America’s democracy has become illiberal

December 31, 2016

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America’s democracy has become illiberal

By Fareed Zakaria Opinion writer


Two decades ago, I wrote an essay in Foreign Affairs that described an unusual and worrying trend: the rise of illiberal democracy. Around the world, dictators were being deposed and elections were proliferating. But in many of the places where ballots were being counted, the rule of law, respect for minorities, freedom of the press and other such traditions were being ignored or abused. Today, I worry that we might be watching the rise of illiberal democracy in the United States — something that should concern anyone, Republican or Democrat, Donald Trump supporter or critic.

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What we think of as democracy in the modern world is really the fusing of two different traditions. One is, of course, public participation in selecting leaders. But there is a much older tradition in Western politics that, since the Magna Carta in 1215, have centered on the rights of individuals — against arbitrary arrest, religious conversion, censorship of thought. These individual freedoms (of speech, belief, property ownership and dissent) were eventually protected, not just from the abuse of a tyrant but also from democratic majorities. The Bill of Rights, after all, is a list of things that majorities cannot do.

In the West, these two traditions — liberty and law on the one hand, and popular participation on the other — became intertwined, creating what we call liberal democracy. It was noticeable when I wrote the essay, and even clearer now, that in a number of countries — including Hungary, Russia, Turkey, Iraq and the Philippines — the two strands have come apart. Democracy persists (in many cases), but liberty is under siege. In these countries, the rich and varied inner stuffing of liberal democracy is vanishing, leaving just the outer, democratic shell.

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What stunned me as this process unfolded was that laws and rules did little to stop this descent. Many countries had adopted fine constitutions, put in place elaborate checks and balances, and followed best practices from the advanced world. But in the end, liberal democracy was eroded anyway. It turns out that what sustains democracy is not simply legal safeguards and rules, but norms and practices — democratic behavior. This culture of liberal democracy is waning in the United States today.

The Founding Fathers were skeptical of democracy and conceived of America as a republic to mitigate some of the dangers of illiberal democracy. The Bill of Rights, the Supreme Court, state governments and the Senate are all bulwarks against majoritarianism. But the United States also developed a democratic culture, formed in large part by a series of informal buffers that worked in similar ways. Alexis de Tocqueville called them “associations” — meaning nongovernmental groups such as choir societies, rotary clubs and professional groups — and argued that they acted to “weaken the moral empire of the majority.” Alexander Hamilton felt that ministers, lawyers and other professionals would be the “impartial arbiters” of American democracy, ensuring that rather than narrow, special interests, the society and its government would focus on the national interest.

The two prevailing dynamics in U.S. society over the past few decades have been toward greater democratic openness and market efficiency. Congressional decision-making has gone from a closed, hierarchical system to an open and freewheeling one. Political parties have lost their internal strength and are now merely vessels for whoever wins the primaries. Guilds and other professional associations have lost nearly all moral authority and have become highly competitive and insecure organizations, whose members do not — and probably cannot — afford to act in ways that serve the public interest. In the media — the only industry protected explicitly in the Constitution — a tradition of public interest ownership and management aspired to educate the public. Today’s media have drifted from this tradition.

I recognize that this is a romantic view of the role of these elites and hierarchical structures. Parts of the media were partisan and scandal-hungry from the start. Lawyers often acted in their own narrow interests; accountants regularly conspired in frauds. And those smoke-filled rooms with party bosses often made terrible decisions.

But we are now getting to see what American democracy looks like without any real buffers in the way of sheer populism and demagoguery. The parties have collapsed, Congress has caved, professional groups are largely toothless, the media have been rendered irrelevant. When I wrote a book about “illiberal democracy” in 2003, I noted that in polls, Americans showed greatest respect for the three most undemocratic institutions in the country: the Supreme Court, the Federal Reserve and the armed forces. Today, the first two have lost much of their luster, and only the latter remains broadly admired.

What we are left with today is an open, meritocratic, competitive society in which everyone is an entrepreneur, from a congressman to an accountant, always hustling for personal advantage. But who and what remain to nourish and preserve the common good, civic life and liberal democracy?

Read more from Fareed Zakaria’s archive, follow him on Twitter or subscribe to his updates on Facebook.

Read more on this issue:

Miklos Haraszti: I’m genuinely worried for America


8 thoughts on “America’s democracy has become illiberal

  1. I share Dr. Zakaria’s concern about the state of democracy. But I hold the view that too much democracy is not good for our political health. What we need are strong leaders with the ability to stay connected to people. Our leaders must listen to the voices of the people they claim to represent and respond to their needs. Leaders ought to be a source of comfort in an uncertain world, not the cause of our anxieties. This kind of leadership is sadly lacking today.

