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Liberal Democracy and its Discontents

A set of disturbing essays and reports has landed on my desk over the summer that together paint a grim picture of the state of liberal democracy in the early 21st century—and the grimness is not restricted to the dumpster fire of an election we’re currently enduring in the United States.

Let’s start with political scientists Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk. They published an unsettling report in the July issue in the Journal of Democracy that portends a rough road ahead for nearly all the Western countries. 

“Citizens in a number of supposedly consolidated democracies in North America and Western Europe have not only grown more critical of their political leaders,” they write. “Rather, they have also become more cynical about the value of democracy as a political system, less hopeful that anything they do might influence public policy, and more willing to express support for authoritarian alternatives. The crisis of democratic legitimacy extends across a much wider set of indicators than previously appreciated.”

Their chart on page 7 is alarming. They track attitudes toward and confidence in democratic government, and they’ve found that each generation currently alive is more authoritarian than older generations—with young Millenials the least democratic of all.

For those born in the 1930s, 75 percent of Americans and 53 percent of Europeans say it’s “essential” that they live in a country that is governed democratically. The percentage of those born in the 1980s who say this, by contrast, is in the low 40s in Europe and the low 30s in the United States.

A majority—a majority—of young people in the West no longer think of democracy as essential.

Their chart on page 9 therefore isn’t surprising. Twelve percent of Americans 65 or older think “having a democratic political system” is a “bad” thing while almost 25 percent of Americans under the age of 24 believe this.

Shockingly, only 32 percent of Millennials think it's “absolutely essential” that “civil rights protect people’s liberty.”

What on earth is going on?

Partly it’s a matter of historical experience. Those born in the 1930s were alive during Hitler’s conquest of Europe. Those born a bit later have no memory of World War II, but they do remember Stalinist Russia, a more distant threat, but one that was still frankly terrifying. Those born later still have no memory of the darkest days of the Soviet Union, but they do remember the Cold War and the Berlin Wall.

Those born as late as the 1980s have no memory of living in a world where democracy was threatened in any serious way. It is so much easier for youngsters to take democracy for granted. For them, it’s like taking oxygen for granted. They have fewer real-world foils to compare democracy with. Churchill’s quip that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others doesn’t resonate with them in quite the same way.

It’s easy to take oxygen for granted if no one is holding your head under water, but none of us, it’s safe to say, would argue that oxygen isn’t essential or that it’s a bad thing. Yet a quarter of young people think democracy is actually bad.

There’s a lot more going on, though, than an authoritarian youth generation. Mounk just published another piece, this time in Slate, called The Week Democracy Died.

At first glance, a political crisis in London; a terrorist attack in Nice, France; a failed putsch in Ankara, Turkey; and a bloviating orator on his way to becoming the Republican nominee for the presidency of the United States look like the dramatic apex of very different, barely connected screenplays. To my eye, they are garish panes of glass that add up to one unified, striking mosaic. Looked at from the right distance, they tell the story of a political system, liberal democracy, that has long dominated the world—and is now in the midst of an epic struggle for its own survival.

[…]

Across the affluent, established democracies of North America and Western Europe, the last years have witnessed a meteoric rise of figures who may not be quite so brash or garish as [Republican presidential nominee Donald] Trump and yet bear a striking resemblance to him: Marine Le Pen in France, Frauke Petry in Germany, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, and many of the leading Brexiteers in the United Kingdom. They too harness a new level of anger that is quite unlike anything liberal democracies have witnessed in a half-century. They too promise to stand up for ordinary people, to do away with a corrupt political elite, and to put the ethnic and religious minorities who are now (supposedly) being favored in their rightful (subordinate) place. They, too, are willing to do away with liberal political institutions like an independent judiciary or a free, robust press so long as those stand in the way of the people’s will.  Together, they are building a new type of political regime that is slowly coming into its own: illiberal democracy.

