Liberal Democracy

Liberal democracy and populism are both ideologies/political approaches committed to the idea of popular sovereignty, which appeal “the people” and support the rights of the individuals over “the elite” or those who are more powerful than the ordinary people. Despite that, both these concepts rely on incompatible conceptualizations of the people and as a consequence, they manifest antagonistic and contradictory understandings of the concept of democracy. Therefore, it challenges the common assumption that populism might be beneficial for the demos.

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Although the populist movement can signal an underlying malfunction/failure of our liberal democratic system, it can never itself operate as the corrective. Instead, it should be seen as a main threat to liberal democracy, which should undertake actions with the purpose of repairing both the symptom(populism) and the underlying issue. Until recently, liberal democracy dominated triumphantly, most citizens seemed committed to this form of government, the economy was growing, and no radical parties.

Political analysts thought that democracy in places like France/ U.S. would not change in the years to come, but it turned out to be very different. Citizens have now grown restless and the populists are on the rise around the world, from America to Europe. Across Europe and North America, long- existing political systems are facing a change, including the Brexit vote, the 2016 U.S. election, the absolute win of the populist party in the Czech Republic’s 2017 elections; and most concerning, the support of Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán’ on “illiberal democracy,” changes which threaten the shape of liberal democracy. The election of Donald Trump to the White House has been the most obvious case of democracy’s crisis. But it is not the only incident. In Poland and Hungary, populist leaders are using those same manners to destroy the free media and independent institutions according to Bustikova & Guasti on “The liberal Turn or Swerve”. Even in the supposedly stable democracies of Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands, extremists are celebrating successes. There is not any doubt that we are going through a populist moment, but the question is whether they will turn into the threat of liberal democracy. To answer that question first we have to define liberal democracy and populism. The basic requirements for democracy to live are both the equality of all its citizens and inclusive citizenship.

The other key pillar of a democratic government is majority rule. In addition to that, some boundaries/limitations are also established, like the “separation of powers” and “checks and balances.” Meanwhile, populism is not just, an expression of disappointment over economic expectations, and being scared of any threats to security. Populism does accept the principles of democracy. It is believe, however, on constitutionalism, which concludes that it aims what a national leader (Orbán) calls “illiberal democracy”, a governing system capable of translating popular preferences into public policy without the impediments that have prevented liberal democracies from responding effectively to urgent problems( Lipset, pg 7). From this perspective, populism is not a warning to democracy but rather to the liberal variant of it. Populism can also be defined as “the people” against “the elite”. Today, “we the people” is understood to mean all citizens, regardless of their beliefs, and length of their citizenship. The people have a certain set of interests while the elite has another, values being not only different but fundamentally opposing. Populists see the elite as very corrupted and the people as equally righteous, meaning that the people could and should govern themselves. That being said, populist leaders defend that they represent the people themselves, the only force in society.

Therefore we can say that populism is the enemy of its own existence, and therefore of liberal democracy. Do we need to take the threat seriously? On the one hand, liberal democracy faces clear dangers. However we may also gain a little comfort, from the results of a cross-national survey conducted a couple of months ago. Although there is worldwide discontent with the way the democratic institutions are performing in the European and North American, support for representative democracy on these continents stands at 80%. By contrast, only 13 % support a system with a strong leader who can make decisions without intervention from the courts. That being said, while people are not against representative democracy, they do consider other forms of government. 70 % favor referendums in which citizens vote directly on major national issues and 43% believe that experts should be allowed to make decisions about those issues in their countries. According to a Voter Study Group performed by William Galston among respondents, 78% believe that democracy is the most favourite to any other type of government, while 83% think it is very important to live in such form of government. Nonetheless, 23% support the idea of a powerful leader who does need Congressional consult and worry about elections, and 18% would prefer military rule. Openness to non-democratic alternatives was most supported among voters who have economic liberalism and cultural conservatism, a characteristic of U.S. populists. About 50% of those who supported Barack Obama in 2012 but then voted Donald Trump in 2016 favored a powerful leader and did not accept democracy as the best type of government.

In practice, not every display of populism threatens liberal democracy. While the Brexit was voted, as a policy decision made by referendum, it did raise some issues in terms of parliamentary sovereignty and pointed out some policy concerns. However, in systems where liberal-democratic institutions are strong, arguments about immigrants, trading and even national sovereignty can still happen. According to Galston, populism is “ broadly defined, are being screwed over by the elites, either intentionally or not. It is true, that there is a tendency among populists to exaggerate the virtues of the people. Then again, we live in a democracy, and all politicians must flatter the people in order to gain their vote”. It is also true that populism can cause division between people, but then again, politics is always divisive. But sometimes the populist movement is a direct danger to liberal democracy. Unchecked, moves to weaken freedom of the press, constitutional courts, strengthening of the executive, and discriminate groups of people based on race/ethnicity, weakens liberal democracy from within. Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian leader is openly antipathetic to liberalism, something we should not ignore, which can be a warning of worse to come. According to 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer citizens are also less committed to democracy than they once were; while more 2/3 of older Americans say that it is necessary for them to live in a democracy, for example, less than ? of younger Americans do.

They are also more open to authoritarian alternatives; two decades ago, for example, 25% of British people said that they liked the idea of “a strongman ruler who does not have to bother with parliament and elections”, today 50% of them do. And these tendency is increasingly reflected in our politics: from Great Britain to the US, and from Germany to Hungary, respect for democratic rules and norms has declined, meaning democracy is now deconsolidating. One possible explanation for why a lot of young people have grown distance with democracy is that they do not have the understanding of what it would mean to live in an undemocratic political system. However people born in the 1930s and 40s who experienced the threat of fascism/communism as children or were raised by people who fought it, and who spend their growing years during the cold war, when asked whether it is important to them to live in a democracy, they have some sense of what the alternative might be. So how could it be fixed? The supporters of liberal democracy should focus on taking the threats to liberal institutions seriously. An independent judiciary, freedom of the press, the law enforcement, are the bases of liberalism, and they must be protected. Coexistent, political reforms are necessary for liberal-democratic institutions to work effectively once again. Also, liberal democrats must learn how to use national sovereignty and learn to put the interests of their nations first without threatening liberal-democratic fundamentals.

Again, this is a problem within liberal democracy, not about liberal democracy. In the United States, Donald Trump’s widespread promise to build a “big, beautiful wall” along the Mexican border became a powerful symbol of sovereignty regained. One may say that any country has a limited capacity of new arrivals/emigrants and that going against this number would trigger a reaction of an anti-nativist behavior. But calling the citizens who worry about immigration, as ignorant does not help either to address the issue or to lower the political tension. In conclusion, we can state the populist movement uprising could bring down liberal democracy and should be considered as a potential threat to this system of democracy. In the recent years we have witnessed the triumph of populism which in a way does counter democratic value, such as human rights convention and has distanced themselves from constitutive democratic principles such as the separation of powers, in countries such as Great Britain, Hungary, etc. Thus, we can conclude that liberal democracy and populism cannot be compatible since one principle is an actual threat to the existence of the other one.

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