Rationally Speaking

A monthly e-column by Massimo Pigliucci
Department of Botany, University of Tennessee

N. 49, May 2004

Liberal vs. illiberal democracy

Plato famously did not like democracy. He saw the death of his mentor, Socrates, decided by an ignorant and fearful mob of Athenians, as the logical consequence of giving power to the masses. While Plato’s solution to the problem, his utopia of a state guided by philosophers (surprise, surprise) depicted in the Republic, obviously wouldn’t cut it neither in theory nor in practice, he had a point.

Churchill once quipped that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others, which reflects the attitude of most in the modern Western world. And yet, Churchill, unlike Plato, failed to define what kind of democracy he was referring to. Roughly speaking, there are two fundamentally distinct kinds of democratic government: the simple rule of majority, despised by Plato but simplistically endorsed by many in the United States; and a constitutional democracy, in which the decisions of the majority of the moment are constrained by a set of rules aimed chiefly at protecting the rights of minorities, including freedom of speech and action.

Author Fareed Zakaria, in his lucidly written The Future of Freedom, labels the two kinds respectively “illiberal” and “liberal” democracy. By “liberal” Zakaria doesn’t mean left-leaning (as he is quick to point out), but rather constructed so to insure an open society, encouraging a healthy liberal exchange of ideas among its citizens, and tolerant of a wide (though obviously not boundless) spectrum of beliefs and practices.

This distinction is crucial, and yet it is rarely drawn by our politicians, who use the word “democracy” as synonymous with unquestionable good, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary. Indeed, Zakaria convincingly argues that -- under certain temporary circumstances -- a reformist autocracy may be preferable to an illiberal democracy. He points out that the most successful instances of transition to democracy in the world throughout the 20th century have developed gradually, beginning with relatively enlightened autocratic leaders who saw the eventual inevitability of change. Soviet Russia comes to mind, and China may represent the next big example.

On the other hand, democracy has notoriously failed in many instances in South America, and especially in Africa. That, claims Zakaria, has been because the transition was sudden, with little if any constitutional protections. The results have been disastrous, leading to massacres of dissenting ethnic or political minorities, and often to the raise of a brutal dictator favored by an urgent need of reestablishing “order.”

Zakaria’s book was written before the US-led invasion of Iraq, but his points apply remarkably well to the current situation in that country. Of course, nobody would ever think of Saddam Hussein as an “enlightened” dictator, but it is also obvious that the Iraqi's concept of democracy -- if indeed they do have one -- is of the illiberal type. The Shiite clerics who are pushing the country to the brink of civil war want immediate elections, even though clearly the minimum necessary conditions are not in place. Why? Because they know they would easily win a majority of the votes, which would pave the way to the establishment of a democratically elected theocracy in that country. Not exactly what the so-called coalition of the willing had in mind when they embarked in one of the most ambitious operations of nation building ever attempted (and led by a US president who campaigned against the very idea of nation building). Then again, dictators have come to power by (illiberal) democratic means before, just think of Hitler.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Zakaria’s argument is that the US itself may be moving toward an increasingly less liberal form of democracy. Many of the guarantees put in place by the Founding Fathers and embedded in the American Constitution are being eroded, or are increasingly under attack by a politically and religiously conservative (slight) majority. For instance, the US Constitution guarantees a separation of church and state, and yet Americans are increasingly undisturbed by the encroaching of government upon religion (just think of the popularity of “faith-based” initiatives, school vouchers, etc.), and stubbornly hold to clear symbols of breach of the wall of separation (such as the phrase “under God” in the pledge of allegiance, or “in God we trust” on the paper currency).

All of this is done in the name of democracy, adopting the narrow meaning of the term according to which if the majority (even as slight as 51%) wants something, it should be done. This is precisely what led Plato to reject the democratic model to begin with, and what differentiates successful democracies from abysmal failures. I doubt we will see another Socrates being put to death anywhere in the Western world, but it is significant that intellectuals, or simply independent thinking lay people, are under increasingly vicious attack in the US for simply having the guts to voice their dissent regarding the Bush administration’s foreign or domestic policy. We have gotten to the point that being religious, right-wing, pro-war and patriotic are all seen as synonymous, simply because a narrow (and narrow-minded) majority of Americans currently see it that way.

It is also astounding to see that the right to marry (i.e., to be legally recognized as a couple) is being denied to gays and lesbians by people including those (e.g., some blacks) who until very recently had been discriminated against in their turn by a bigoted majority. The obvious problem with illiberal democracies is that majorities can change, sometimes dramatically and over a short period of time. That is why it is in the long-term interest of every member of a society to defend the rights of the minorities. Next time around, you may be the one to need such protection.

© by Massimo Pigliucci, 2004