The Populist Challenge to Liberal Democracy?

COMMENTARY Conservatism

The Populist Challenge to Liberal Democracy?

May 2, 2018 6 min read

Former Director and AWC Family Foundation Fellow

David Azerrad studies conservatism, progressivism, identity politics, libertarianism and the American Founding.
At a deeper level, modern liberalism is increasingly hostile to the bedrock idea of national sovereignty, which undergirds democratic liberalism. cla78/Getty Images

Next summer will mark the 30th anniversary of the publication of one of the most influential, misunderstood, and unduly optimistic essays ever published, “The End of History?” In it, Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the collapse of Soviet communism might mark “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” From here onward, there would be no “viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism.”

Many took issue with Fukuyama’s thesis at the time, and many continue to, including William Galston, a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution and one of the most sensible liberal public intellectuals. In an essay published in the latest issue of the Journal of Democracy to coincide with the release of his book “Anti-Pluralism: The Populist Threat to Liberal Democracy,” Galston warns that liberal democracy “faces clear and present dangers” from a rising populist tide.

While he does not think the various populist movements sweeping the West, from Brexit to Trumpism, amount to an existential threat currently, he is, nevertheless, worried: “The door seems to be opening for a return to forms of authoritarianism written off by many as relics of the past.”

Populists, he thinks, are trying “to drive a wedge between democracy and liberalism.” It is not that they threaten democracy—quite the contrary, as they claim to speak for the people whose views have been ignored and maligned—but that they are “beginning to question key liberal-democratic principles such as the rule of law, freedom of the press, and minority rights.” Liberalism, he warns, is under assault.

The Populist Challenge to Liberal Democracy?

Galston’s case for a mounting illiberal populist tide is rather unconvincing. The only damning piece of evidence he produces is a quote from a 2014 speech by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, in which he embraces the idea of “illiberal democracy.” The term is indeed jarring (as are, one might add, the invocations of China, Turkey, and Russia as successful nations from whom we should learn).

Still, in that very same speech, Orbán insists that his post-liberal regime “will of course respect values of Christianity, freedom and human rights” and that it “does not deny foundational values of liberalism, as freedom, etc.”

The term “illiberal democracy” may be off-putting and poorly chosen, but the actual regime it describes does not appear to actually threaten liberal democracy. Orbán’s main concern in that speech lies with protecting the national interest, in particular from meddling by foreign (Soros-funded) non-governmental organizations. Given the Left’s obsession with foreign meddling in our own elections, one would think they might be somewhat sympathetic to Orbán’s worries. And even if Orbán proves to be an autocrat, it is hard to see how Hungary’s drift away from liberal democracy would somehow pose a threat to liberal democracy itself.

Galston also repeatedly suggests that freedom of the press is threatened. He does not, however, offer any instances of a media outlet actually being shut down by a populist in a liberal democracy. Perhaps Galston has in mind President Trump’s scathing criticism of the media.

One should not, however, equate Trump’s largely on-the-mark condemnation of our partisan, elitist, and unpatriotic press with an assault on freedom of the press itself. The First Amendment, contrary to what some seem to believe, does not protect the media from censure. All citizens, including those serving in government, are permitted to criticize it. This is not the exclusive prerogative of The New York Times’ ombudsman.

The ‘Liberal’ Challenge to Liberal Democracy

While it does not seem that populism, at least in its current form, poses much of a threat to liberal democracy, friends of liberal democracy do have serious cause for concern. The threat, however, comes from the mounting illiberalism of the Left, about which Galston says nothing.

These illiberal tendencies are most readily on display against the twin remaining pillars of liberalism: religious liberty and free speech. (The third pillar, property rights, has long since been eviscerated.) Religious liberty, once considered by nearly all Americans our first freedom, is now increasingly becoming a partisan issue as the Left pushes LGBTQ rights at the expense of the rights of conscience.

The Left’s live-and-let-live ethos of the 1960s has been supplanted by a zeal to impose its views on others and a mounting hostility toward traditional Christianity. Every last baker, florist, and photographer in America, for example, must be compelled to celebrate gay marriages.

Similarly, the Left’s once-spirited defense of free speech has given way to a vigorous push to censor so-called “hate speech.” As it stands, America remains the only Western nation not to do so, and the Left is adamant that we go the way of countries like Canada, which punishes anyone “who, by communicating statements, other than in private conversation, wilfully promotes hatred against any identifiable group.”

Liberals are equally keen to expand campaign finance laws to restrict further the rights of citizens to express their political views. It was only a few years ago that then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid tried to partially repeal the First Amendment, ostensibly to protect citizens from the pernicious influence of money in politics.

At a deeper level, modern liberalism is increasingly hostile to the bedrock idea of national sovereignty, which undergirds democratic liberalism. The Left’s support for transnationalism, global governance, unfettered globalization, and open borders are incompatible with sovereign countries, in the same way that their embrace of identity politics is incompatible with any genuine patriotic attachment. And without countries, there can be no liberal democracy.

To his credit, Galston understands this last point. “Liberal democrats must make their peace with national sovereignty,” he advises. “Political leaders can assert the right of their nations to put their interests first without threatening liberal-democratic institutions and norms.”

Galston even goes so far as to quote approvingly two prominent political scientists who deny that it is “bigotry to calibrate immigration levels to the ability of immigrants to assimilate and to society’s ability to adjust.” Regrettably, it is now considered bigotry in many quarters of the Left to suggest any restrictions on immigration. And it is outright forbidden even to raise the question whether all peoples of the world are equally likely to assimilate to our way of life.

What Is Populism?

Galston is more worried about the populist threat to liberal democracy than the leftist threat, in part because he defines populism rather negatively. Populism, he thinks, is “a governing system capable of translating popular preferences into public policy without the impediments [i.e. constitutionalism and liberal protections for individual rights and minorities] that have prevented liberal democracies from responding effectively to urgent problems.”

This may accurately describe an impatience among certain populists with constitutional norms, but it is not a necessary component of populism per se. The core populist contention is that the people, broadly defined, are being screwed over by the elites, either intentionally or not. Trump, for example, at first faulted our elites for being incompetent, but soon turned to accusing them of being corrupt.

That matter can be verified empirically. The elites either despise the people or they do not. They either support policies that serve the people or they do not. If the core pillar of populism is true—and broadly speaking, it seems to be, at least in America—then something ought to be done about it, within constitutional norms of course.

It is true, as Galston observes, 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, as Galston notes, that populism is divisive. Then again, politics is always divisive. The political community aspires to unity, but politics is inherently contentious and partisan.

And, yes, it is true that the people are not a monolithic bloc who are unified on all the issues, as Galston points out, but Trump and the European populists have tapped into issues—immigration first and foremost—where there is broad agreement among the non-elites that the current course is unsustainable, as Galston himself concedes.

The populist impulse needs to be refined and deepened, and it occasionally needs to be checked. But, as Irving Kristol wrote in the 1980s about an earlier wave of populism: “this new populism is no kind of blind rebellion against good constitutional government. It is rather an effort to bring our governing elites to their sense.”

This piece originally appeared in The Federalist

More on This Issue

COMMENTARY 3 min read

The Struggle for the Soul of the GOP


Defining Civilization Down