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Are These the End Times for Liberal Democracy?

New book sets out the danger — and offers solutions.

Crawford Kilian 9 May

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

This is one of the best of the flood of TrumpLit books, and offers some clear terms for dealing with a genuine threat to modern liberal democratic states.

How to eliminate that threat is much less clear.

Mounk’s key point in The People Vs. Democracy is to distinguish between democracy — “a set of binding electoral institutions that effectively translates popular views into public policy”— and liberalism —“basic values like freedom of speech, the separation of powers, or the protection of individual rights.” They’re not synonyms.

Democratic institutions ensure that the majority will rule; liberal institutions ensure that the majority also respect freedom of speech, separation of powers and individual rights. In effect, liberal institutions like the unelected courts, media and civil service protect democracy from itself.

So it’s quite possible to have undemocratic liberalism, in which rights are protected by unelected institutions (Mounk cites the European Union as an example). And it’s possible to have an illiberal democracy, in which the majority overrides obstacles like the courts and the free press.

Mounk, who lectures in political science at Harvard, points out Donald Trump is an illiberal democrat, forever bragging about his election numbers while criticizing institutions — the media are “fake news,” the FBI and CIA are crooked, and so are judges who rule against him. We tend to ignore his overseas counterparts: Orbán in Hungary, Sisi in Egypt, Modi in India and Erdoğan in Turkey are just some of them. All are democratically elected, and all are demagogues morphing into outright dictators.

That’s a reminder that “democracy” used to mean “mob rule,” the tyranny of an ignorant majority over everyone else. Even the American founding fathers were careful to build the U.S. on what Mounk would call undemocratic liberalism: a system in which the few who could vote would be both supported and influenced by unelected institutions like the courts and the media.

From experts to ‘elites’

Such institutions gain their influence through their expertise: judges are experts in the law, journalists in obtaining accurate information and reporting it honestly. In that sense, they are “better than” their ordinary fellow citizens, and deserve respect for being better. But when ordinary citizens are unhappy with judgments or the news they read, respect turns to skepticism and then to contempt. The experts become “elites” and therefore enemies of the people.

Three factors, according to Mounk, strengthened liberal democracies after the end of the Second World War: rapid improvement in living standards; the dominance of one racial or ethnic group; and media controlled by a small political establishment. All three factors have diminished: living standards have stagnated or even fallen; immigration has resulted in growing diversity; and the Internet — a medium without margins — has enabled marginal groups to join the debate on equal terms with the establishment.

This situation has enabled the rise of populism. When you can’t make ends meet because your job has migrated to Mexico or China, you’re in no mood for nuanced economic arguments; you just want your job back. When immigrants move into your country, you see them as another threat to your job (and to your political power). When minority ethnic groups begin to rise, you feel threatened. And since everyone’s a publisher on the Internet, it’s easy to abandon the “mainstream” media and find support in some very swampy backwaters.

A three-step solution?

Mounk offers a three-step solution to remedy populism.

“First, we need to reform economic policy, both domestically and internationally, to temper inequality and live up to the promise of rapidly rising living standards,” he writes.

“Second, we need to rethink what membership and belonging might mean in a modern nation state. The promise of multi-ethnic democracy, in which members of any creed or colour are regarded as true equals, is nonnegotiable.”

“Finally, we need to withstand the transformative impact of the Internet and of social media.”

Admirable goals, no doubt, but it is hard to imagine achieving them in a village, let alone globally. Mounk argues for renewed attention in schools to old-fashioned civics courses, which I agree with. But such a curriculum would be at the mercy of any populist government wanting to protect the students from political radicals and “social engineers.”

Similarly, economic reforms to redistribute wealth would be fought by the wealthy themselves; multi-ethnic democracy always has many racist enemies; and withstanding the impact of social media would be quite an achievement when we can’t even keep people from texting while driving.

If liberal democracy is to survive in Canada (and return to other populist-dominated countries), each component will have to check and balance the other: institutions will have to check the wilder extremes of democracy, and democracy will have to check the self-aggrandizement of institutions.

That’s a pretty far-fetched goal as well. It would require long terms in office for honest and far-sighted politicians, who would also have to survive repeated attacks by populist adversaries. Otherwise the laws needed to protect liberal democracy would never be enacted, or would be repealed by the next populist government.

As well, every institution from the military to public education to medicine would have to police its own members far more rigorously to ensure they meet high standards and deserve public trust and respect.

None of this would work unless citizens accept their duty as proprietors of a functioning democracy — to run the business and to hire good people and heed their advice. At present, this seems like a demand few citizens are prepared to meet.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics

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