Can Liberal Democracy Survive?


Architect of the Capitol

This article appears in the Winter 2015 issue of  The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.


In 1932, on the eve of FDR’s presidency, Benito Mussolini proclaimed, “The liberal state is destined to perish.” He added, all too accurately, “All the political experiments of our day are anti-liberal.”

The democracies were doomed, Il Duce declared, because they could not solve crucial problems. Unlike the dictatorships, which were willing to forcefully use a strong state, the democracies could not fix their broken economies. Parliamentary systems were hamstrung politically. The democracies were also war-weary, conflict-averse, and ill-prepared to fight. The fascists, unlike the democracies, had solved the problem of who was part of the community.

Mussolini’s ally, Adolf Hitler, was further contemptuous of “mongrelization” in American democracy. Who was an American? How did immigrants fit in? What about Negroes? The fascist states, by contrast, rallied their citizens to a common vision and a common purpose. Hitler was quite confident that he knew who was a German and who was not. To prove it, he fashioned the Nuremberg laws; he annexed German-speaking regions of his neighbors. As Hitler infamously put it, Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Fuehrer.

Though he was a buffoonish dictator, Il Duce was not such a bad political scientist. In the 1930s, a lot of liberal democrats wondered the same thing, and for the same reasons. As Ira Katznelson wrote in Fear Itself: “Such beliefs and opinions were not limited to dictators and dictatorships. As Roosevelt prepared to speak [in his first inaugural], skepticism was prevalent about whether representative parliamentary democracies could cope within their liberal constitutional bounds with capitalism’s utter collapse, the manifest military ambitions by the dictatorships, or international politics characterized by ultranationalist territorial demands. Hesitation, alarm, and democratic exhaustion were widespread.”

The democracies did survive, of course, and they flourished. The New Deal got us halfway out of the Great Depression, and the war buildup did the rest. Fascism was defeated, militarily and ideologically. The collapse of Soviet communism took another half-century. Thanks to the wisdom of containment, Stalinism fell of its own weight, as both an economic and political failure.

Not only did the democracies endure—by the 1980s, America had broadened the inclusiveness of its polity. Europe had embarked on a bold experiment toward continental democracy. In the final days of communism, there was triumphalism in the West. Francis Fukuyama even proclaimed, incautiously, in his 1989 essay, “The End of History?” that all societies were necessarily gravitating toward capitalism and democracy, two ideals that were supposedly linked.


Today, it is Mussolini’s words that resonate. Once again, the democracies are having grave difficulty pulling their economies out of a prolonged economic slump. Once again, they are suffering from parliamentary deadlock and loss of faith in democratic institutions. The American version reflects a radically obstructionist Republican Party taking advantage of constitutional provisions that Madison (and Obama) imagined as promoting compromise; instead, the result is deadlock. The European variant is enfeebled by the multiple veto points of a flawed European Union unable to pursue anything but crippling austerity. Once again, several anti-liberal alternatives are on the march. “All the political experiments of our day are anti-liberal.”

Take a tour of the horizon. Mussolini would not be surprised. The fastest-growing economy, China’s, is nothing if not anti-liberal, and getting steadily more adroit at suppressing liberal aspirations. The Beijing regime, which has learned the virtues of patience since Tiananmen, waited out the Hong Kong protests and efficiently shut them down. The Hong Kong elections of 2017 will be limited to candidates approved by the communist regime on the mainland. Capitalism was supposed to bring with it democracy and rule of law. But the Chinese have been superbly effective at combining dynamic state-led capitalism with one-party rule. 

What unites regimes as dissimilar as Iran, Turkey, Hungary, Egypt, Venezuela, and Russia is that they combine some of the outward forms of democracy with illiberal rule. The press is not truly free, but is mostly a tool of the government. Editors and journalists are in personal danger of disappearing. There are elections, but  the opposition somehow doesn’t get to come to power. Minority religion and ethnic groups are repressed, sometimes subtly, sometimes brutally. Dissidents, even if they break no laws, risk life and limb. The regimes in these nations have varying degrees of corruption between the state and economic oligarchs, which helps keep both in power. In Hungary, a member of the E.U., which is a union of liberal democracies, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has expressly invoked the ideal of an illiberal state. In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has dramatically increased enrollments in state-supported religious schools and automatically assigned some children to them, against the wishes of their secular parents.

Turkey is a stalwart member of NATO. Elsewhere in the Middle East, our closest allies don’t even go through the motions of democracy; they are proud monarchies. Israel, our most intimate friend in the region, is becoming less of a democracy almost daily. Israelis are seriously debating whether to formally sacrifice elements of democracy for Jewish identity. And this tally doesn’t even include the flagrant tyrannies such as the insurgency that calls itself the Islamic State, or ISIL. All the political experiments of our day are anti-liberal.

Ironically, some liberals are pinning great hopes on recent stirrings in a venerable institution of hierarchy, autocracy, secrecy, and privilege that has been the antithesis of liberal for nearly two millennia—the Catholic Church, now under a reformist pope. One has to wish Francis well and hope that his new openness extends to the entire institution, but these reforms are fragile. It has been a few centuries since the Church murdered its rivals, but in my lifetime the Church was very cozy with fascists.

