2004 onwards. Elections remain in place in Russia but they are phony, as state control of the media is almost complete and opposition is not welcomed by President Vladimir Putin.
Why does this matter? The collapse of liberal democracy leads to autocracy and history tells us that autocracy frequently leads to war. World War I was very much a war between liberalism and authoritarianism. When President Woodrow Wilson took the United States to war in 1917 in the hope of making the world “safe for democracy”, it was to defend the “liberal” Atlantic Community against the illiberal ideology of Germany. The rise after the war of two even greater challenges to liberalism, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, marked the failure of the interwar hope. Their defeat in World War II, in which 87,000 troops from the Indian subcontinent were sacrificed, gave liberalism a new birth.
All this is now in danger. We ignore the demise of liberal democracy at our peril.
John Dobson worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s Office between 1995 and 1998 and is presently Chairman of the Plymouth University of the Third Age.