Liberal democracy is broadly understood as a form of government where rights and freedoms are protected, government officials are elected by the people, branches of government are separated, and institutions are transparent and accountable. These characteristics have been enshrined as values to be upheld and celebrated, in nearly every liberal democracy in the post-World War II era.
But, a recent New York Times article titled “How Stable Are Liberal Democracies? ‘Warning Signs Are Flashing Red'” written by Amanda Taub highlights the findings of a Harvard lecturer and author named Yascha Mounk, who suggests that liberal democracies have begun to show signs of decline. Mounk, who has written a memoir about growing up as a Jew in modern Germany, teamed up with a fellow researcher from the University of Melbourne named Roberto Stefan Foa, to pinpoint three ‘warning signs’ pointing to the decline of liberal democracy:
- Public support: How important do citizens think it is for their country to remain democratic?
- Public openness to nondemocratic forms of government, like military rule.
- Whether “antisystem parties and movements” – political parties and other major players whose core message is that the current system is illegitimate – were gaining support.
These three signs actually presuppose that it is possible for liberal democracies to decline, thus going against a commonly held theory in political science called “democratic consolidation” which simply means democracy becomes secure in a country if it possesses a certain set of attributes like democratic institutions, a robust civil society, and a certain degree of wealth. Mounk and Foa believe that if democracies show these three signs, they are in a process of “deconsolidating.” Think of the fever you get right before a flu comes on.
The article gives examples of Venezuela and Poland, two countries that once appeared to be flourishing democracies that now purportedly show signs of “deconsolidation” and a diminution in democratic characteristics.
This is all food for thought here in the United States, where many believe it is impossible for the country to ever transform into an ‘illiberal democracy.’ While most Americans are well aware of the illiberal currents in the country, they have largely been regarded as fringe elements that have little to no influence in broader society. With the election of Donald J. Trump, however, these assumptions have been drastically ruptured. How did we reach a point where headlines asking if Jews are human beings became okay? Where do we go from here to prevent things from getting worse?
There is one factor about liberal democracies that has been overlooked, and I believe it is the single most important factor to guarantee their preservation and proper function, and that is the good faith of the people.
Yes, democratic institutions exist, but they cannot protect themselves, and the mechanisms designed to protect can only work insofar as there are individuals willing to use them. Rational, free thinking individuals must act, push, and demand, that these institutions are preserved and that threats to them are met. Up until now, people’s investment in this enterprise has merely been assumed, thus causing it to be neglected and taken for granted. Consequently, we abandoned our duties and assumed our institutions would be self-sufficient and self-regulating.
If liberal democracies are on the decline, then it must be the people, not institutions, who work to ensure they recover. As long as we remember this, we will never give in to complacency or passivity toward the Trump administration and the fringe elements that it has empowered. We must repeat to ourselves that what is happening is unprecedented and not normal.
As a final point, reflect on what columnist Matt Levine noted in the Washington Post, two days after the election:
I thought about the fact that those principles [of liberal democracy] can’t automatically enact themselves, that they only work if the human actors in the system choose to follow them and to demand that others follow them. They persist because the people constrained by them believe themselves to be constrained by them. The Constitution, separation of powers, religious liberty, freedom of the press, an independent judiciary, the rule of law, equality of all citizens: There is a complacent sense in America that these things are independent self-operative checks on power. But they aren’t. They are checks on power only as far as they command the collective loyalty of those in power; they require a governing class that cares about law and government and American tradition, rather than personal power and revenge. Their magic is fragile, and can disappear if people who don’t believe in it gain power.