If we are moving away from liberal democracy, toward what are headed?
Liberal democracy is one of those formulaic terms that all too easily evaporate into the realm of grand abstractions: the American Dream, the Free World, the Right Side of History. Yet those two words succinctly capture the tension between individual freedom and communal well-being that has animated American politics since the nation’s founding. Various ways of balancing that tension have surfaced throughout US history: legal principles and practices, lists of inalienable rights, government structures and procedures, legislation in response to civil war and social upheaval.
Since World War II and the Cold War, liberal democracy has described the package of balances most appealing to transatlantic elites. The term has served as an authentic conceptual counter to the spurious “people’s democracies” spawned by dictatorships of right and left, as well as a handy label for the kind of society anyone would (allegedly) want, if given the opportunity—pluralistic, formally democratic, open for business. The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union only reinforced the common assumption among foreign policy elites that longings for liberal democracy were universal and irresistible.1
By now, most Americans know how mistaken that assumption turned out to be. The dream of a global liberal order is being challenged at every turn—not only by jihadists and white nationalists, but by libertarians, social democrats, and even democratic socialists. Liberal intellectuals have responded by assuming that the barbarians are at the gate—lumping Bernie Sanders with Marine Le Pen, Syriza with Brexit—striking a heroic posture, vowing their hatred of populism (which they conflate with fascism) and their fealty to freedom.2
Sustaining this heroic liberal persona requires a refusal to recognize that what is called liberal democracy has taken a sharp and disturbing turn in recent decades. What many defenders of liberal democracy fail to realize is that they are no longer defending either liberalism or democracy; the forms of elite rule that provoke popular anger are merely the husk of liberal democracy. The once-vital discourse of liberal democracy has been hollowed out and transformed into a language of managerial technique—a technocratic jargon used to legitimate the spread of free-flowing capital. Within this discourse, freedom has been reduced to market behavior, citizenship to voting, efficiency for the public good to efficiency for profit. The rich civic culture that gave rise to popular American politics in the past—unions, churches, local party organizations—has been largely replaced, in both parties, by elites who have benefited from the technocratic turn.
Reviving liberal democracy requires remembering what preceded it: the melding of liberal and republican ideals that animated American civic culture at the local level, well into the twentieth century. The recovery of liberal democracy also requires recognizing that what calls itself liberal democracy these days is often a poor pretender to that title or—even worse—a diabolically thorough counterfeit.