    Our world has become a dangerous and endangered place. Why? Because our leaders no longer listen to one another. Care to comment?–Din Merican

  2. I agree with most of what Fareed has written. I just wish he would stop using the word ‘populism’ as his favorite pejorative to stigmatize Trump’s particularly authoritarian brand of Tea Party mob rule. He’s hijacking a perfectly good word.

    Populism, meaning government of, by, and for the people, where everyone has an equal say in setting priorities, is what democracy was supposed to be about, from the Greeks on down. The opposite of populism is trickle down plutocracy, where regular folks try to live on the scraps of the rich and powerful.

    Populism is the language whose speakers conceive of ordinary people as the noble assemblage not bounded narrowly by class, view their elite opponents as self-serving and undemocratic, and seek to mobilize the former against the latter. Populism is not an ideology. It’s an impulse, it’s a form of expression, it’s rhetoric, which includes imagery. The enemies are a tiny elite, and the people on your side are the vast majority; the vast majority are moral people who are being betrayed by the elite. The Sanders campaign represented true populism, not the dumbed down perversion of the Trumpites.

    Trump expresses one aspect of populism, which is anger at the establishment and various elites. He believes Americans have been betrayed by those elites. But the other side of populism is a sense of a moral people, people who’ve been betrayed for some reason and have a distinct identity, whether they are workers, farmers, or taxpayers. Whereas with Trump, I don’t really get much of a sense of who the people are. Of course journalists say he’s talking mostly to white working-class people, but he doesn’t say that.

    I wish the journalists are more aware of the etymology of the term they use, and use it more appropriately. Nowadays they have used the word ‘populist’ like it is a bad thing, completely twisted the meaning of a good word.

  3. Dr. Zakaria has drawn many historical and contextual facts likes a scholar, but he could not put those points together and therefore he come down to a wrong conclusion: declining liberal democracy in the US. The ability of individual Americans to reject narrative of the media in the last election vividly demonstrates the triumph of individual liberty in the form of independent judgement and conscience. What happens in the last election is a revolution, without bloodshed, of American style, as envisioned in the US Constitution by the founders.

    For Dr. Zakaria, it is obvious he would not come down to that conclusion (i.e. declining liberal democracy) had Hillary won the election. He would have said anything about declining liberal democracy in the US. But, how could the winning of Trump be the salient factor for his conclusion?

    Answer: disguised state of denial of what happens in the last election.

  4. A person who is voted Football Player of the Year may get away withe idea that he is larger than football. But because of the strong administrative rules governing football he has to conform if he wants to be voted Football Player of the Year on a continuing basis. He must first of all conform and above all has to keep sharpening his skills as a footballer. The moment he does something crooked he will either be reprimanded or if it is a repeat of ofence he will be suspended. And if he persists he could be suspended for life. FIFA has in place to get the bad apples out of he system. And it is precisely for that reason they are able to grow from strength to strength.

  5. PS Illiberals a plenty along the coast of the United States of America should learn to accept the voice of the people who have elected a leader in accordance with the constitutions of the USA and not the DSA

  6. America’s democracy has been hijacked in a carefully crafted takeover that began more than half a century ago.

    Democracy in Europe, too, has suffered the very same fate…as we witness an entire continent being run by an unelected and shadowy cabal…

    So we now have the curious situation in which the very people who, for the past half century or more, have been singing the praises of their democracies to the rest of the world while trying to “encourage” them that theirs is the only way to govern… are (very slowly) waking up to the reality that…hey, our own democratic backyard is in deep trouble…

    The slow rise of anti-EU sentiment is testimony to the awakening… but if right wing alternatives, that are springing up all over the plac, rely on emotion rather than reason, the EU will descend into chaos…

    A good example of this “emotion over reason” is the Golden Dawn Party in Greece that appeared on to the stage promising to “fix their country” only to fall flat on their faces… Now the Madam in France seems to be set to follow suit…

  7. PS…forgot to add the last sentence;;; So Mr. Zakaria…democracy in the US is not illiberal but has been thrown out of the window…

  8. Just came back from the Conch Republic a micronation at the southernmost point of the continental USA. It’s 90 miles to Cuba and 110 miles to Miami, Florida. Interesting place with an interesting history. Read up on its history on how a small city takes on the Feds.

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