[…]

Political elites are understandably terrified by the speed with which illiberal democracy is coming into its own. But if the populists are pushing for a political system that does away with one half of liberal democracy, the truth is that a large number of establishment politicians are increasingly tempted to embrace a system that does away with the other half. Where Trump and Le Pen seek to establish an illiberal democracy, a lot of sensible centrists are quietly seeking their salvation in what I call “undemocratic liberalism.” If the people want to violate the rights of unloved minorities, setting up the prospect of democracy without rights, the political establishment is increasingly insulating itself from the people’s demands, opting for a form of rights without democracy.

Here’s historian Jeffrey Herf in The American Interest echoing Mounk’s concern about the rising authoritarian tide on the political right:

One of the most disturbing aspects of the Trump phenomenon has been the bond he has created with, first, a third of Republican primary voters, followed by two thirds of them. Trump discovered what the classic demagogues of the 20th century understood: namely, that in a democracy it is possible to gain millions of votes by appealing to the worst in people. Trump, like Mussolini and Hitler but also like Stalin and Mao, understands that there are millions who enjoy hatred, who take pleasure in humiliating others, who find relief in giving a face and a name—Mexicans and Muslims today, Jews, capitalists and imperialists—to complex economic and social processes. The infuriating aspect of the Trump phenomenon was not only Trump but even more so that so many of our fellow Americans have proven to be suckers for his lies, and that the Republican Party political establishment, with some stunning exceptions, cravingly began to fall into line behind him or, in March, on the whole held back from taking him on with the ferocity and persistence that the defense of our democracy required. Donald Trump was not a fascist, but there was a whiff of fascism in the air around him. His rallies exuded menace and violence, and that too added to his appeal.

[…]

The Democratic Party is exasperating to those of us who opposed the Iran nuclear deal, Obama’s premature withdrawal from Iraq, and his refusal to lead NATO into an intervention to stop the Syrian civil war. It is exasperating that the heart and soul of the Democratic Party gives no indication of being able and willing to carry on an ideological offensive against Islamism, or to explain how that perverted ideology is different from the religion of Islam. The rise of a genuinely leftist—not liberal but leftist—wing within the Democratic Party is also a source of concern. Yet in sharp contrast to the Republican Party, the Democratic Party establishment defeated [Bernie] Sanders’s effort at a hostile takeover. Its establishment held firm and defended its principles. The success of Trump’s hostile takeover of the Republican Party, and Sanders failure to do the same to the Democrats, means that Hillary Clinton is now the only candidate running for President who supports the fundamentals of the bipartisan foreign policy consensus adopted by the United States since the Administration of Franklin Roosevelt. I look forward to voting for her!

Herf should heed Mounk before getting too excited. For indeed the establishment poses its own set of problems, which Myron Magnet exposes with ferocity in the pages City Journal:

We have lost the government we learned about in civics class, with its democratic election of representatives to do the voters’ will in framing laws, which the president vows to execute faithfully, unless the Supreme Court rules them unconstitutional. That small government of limited powers that the Founders designed, hedged with checks and balances, hasn’t operated for a century. All its parts still have their old names and appear to be carrying out their old functions. But in fact, a new kind of government has grown up inside the old structure, like those parasites hatched in another organism that grow by eating up their host from within, until the adult creature bursts out of the host’s carcass. This transformation is not an evolution but a usurpation.

What has now largely displaced the Founders’ government is what’s called the Administrative State—a transformation premeditated by its main architect, Woodrow Wilson. The thin-skinned, self-righteous college-professor president, who thought himself enlightened far beyond the citizenry, dismissed the Declaration of Independence’s inalienable rights as so much outmoded “nonsense,” and he rejected the Founders’ clunky constitutional machinery as obsolete.

[…]

[T]he Administrative State’s constitutional transgressions cut deeper still. If Congress can’t delegate its legislative powers, it certainly can’t delegate judicial powers, which the Constitution gives exclusively to the judiciary. Nevertheless, after these administrative agencies make rules like a legislature, they then exercise judicial authority like a court by prosecuting violations of their edicts and inflicting real criminal penalties, such as fines and cease-and-desist orders. As they perform all these functions, they also violate the principle of the separation of powers, which lies at the heart of our constitutional theory (senselessly curbing efficiency, Wilson thought), as well as the due process of law, for they trample the citizen’s Fifth Amendment right not to lose his property unless indicted by a grand jury and tried by a jury of his peers, and they search a citizen or a company’s private papers or premises, without bothering to get judge-issued subpoenas or search warrants based on probable cause, flouting the Fourth Amendment. They can issue waivers to their rules, so that the law is not the same for all citizens and companies but is instead an instrument of arbitrary power. FDR himself ruefully remarked that he had expanded a fourth branch of government that lacked constitutional legitimacy. Not only does it reincarnate the arbitrary power of the Stuarts’ tyrannical Star Chamber, but also it doesn’t even meet the minimal conditions of liberty that Magna Carta set forth 801 years ago.

