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A moderate proposal
What Americans on the left and right should agree upon
The term “liberal democracy” is used so frequently that we commonly assume the adjective must come along with the noun. Yet as the journalist Fareed Zakaria has pointed out, in his book The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad (2003), one need not always accompany the other; Russia and India, for example, have in recent years become more democratic, but they are also decidedly illiberal. In such countries, opposition parties find it difficult, if not impossible, to challenge heavily entrenched regimes. Religious passion fuels frequently violent conflict and encourages intolerance. The media is carefully controlled. The judiciary serves the state more than it delivers justice. There is such a thing as illiberal democracy, Zakaria concludes, and the phenomenon may be growing. “In countries not grounded in constitutional liberalism, the rise of democracy often brings with it hypernationalism and war-mongering,” he says. Certainly, recent attempts to democratize the Middle East support that contention; Hamas in Palestine and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt may be popular, but no one would call them liberal.
The United States is grounded in constitutional liberalism, and its politics, as a result, have little in common with what is occurring in societies that were dictatorships not long ago. Still, the question needs to be asked: What exactly does the “liberal” mean in liberal democracy? Surely it should not mean liberal the way the Democratic Party is characterized as liberal; one can disagree with domestic reforms based on the principles of the New Deal—or, in more current usage, one can be against affirmative action or gay marriage—and still be an adherent of liberal democracy; and there are people on the far left of the political spectrum who are as hostile to liberty and democracy as is anyone on the far right. Rather, philosophical liberalism adheres to certain assumptions about human nature and the use of power that have their origins in the thought of John Locke and Adam Smith. Liberalism in this more ample sense makes a virtue of tolerance and, in so doing, fosters suspicion of anyone who claims divine sanction for religious truth.
Whether embodied in an 18th-century preference for economic laissez-faire (today’s defining conservative idea) or a 21st-century concern with civil liberty (a preoccupation of contemporary leftists), liberalism has always questioned the unchecked centralization of political power. It has historically been distrustful of war (a mobilization of state power), and of the appeals to nationalistic emotion that war brings. Finally, liberalism has long been intertwined with a commitment to reason; those in positions of power cannot simply cite matters of state as the basis of their actions but must justify their decisions based on widely accepted legal, moral, and, in some cases, scientific standards. By marrying this capacious philosophical liberalism to the expansion of the franchise that began in the 19th century, liberal democracy developed as a political system based on majority rule, in which the majority came to appreciate the importance of limited government, individualism, the rule of law, respect for empirical reality, and pluralism in ideas and institutions.
It has recently become fashionable, both on the right and on the left, to criticize liberalism by deconstructing its claims to neutrality or by trying to show that it relies as much on violence as the ideologies against which it contrasts itself. Liberalism, we are told by such critics as Alasdair MacIntyre and Stanley Fish, can never be neutral between Enlightenment and pre-Enlightenment outlooks on the world because it is inextricably linked to the former. With respect to the United States, these critics are correct; America’s framers were strongly influenced by ideals of reason and science. Between different contemporary political positions—whether health care should be provided by the market or the state, whether conservation or exploring new sources is the best way to deal with the high cost of energy—philosophical liberalism has no policy preferences. But between different sets of ideas that have historically been dominant in the West, the “liberal” in liberal democracy is partisan: It is not on the side of those who insist that interpretation is all and no truths can be assumed; or that because there is no universal morality, the protection of human rights is little more than an attempt to impose an ideological worldview on those who do not share it; or that because the existence of God cannot be proven one way or the other, science and religion constitute equally valid (or invalid) guides to public policy.
Liberal societies have their limitations; they pay relatively little attention to community, hold insufficient respect for tradition, and frequently fail to take full account of the obligations one generation owes another. But their virtues are otherwise palpable. When domestic conflicts are treated as resolvable through compromise, passions are restrained, extremism contained, and violence tempered. Those who respect others with whom they strongly disagree tend to receive respect in return. If public life is tame, private life can flourish.
Moderation in politics makes progress possible, ensuring that not every political disagreement becomes a fight over first principles. Individualism allows speech to be heard, art to be created, science to innovate, business to expand, and faith to flourish; indeed, strong belief is far more possible in a liberal political system than liberalism is in a theocratic one. The party in power at one moment understands that it might be in opposition at another. Social justice is sought because everyone can put himself or herself in the place of anyone else. Liberal societies are more inclined to live in peace with others, but when peace breaks down, unified more by the bonds of citizenship than by despotic rule, they are quite capable of defending themselves. The sociologist Norbert Elias has described modernity as a “civilizing process.” Liberal politics can be characterized the same way.
