Are liberal democracies dying?

Lately I’ve been reading a lot on liberal democracy, a form of government where rights and freedoms are protected, government officials are elected, governing powers are separated, and institutions are open. These are characteristics embedded within the fabric of a liberal democracy and are enshrined as values to be upheld and celebrated. In a post-World War II era, these characteristics have more-or-less been the norm and have apparently, up until now, been taken for granted.

I recently came across an article in the New York Times titled ‘How Stable Are Liberal Democracies? ‘Warning Signs Are Flashing Red’‘ written by Amanda Taub. It highlights the findings of a Harvard lecturer and author named Yascha Mounk, who suggests that liberal democracies have begun to show signs of decline. Mounk, who has written a memoir about growing up as a Jew in Germany, teamed up with a fellow researcher from the University of Melbourne named Roberto Stefan Foa, to pinpoint three ‘warning signs’ that indicate the decline of a liberal democracy.

From the article, the three signs are:

  1. Public support: How important do citizens think it is for their country to remain democratic?
  2. Public openness to nondemocratic forms of government, like military rule.
  3. Whether “antisystem parties and movements” – political parties and other major players whose core message is that the current system is illegitimate – were gaining support.

These three signs presuppose that it is possible for liberal democracies to actually decline, thus going against a commonly held theory in political science called “democratic consolidation” which simply means that democracy becomes secure in a country if it possesses a certain set of attributes like democratic institutions, a robust civil society, and a certain degree of wealth. Mounk and Foa believe that if democracies show the three aforementioned signs, they’ve begun a process of “deconsolidating.” Think of the fever you get right before the flu.

The article then gives examples of Venezuela and Poland, recognizing how they once appeared to be flourishing democratically only to show signs of “deconsolidation” and a subsequent precipitous diminution in democratic characteristics.

It’s something to think about when observing the unique juncture we are at in the United States, a country where the idea of existing within an ‘illiberal democracy’ (a term first coined by Fareed Zakaria) seems impossible. Most Americans are well aware of illiberal currents in the country, but these currents were widely regarded as fringe elements that had little to no influence in the broader society, and their ideas were regarded as vulgar and unacceptable. With the election of Donald J. Trump, our political imaginations have never been so drastically ruptured. How did we reach a point where the Overton Window was pushed so far that headlines asking if Jews are human beings became okay? Where do we go from here to prevent things from getting worse?

There is one factor about liberal democracies that is severely overlooked, and I believe it is the single most important factor to guarantee their preservation and proper function, and that is the good faith of the people. Yes, democratic institutions exist, but they cannot protect themselves, and the mechanisms designed to protect them only matter insofar as there are individuals willing to enact them. There must be human beings with good faith; rational, free thinkers acting, pushing, demanding, that these institutions remain preserved and that any violations against these institutions be challenged. Up until now, the good faith of people has merely been assumed, thus causing it to be neglected and taken for granted. Instead, we began to depend on our institutions, in effect granting them imaginary powers while relinquishing our own agency as actors who enact and enforce these powers in good faith.

The faith must be in the people, not in the institutions. If liberal democracies are on the decline, then it must be the people who work to ensure they recover. As long as we remember this, we will never be given in to complacency or passivity with a Trump administration and the fringe elements that it has empowered. We must repeat to ourselves that what is happening us unprecedented and not normal.

This is not normal.

This is not normal.

This is not normal.

I end this post with a quote from Matt Levine (Bloomberg View):

I thought about the fact that those principles can’t automatically enact themselves, that they only work if the human actors in the system choose to follow them and to demand that others follow them. They persist because the people constrained by them believe themselves to be constrained by them. The Constitution, separation of powers, religious liberty, freedom of the press, an independent judiciary, the rule of law, equality of all citizens: There is a complacent sense in America that these things are independent self-operative checks on power. But they aren’t. They are checks on power only as far as they command the collective loyalty of those in power; they require a governing class that cares about law and government and American tradition, rather than personal power and revenge. Their magic is fragile, and can disappear if people who don’t believe in it gain power.


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