This isn’t just an American problem. The European Union is an order of magnitude more bureaucratic and autocratic than the American administrative state, and it’s provoking a grotesque and dangerous backlash across the Atlantic. Back in June, Sohrab Ahmari wrote a chilling essay in Commentary about what he calls the worldwide crisis of rising illiberalism.

Trumpism (and Bernie Sanders-ism) are but the [parochial] American symptoms of a global phenomenon: the astonishing rise of illiberal movements of the far right and far left.

[…]

In France, President François Hollande’s Socialists and the center-right Republicans of former President Nikolas Sarkozy have had to resort to tactical voting alliances to shut out Marine Le Pen’s xenophobic National Front. In Austria, the anti-immigration Freedom Party, or FPO, thumped the mainstream parties in the first round of elections to the presidency in April, forcing the center-left prime minister to resign. Norbert Hofer, the FPO candidate, lost the runoff in May, after the mainstream parties urged their supporters to back his Green Party opponent—lest Austria become the first country in Western Europe to elect a far-right head of state since World War II.

Next door in Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s right-wing nationalist Fidesz Party has gradually hollowed out the country’s democratic institutions. He has politicized the judiciary, nationalized pensions by decree, proscribed “unbalanced” media coverage, and removed a slew of other checks and balances on his own power. The prime minister has mused about “building an illiberal new national state” on Turkish, Russian, and Chinese blueprints. His main opposition is the openly anti-Semitic Jobbik Party.

A new government in Poland is following Orbán’s footsteps with a restrictive media law, efforts to erode judicial independence, and a defense minister who thinks the Protocols of the Elders of Zion are real. Finland’s election last year brought the populist Finns Party into the governing coalition on a platform of opposition to the previous government’s liberal-Atlanticist agenda. Germany’s local elections in March resulted in the far-right Alternative for Germany Party making significant gains at the expense of the embattled Chancellor Angela Merkel and her center-right Christian Democrats.

Spain and Greece have seen the rise of Syriza and Podemos respectively—far-left parties with roots in the anti-globalization movement. Underscoring Greece’s Weimar-esque conditions, the Golden Dawn Party (with a Hellenic swastika for a logo) came third in 2015’s election. In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s project to transform the country’s parliamentary democracy into an Ottoman sultanate is nearly complete.

Then there is Britain, where the hard-left wing of Labour has taken over the party. Rising to the leadership in the aftermath of last year’s electoral rout, Jeremy Corbyn has broken the party’s peace with free enterprise and individual responsibility—the main reformist achievement of Tony Blair’s New Labour. The party once again longs for socialism and speaks the language of class warfare at home, while anti-Americanism, pacifism, and blame-the-West attitudes dominate its foreign policy.

You may notice that these writers hail from both sides of the political spectrum, from the center-right as well as the center-left. There’s plenty to be alarmed about no matter where you sit if you aren't part of the problem.

Still, Mounk takes a deep breath. “Never in history has a wealthy, consolidated democracy collapsed,” he writes. “Not once.” He adds, though, that throughout this period of stable consolidated democracies, living standards have been rising, the world’s most powerful nation has been a liberal democracy, and that most democracies have been relatively homogenous.

What will happen in a world where those things are no longer true, especially when rising generations care less for democracy than their elders? And what will happen, as we continue to pass through the transition we’re clearly in now, if Western democracies suffer sustained French-style terrorist campaigns by Middle Easterners with the warped minds of medieval genocidaires?

Nobody knows, but it’s probably safe to say at this point that the relative tranquility the West has enjoyed now for decades in ending. 

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