The Marriage of Liberalism and Democracy

Freedom and democracy may sometimes seem to conflict, but one cannot survive without the other

Image Credit: Neil Webb/Debut Art

In the 2022 midterm elections, democracy was on the ballot, and democracy won.

The most striking election outcome was that candidates who denied the results of the 2020 election and vowed to overturn future election results got wiped out. That was particularly true for the secretary of state positions that have the most direct control over the conduct of elections: Such election deniers were defeated in Arizona, Michigan and Nevada. And it was true for all positions, from governor on down, in the swing states that usually decide national elections.

It seems likely that election conspiracy theories will fade to the margins now that they have turned out to be an electoral loser. Certainly, they will have less impact on the 2024 election, because the people who would have acted on those theories will not be in office.

But democracy being a winning issue is a somewhat paradoxical result, because preelection polls indicated that it was nowhere near the top of the issues midterm voters said they cared about, well below problems such as inflation and crime that would have moved voters against the party in power. It seems natural that people would be more concerned about what the government is doing, and what results it achieves, than they are about how such questions are decided.

Yet in the end, Americans voted based more on the “how” than on the “what,” and they were correct. The right to vote is so important to the cause of human freedom that it overwhelms all other considerations.

Two Wolves and a Sheep

The case for democracy is not something we have been pressed to think about for a long time because it hasn’t really been in danger. We have taken it for granted.

But what is the point and justification for democracy? Is it simply that the majority should always get its way? In practice, no one actually seems to believe this or to want unlimited democracy. In the recent election, for example, one of the major issues was abortion, which has been threatened by the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. Because this ruling allows abortion restrictions on the state level, unmarried women—the group most affected by this issue—turned out and voted for Democrats by a huge margin. These voters also helped pass ballot measures to codify abortion rights in state constitutions.

But notice that these measures are designed to place abortion outside of normal majority-rule politics. Dobbs, after all, was a “pro-democracy” decision in the crudely majoritarian sense. It put abortion in the category of issues that are up for a vote and subject to control by the majority in any given state of the union. Yet that is clearly what many pro-democracy voters do not want.

Or consider the YIMBY movement, which is based on a growing consensus that too much “community input” is strangling new home construction. There’s an old line that democracy is two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner. In many of our cities, democracy is two upper-middle-class homeowners and one low-income worker voting on how high property values should rise.

Then, of course, the First Amendment and Bill of Rights—cornerstones of the American system of government—limit what laws Congress may pass and therefore what the majority may do. That is their whole point.

Clearly what we want is not unlimited majority rule, but liberal democracy: a majority vote, within the context of protections for fundamental rights. This is still “democracy” in the literal sense—rule by the people—but that rule is limited by liberal principles.

But if majority rule can threaten liberalism and individual rights, can it also protect them?

Monogamous, Faithful and Permanent

The usual case for liberal democracy is captured in a quote from 20th-century political philosopher Judith Shklar that has been making the rounds recently: “Liberalism is monogamously, faithfully, and permanently married to democracy—but it is a marriage of convenience.”

The idea is that it is impossible to maintain a liberal system—“liberal” in the political philosopher’s sense, meaning a free society—without representative government and other democratic institutions. But democracy is merely a means to an end. It is justified not by an imperative to manifest some kind of mystical collective will, but as a safeguard for individual liberty.

This concept is consistent with the historical origins of democracy. Both liberalism and democracy—as words and as ideas—have their roots in the classical world, and there are two stories from Ancient Greece and Rome that define their proper relationship.

The first is the rape of Lucretia, the event that triggered the creation of the Roman republic. According to legend, the son of King Tarquin forced himself on the wife of a Roman patrician, and in outraged response, the Romans overthrew Tarquin and vowed not to have a new king in his place, instead choosing to govern themselves. The purpose of the Roman republic’s democratic institutions was to protect its citizens from the abuse of power by tyrannical rulers.