Many Americans who call themselves conservatives share a taste for civilizing politics. Their goals are to promote stability, and their means are to encourage moderation. Cognizant of their country’s history and respectful of its traditions, they want to secure a balance between freedom and order more in the direction of the latter, even if they would not mind seeing business have more of the former. Worried about foreign insurgencies and threats to world order, they seek to build up American military power as the best way of ensuring peace. This form of conservatism recognizes the occasional need for bipartisan cooperation and shuns radical nihilism, even when coming from the right. Its practitioners include a number of prominent Republican politicians and conservative activists, from former Senator John Danforth of Missouri to the journalist Andrew Sullivan to the New York Times columnist David Brooks. Any well-functioning liberal polity is enriched to the extent it contains conservatives of this sort.
The movement that propelled the Republican Party of George W. Bush to power in 2000 and 2004, by contrast, was fueled by a different conservative temperament. Frequently associated with the Christian right, this kind of conservatism has turned its back on the Enlightenment and the worldviews that accompanied it. The most conspicuous manifestation of the Christian right’s unease with the Enlightenment can be found in its rejection of modern science, especially Darwinism. But more important for the future of liberal democracy is the unease with the modern ideal of civil politics that pervades the ideas and actions of large numbers of right wing politicians and activists, not all of whom speak for the Christian right. Listen to such talk radio hosts as Rush Limbaugh, the former Republican presidential staffers Oliver North and G. Gordon Liddy, the syndicated columnist Ann Coulter, and an unseemly number of Republican congressmen and senators and you hear not the respectful conservatism of an Edmund Burke, whose fear of radicalism was tied to a distinctive liberal temperament, but the vituperative anger of reactionary haters of modernity such as the German thinker Carl Schmitt, whose disparagement of Weimar democracy fed Nazi ideology.
These extremist voices engage in no-holds-barred styles of attack in which considerations of fairness are dismissed as naive or unaffordable. To rally supporters, they rely not on argument but on the arousal of fear. To them, political debate is not a search for common ground but a forum for the constant reiteration of agreed-upon talking points. Opposition parties are not potential partners in governing the country but enemies of the country to be excluded from power and policy. Science is held to be a cover for the antireligious bigotry these commentators attribute to their opponents. Insistent on the importance of morality, they seem to have little taste for pursuing social justice. They call for a return to traditional values by practicing a form of traditional politics that, in its passion, bellicosity, and intransigence, more resembles a duel to reclaim honor than negotiation and compromise to advance the common weal.
These are not the “illiberal democrats” described by Fareed Zakaria; even the most zealous of them do not poison their opponents, shut down opposition newspapers, or suspend elections when they fear they may lose them. Some other term is needed to characterize their views. I will call them conservative democrats, but understood in a particular way. What best characterizes their worldview is not political conservatism—if anything, they are quite radical—but the disposition to believe that liberal political systems are too optimistic about human nature, too timid to acknowledge the need for violence, and too invested in the false idea that neutrality in politics is both desirable and necessary. Conservative democracy is a political system based on majority rule, which makes it democratic. But it flourishes without Enlightenment-inspired commitments to fairness, impartiality, tolerance, and reason.
The democratic side of conservative democracy cannot be emphasized enough; no one forces huge numbers of Americans to listen to Rush Limbaugh, and even the most extreme right wing politicians in Washington were duly chosen by voters in their districts. As much as the rise of the conservative right shows the vibrancy of democracy, however, it also demonstrates the vulnerability of liberalism. None of America’s three branches of government have been immune to conservative democracy’s ugly and destructive kind of politics, and each has suffered as a result.
Improving the performance of American democracy will not be easy. Americans are going to have to change their political ways. Voting out Republicans and voting in Democrats will not automatically make democratic life better. Nor will the problems of democratic performance be solved if Congress cleans up lobbying practices in the wake of the Jack Abramoff scandal and starts resisting efforts by the executive branch to aggrandize its power. America needs a democracy protection movement just as it has an environmental protection movement, broad-based and diverse.
There are, to be sure, flaws in the democratic process to be addressed: an electoral college that leads candidates to slight states in which a large majority of Americans live; campaign finance practices that resemble extortion more than they embody free speech; influential media that protect those in power rather than hold them responsible for mistakes; and a Constitution that gives every voter in Wyoming roughly 38 times the sway of every voter in New York State. But even if every vote in presidential elections counted equally with every other, and even if, by some miracle, the political and ideological composition of the U.S. Senate reflected the political and ideological composition of the United States, significant problems of quality control would remain.
To begin the process of healing a damaged political environment, Americans will have to pay more attention: to the way their elections take place, their laws are passed, and the manner in which their expectations are shaped (government may not be the appropriate vehicle for resolving today’s culture wars, after all). If they do not, American democracy, which in its greatest moments inspired people throughout the world, will lose its luster, betray the hopes of its founders, and cease to stand as a model for other societies to emulate.
Alan Wolfe is a professor of political science and the director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. His essay is drawn from Does American Democracy Still Work? (copyright © 2006, Alan Wolfe), new from Yale University Press, by permission.
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