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The Double Threat to Liberal Democracy

Summary:
Illiberal democracy – or populism – is not the only political menace confronting Western countries. Liberal democracy is also being undermined by a tendency to emphasize “liberal” at the expense of “democracy.” CAMBRIDGE – The crisis of liberal democracy is roundly decried today. Donald Trump’s presidency, the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, and the electoral rise of other populists in Europe have underscored the threat posed by “illiberal democracy” – a kind of authoritarian politics featuring popular elections but little respect for the rule of law or the rights of minorities. The Year Ahead 2018 The world’s leading thinkers and policymakers examine what’s come apart in the past year, and anticipate what

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Illiberal democracy – or populism – is not the only political menace confronting Western countries. Liberal democracy is also being undermined by a tendency to emphasize “liberal” at the expense of “democracy.”

CAMBRIDGE – The crisis of liberal democracy is roundly decried today. Donald Trump’s presidency, the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, and the electoral rise of other populists in Europe have underscored the threat posed by “illiberal democracy” – a kind of authoritarian politics featuring popular elections but little respect for the rule of law or the rights of minorities.

But fewer analysts have noted that illiberal democracy – or populism – is not the only political threat. Liberal democracy is also being undermined by a tendency to emphasize “liberal” at the expense of “democracy.” In this kind of politics, rulers are insulated from democratic accountability by a panoply of restraints that limit the range of policies they can deliver. Bureaucratic bodies, autonomous regulators, and independent courts set policies, or they are imposed from outside by the rules of the global economy.

In his new and important book The People vs. Democracy, the political theorist Yascha Mounk calls this type of regime– in apt symmetry with illiberal democracy – “undemocratic liberalism”. He notes that our political regimes have long stopped functioning like liberal democracies and increasingly look like undemocratic liberalism.

The European Union perhaps represents the apogee of this tendency. The establishment of a single market and monetary unification in the absence of political integration has required delegation of policy to technocratic bodies such as the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the European Court of Justice. Decision-making increasingly takes place at considerable distance from the public. Even though Britain is not a member of the eurozone, the Brexiteers’ call to “take back control” captured the frustration many European voters feel.

The United States has experienced nothing quite like this, but similar trends have made many people feel disenfranchised. As Mounk notes, policymaking is the province of an alphabet soup of regulatory bodies – from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Independent courts’ use of their prerogative of judicial review to promote civil rights, expand reproductive freedom, and introduce many other social reforms have encountered hostility among considerable segments of the population. And the rules of the global economy, administered through international arrangements such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) or the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), are widely perceived as being rigged against ordinary workers.

The value of Mounk’s book is to highlight the importance of both of liberal democracy’s constitutive terms. We need restraints on the exercise of political power to prevent majorities (or those in power) from riding roughshod over the rights of minorities (or those not in power). But we also need public policy to be responsive and accountable to the preferences of the electorate.

Dani Rodrik
I am an economist, and a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School. My most recent book is Economics Rules: The Rights and Wrongs of the Dismal Science (Norton, 2015). I was born and grew up in Istanbul, Turkey. I still follow Turkish politics very closely, as you will find out if you spend any time with this blog.

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