The second story is the death of Socrates, the Greek philosopher who was executed by the vote of an Athenian jury—one of their democratic institutions—for asking uncomfortable questions about truth and morality. Majority rule can undermine a tyrant, but it can also empower demagogues and unleash popular prejudices.

These two stories sum up the promise and peril of rule by the people. The whole trick of liberal democracy is to create a system that will protect us from Tarquin, while protecting Socrates from us.

The Populist Delusion

Yet I think we can encourage a little more love in the marriage between liberalism and democracy by finding some common ground in the basic principles behind them.

The principle behind representative government is the same as that underlying liberalism: the equal rights of individuals. Democracy is founded on the recognition that some men are not born with saddles on their backs, as Thomas Jefferson put it, while others are not born booted and spurred. If all men are created equal, with equal rights, they are entitled to an equal say over how they are governed and by whom.

By contrast, the recent attempts to overturn election results boil down to a declaration that some people’s votes should count more than others’. To be sure, the candidates who wanted to overturn the 2020 election results billed themselves as trying to “stop the steal” by opposing imaginary vote fraud. But when they comprehensively failed to produce evidence that the election was stolen, most voters saw through the rhetoric. If you’re trying to overturn a vote that was never stolen in the first place, then you are the one trying to commit vote fraud.

In practice, this fake campaign against “vote fraud” really just meant: When people like me vote, that’s democracy, but when other people vote, that’s fraud. It’s about creating two classes of people, the “real Americans” whose votes must be counted, versus another group of voters who are presumed from the outset to be fraudulent.

This reflects the worldview behind the pseudo-democratic rhetoric of populism. The populist leader pretends to speak for the people and to champion their interests, but he always defines “the people” to mean his faction. They alone are the real Americans who represent the heartland. Everyone else doesn’t count: Their preferences are presumed to be manufactured and illegitimate—and their rights and interests do not have to be respected.

The Ultimate Check

But there is a deeper common value that bonds liberalism and democracy. In a free society, respect for the rights of others requires that you deal with them through bargaining and persuasion rather than coercion. Same for democracy. When you are required to seek the votes of your fellow citizens, you have to win them over through debate, discussion, persuasion—and sure, a little wheeling and dealing.

A liberal democracy protects against democratic abuses of power through a system of checks and balances, in which some democratic institutions are given the power and incentive to limit other democratic institutions—the legislature versus the executive, the courts versus both, the states versus the federal government and so on. But elections are the ultimate check on power, the one that makes all the others possible. The peaceful means of putting a stop to the ambitions of a power-hungry demagogue is to vote him and his cronies out of office.

The reward of a democratic system is not just that it limits the power of our leaders, but that it holds them to account for their mistakes and allows a country to reverse their errors. We are seeing a reminder of that right now in the example of three dictatorships that are steering themselves over a cliff precisely because nobody can vote out the party in power. In Russia, Vladimir Putin has plunged recklessly into a catastrophic war and turned back to totalitarianism to suppress criticism. In China, Xi Jinping has imposed a disastrous policy of “Zero Covid” lockdowns and turned the country back toward a state-run economy that threatens to stifle its recent prosperity. In Iran, protesters just burned down Ayatollah Khomeini’s childhood home in a smoldering uprising against a theocratic regime that murders innocent young women.

When the people rule, they will occasionally (all right, often) steer a free society into foolish or misguided policies. But unlike in a dictatorship, the ability to vote out failing leaders gives us the ability to correct those mistakes—including the ability to reverse erosions of our freedom.

The First Freedom

Freedom of speech has been called the “first freedom,” but part of the point of protecting speech is to allow us to criticize our leaders so we can then vote them out. Historically, the vote is the first freedom and the origin of all the others. From the Magna Carta on down, rulers have only relinquished power and agreed to protections for the rights of citizens when they have been required to answer to the people they govern.

This is why it is so important to protect liberal democracy when any party threatens it and why voters are right to make this a higher priority than other, seemingly more immediate problems. Americans have shown that we can recover from mistakes and survive going down wrong paths, so long as we are able to correct course. But it is only the democratic institution of voting that allows us to do that.


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