One of the great inventions of liberal democracy was the concept of a loyal opposition. You could oppose the government without being considered treasonous. A leader, conversely, could be tossed out of office by the electorate without fearing imprisonment or execution by successors. In much of the world, this ideal now seems almost quaint, and certainly imprudent. A corrupt or dictatorial regime has much to fear from displacement, including jail and even death at the hands of an opposition in power.

There are a few bright spots. Some of Africa has managed to have roughly free and fair elections. South Africa’s young democracy is fragile, but seems to be holding. Some of the Pacific Rim is moving in the direction of genuine democracy. Many former Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe are functioning democracies, even liberal ones. And democratic aspiration is far from dead, as events in Ukraine show. Latin America has more democratically elected governments than it has had in a generation, but it also has several nominal democracies that are illiberal, or prone to coups, or simply corrupt. Mexico, our close NAFTA partner, epitomizes illiberal democracy.


But it is the democratic heartland, Europe and North America, that presents the most cause for dismay. Rather than the United States serving as a beacon to inspire repressed peoples seeking true liberal democracy, America is becoming more like the illiberal pseudo-democracies and kleptocracies. A dispassionate review of what is occurring in our own country has to include deliberate suppression of the right to vote; ever more cynical manipulation of voting districts in the nation that invented gerrymandering; the deepening displacement of citizenship with money and rise of plutocracy; the corruption of the regulatory process; a steep decline in public confidence in government and in democracy itself; and a concomitant doubt that democratic participation is worth the trouble. In my piece in this issue’s special report, I address some of these questions in the context of markets versus government, but the challenge goes much deeper.

Obstruction feeds public cynicism about government. Though the mischief and refusal to compromise are mostly one-sided—it is hard to recall a Democratic president more genuinely eager to accommodate the opposition than Barack Obama—the resulting deadlock erodes confidence in democracy and government in general. Why can’t these people just get along and work for the common good? Democrats, as the party that believes in government, take the blame more than Republicans. Government’s failure to address festering, complex problems feeds the dynamic.

This is all the more alarming because the challenges ahead will require strong government and above all legitimate government. At best, global climate change and sea level rise will require public coordination and some personal dislocation. Transition to a sustainable economy demands far more intensive public measures, as well as public trust in the hope that changes in old habits of carbon energy use need not result in reduced living standards. The risk of epidemics such as Ebola will require more effective government to coordinate responses that the private sector can’t manage. The popular frustration with flat or declining earnings for all but the top demands more government intervention. Weak government can’t accomplish any of this. Mussolini’s taunt burns: The liberal democracies are incapable of solving national problems.

A generation ago, political scientists coined a useful phrase—strong democracy. The Prospect published some pieces making this case, by authors like Benjamin Barber. Others, such as Jane Mansbridge and James Fishkin, writing in the same spirit, called for more participatory democracy. The common theme was that democracy needed to be re-energized, with more citizen involvement, more direct deliberation. What has happened is the reverse. The combination of economic stresses, the allure of other entertainments, the rise of the Internet as a venue for more social interchange but less civic renewal, has left democracy weaker when it needs to be stronger.

The other contention of the fascists—that the democracies had trouble with the vexing questions of community and membership—was never more of a challenge. In Europe, the poisonous mix of high unemployment, anxiety about terrorism, and influx of refugees and immigrants is feeding a vicious nationalist backlash and nurturing the far right. At home, the failure to normalize the status of an estimated 12 million immigrants lacking proper documents deprives large numbers of residents of normal rights and stokes nativism. Assaults on voting rights even for citizens, coupled with physical assaults by police, make African Americans less than full members of the democracy, despite the civil rights revolution of half a century ago.

Mussolini’s other taunt was that the liberal democracies were too divided and war-weary to fight. When Hitler remilitarized the Rhineland in March 1936, in defiance of the Treaty of Versailles, the democracies did nothing. They dithered right up until Germany’s invasion of Poland in September 1939. As late as 1940, Roosevelt was more eager to keep America out of another European war than to help the British make a stand against the Nazis.

The military challenge today is more complex. America in this century has vacillated between grandiosity and timidity. It fought the wrong war in Iraq, and then may have pulled out prematurely. The administration has been weak and divided in its policies toward Syria and ISIL. To some extent this is understandable; these are hydra-headed threats, with no easy solutions. If President Obama is ambivalent, the public is even more so. Yet the greatest military threats to American democracy are not the risks of invasion or terrorist assault, but what we are doing to ourselves. The Obama administration, like that of George W. Bush, has been all too willing to subordinate liberty to security, secrecy, and autocracy, even in cases where these objectives are not in direct contention.

The risk is not that American democracy will abruptly “perish,” but that it will be slowly denuded of its vital content. If we are to reverse the appeal of anti-liberal society globally, we have to repair our democracy at home. The challenge is multifaceted, and will take time. It should be the great project of the next president and the ongoing work of the citizenry.

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