Some argue that the West should limit democracy to save liberalism. Here’s why they’re wrong

Demonstrators gathered to protest Islamic law wave flags during a rally June 10, in New York. In more than two dozen cities across the United States, the group organizing the rallies, ACT for America, is speaking out against Shariah law, saying it is incompatible with Western democracy. (Craig Ruttle/AP)

Twenty years ago, Fareed Zakaria analyzed the rise of “illiberal democracy” — a form of government with free and fair elections but without “the rule of law, a separation of powers, and the protection of basic liberties of speech, assembly, religion, and property.” Now illiberal democracy seems to be rising, so that even long-standing liberal democracies in Western Europe and the United States seem to be falling under its spell.

Some people blame democracy for empowering a mass of “people” whom elites look at with fear. Books and articles questioning rule by “the people” have proliferated, as have arguments that democracy ought to be limited.

Specifically, they worry about angry populists, who think that elites and governments are out of touch, and more responsive to globalized capitalism or financial and business elites or special-interest groups than they are to ordinary citizens. In Europe, resentment at the power of non-democratically elected E.U. bureaucrats and distant E.U. institutions has fed populism.

As I explain in a recent article in the Journal of Democracy, worries about illiberal democracy misunderstand how both democracy and liberalism have developed. Historically, liberal democracy is the exception, not the rule: Even in the West, liberalism and democracy have not historically gone together. Illiberal democracy is often a stage on the route to liberal democracy rather than the endpoint of a country’s political trajectory.

The first modern democracy turned illiberal quickly

Look, for example at France, Europe’s first modern democracy, which descended quickly into an über-illiberal democracy (the so-called “Reign of Terror”) after the French Revolution in 1789.

Conservatives such as Edmund Burke argued that this showed the dangers of democracy, but failed to understand that the post-revolution chaos was a product of the way that the previous dictator — the king — had ruled. The king’s alliance with a narrow sector of society, primarily the nobility, created divisions within society that exploded once the dictatorship collapsed. Unsurprisingly, the divisiveness and repression of the “ancien regime” or pre-revolutionary dictatorship didn’t lead to a moderate, compromise-oriented society well equipped for liberal democracy. However, continuing with dictatorship would not have made things better.

The revolution did replace a feudal economic and social order with a market system based on private property and equality before the law, thus paving the way toward the eventual development of liberal democracy. France took another two transitions to democracy for a regime to finally stick — but in hindsight, these attempts all contributed to the stability of the modern French political system. Similar stories can be told for Germany, Italy, Austria, Spain and other European countries, too.

Unchecked liberalism has its own problems

Contemporary analysts recognize that democracy can slide into populism or majoritarianism if unchecked by liberalism. But they often fail to pay attention to how unchecked liberalism can slide into oligarchy or technocracy, which are every bit as dangerous and pernicious as the problem they purport to solve.

Take Britain, the country held up by many, including Zakaria, as exemplifying the preferred political development path. The institutionalization of liberalism in Britain is most often dated from 1688’s Glorious Revolution, which limited the powers of the king, increased those of the parliament and laid out important civil rights. This was certainly an advance on what existed before, but the benefits of liberalism were restricted to a narrow elite. Up through the early 20th century Britain was an aristocratic oligopoly where power was concentrated in the hands of an Anglican landowning elite that dominated high-status positions in politics and society, controlled local politics and lawmaking and was immensely wealthy.

Up through the 19th century, in short, British “liberalism” did not prevent its elite from enjoying a combination of economic wealth, social status and political power that would make today’s plutocrats blush.

Liberalism’s benefits were restricted precisely because Britain’s political system was not very democratic. There were property and religious restrictions on the right to vote, while gerrymandering in favor of rural districts and “rotten boroughs” (electoral districts that were under the effective control of a single person) enabled the elite to corruptly dominate the economy, society and government. The lack of democracy in Britain enabled the perpetuation of oligarchy; it also ensured that neither minority nor individual rights were fully protected. Catholics were oppressed, workers and the poor were banned from full political participation and had heavily restricted civil liberties. It was only as pressure built during the 19th century for democratization that the full “benefits” of liberalism were extended to the entire population.

The story of the United States is similar. For most of U.S. history, liberal rights were restricted to white, male Americans. Women were denied many basic liberal rights, and slaves and Native Americans almost all. Before the Civil War the South was, despite the political order’s ostensible liberalism, a tyrannical oligarchy. It took the bloodiest conflict in U.S. history — the Civil War — to begin to change this. It took another century for basic liberal rights to be enjoyed by all citizens.

Worries about illiberal democracy are still justified

Zakaria and others are correct to worry about illiberal democracy. Without basic liberal protections democracy can easily slide into populism or majoritarianism. Yet the increasingly common argument that liberalism can best be protected by constricting democracy is empirically wrong.

First, the two have historically developed together. Illiberal or failed democratic experiments have often been part of a long-term process via which the institutions, relationships and norms of the old regime are eliminated and the infrastructure of liberal democracy built up.

Second, the idea that dictatorships are somehow better at creating the infrastructure of liberalism because they are better able to resist the “passions of the people” is false. Too often scholars and observers praise the “order” and “stability” offered by dictatorships without recognizing that these are purchased at the price of greater disorder and instability down the road. Much of the current hand-wringing over the illiberal nature of many newly democratized regimes and the idealized views of dictatorship often accompanying it are based on a misreading of the historical record.

Finally, although it is true, as Zakaria put it, that “democracy without … liberalism is not simply inadequate, but dangerous,” it is also true that liberalism without democracy is inadequate and dangerous. In the past, liberalism without democracy often led to oligarchy — as in Britain by a wealthy elite or as in the United States by a dominant ethnic/religious group, white Protestants. Elites are no less self-interested than anyone else. Without democracy, they are likely to limit the benefits of liberalism, as well as access to economic resources and social status, to themselves.

Few openly make the case for oligarchy. Instead what is most often advocated is hiving off as much political life as possible from the influence of ignorant voters and giving it to experts instead. However, the more people view political elites and institutions as out of touch and unresponsive, the more likely they are to want to eliminate them. Technocracy is populism’s evil political twin. The first seeks to limit democracy to save liberalism, the latter seeks to limit liberalism to save democracy.

Thus, the historical record supports a different understanding of the relationship between democracy and liberalism than many pundits think. If people wish to support liberalism as it has developed in the United States and Europe, they need to recognize that this requires supporting democracy, too. In general, a stronger liberalism will support a more thriving democracy — and vice versa.

This has direct consequences for political debates. History suggests that if one wants to support liberalism, one cannot simply look to firewall it from popular discontent with the presumption that it will thrive under undemocratic circumstances after replacing democracy with markets, experts or unelected bureaucrats. One needs instead to address the problems in democracy and liberty together — by looking, for example, to revitalize civic engagement and ensure that elites and institutions are responsive to as broad a cross-section of the population as possible, rather than to a narrow sector.

Sheri Berman is a professor of political science at Barnard College.

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