In my last post I talked about the threat to liberal democracy that comes from liberal undemocracy. Liberal democracy has been the basis of Western society since the end of World War 2, but now it is under threat from both liberal undemocracy and illiberal democracy, which is also spreading through the Western world.
To understand illiberal democracy, we need to start by looking at the basic elements of a liberal society. (This is liberal with a small “L” or liberal as in John Locke, not liberal like Hillary Clinton.) The main elements of a liberal society are a free press, an independent judiciary, a degree of economic freedom, a degree of social freedom and representative democracy coupled with universal suffrage. We are seeing the rise of a political movement that threatens all of these things and thus strikes at the heart of the liberal Western order.
Donald Trump is leading an attacking on the free press. He misses no opportunity to call the media biased against him and to question the legitimacy of any criticism of him. In Trump’s world there is no such thing as pro-Trump bias, there is only legitimate news that supports him and illegitimate news that criticises him. This is an attack on the liberal idea of a free press that holders the powerful to account.
Recently the independence of our judiciary has also been questioned. Following a High Court ruling that parliament (not the government) must decide to trigger Article 50, and begin the process of Britain leaving the EU, several British newspapers questioned the rights of judges to interpret the law and some even went so far as to label them “enemies of the people”. Another key principle of a liberal society is that parliament makes the law and judges are free to interrupt them. By suggesting that some political decisions are so important that judges must not be allowed to interrupt how the law applies to them is to question the independence of our judiciary. It is fine to claim that the judges made the wrong legal decision (or interpretation of the law), but to question their position as arbiters of the law is against liberalism.
Both of the above attacks were backed up by the fact that the political movements attacking liberalism (Trump and Brexit) won democratic elections. These political movements represent a huge change to Western society because they call into question our liberal democratic foundation. As political movements they attack liberalism in other ways: both want to restrict economic freedom and are a profound shift in the economic policy. This could be the end of neoliberalism and the beginning of a new age of economic nationalism. Although Brexit and Trump are profoundly different (Brexit is much more pro-free trade than Trump) they both question the current liberal economic consensus.
These two political movements also want to restrict social freedoms. At their core is nativist populism, which is frequently expressed as hostility to immigrants and non-whites. Winning elections based on illiberal practices such as curtailing immigration from certain countries, deporting large numbers Mexicans, banning Muslims from the country or exploiting latent xenophobia is an expression of hostility to the social freedoms that underpin liberalism. There is no valid liberal democracy without social liberalism and winning a democratic mandate on a platform of taking away people’s rights away is profoundly illiberal.
Trump and the Republican Party have even gone so far as to attack universal suffrage. Voting reforms put in place by Republicans and supported by Trump are designed specifically to stop poor people and ethnic minorities from voting. This is because they are more likely to vote for Democrats. We can expect to see more of this under President Trump and by making it difficult for citizens to vote, Trump is threatening the liberal principle of representative democracy through universal suffrage.
Finally, Trump attacks the foundations of liberal democracy by calling the election itself into question. Trump claims that millions voted illegally, which there is no evidence of. Questioning the legitimacy of elections themselves show the scale of Trump’s hostility to liberal democracy as does his fondness for dictators like Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Trump represents a clear and present danger to the very basis of western civilization through his attacks on liberal democracy.
These two occurrences, the rise of illiberal democracy and liberal undemocracy, are threatening liberal democracy because Western society is so divided. Trump, Brexit and other populist, nativist movements show the divisions of our society, which are mirrored by illiberal democracy and liberal undemocracy. Some people hail Trump and Brexit as the overturning of a corrupt political order and some see it as a threat to western society. Some are willing attack liberalism to destroy this corrupt political order and some want to subvert democracy in order to prevent them. This new divide between illiberal democracy and liberal undemocracy cuts across the old left and right political spectrum and is the key debate in contemporary politics. Restoring the old axis and liberal democracy is not possible until we unite our divided societies and return political debate to the old divisions.
This is not possible, partly because we cannot turn back time, but partly because the idea behind the old political debates do not explain the world we live in anymore. Neoliberalism does not make sense after the 2008 financial crash. Technocratic institutions are not protecting our society from existential threats. We need to engage with the ideas thrown up by illiberal democracy and liberal undemocracy so that we can combat the worst aspects of contemporary politics: ie racist populism and the desire of certain people to take away the rights of others.
The established liberal democratic ideas that underpinned Western society for decades are now being questioned. We cannot turn back the clock and stop this. Instead we need to ask ourselves: what do we want from our future and what must be stopped at all costs?