Is Illiberal Democracy Taking Roots in

By Dmitri N. Shalin

(This paper was presented at the International Conference on The New Europe, Wang Center, Stony Brook University, April, 15, 2005).

Democracy has been getting a lot of bad press lately. It has been linked to ethnic strife in India , political repression in Belarus , economic malaise in Zimbabwe – all sorts of ills known to plague fledgling democracies. Their plight contrasts sharply with the robust economic growth in authoritarian states like Singapore and China whose leaders, we are told, had a good sense to dispense with democratic elections. Robert Kaplan put the matter starkly: “Were China to have suddenly become a parliamentary democracy in 1989 at the time of the Tiananmen Square uprising, the average Chinese citizen would likely to be worse off today, and dramatically so.”

Fareed Zakaria assembled an extensive body of evidence to shore up this argument in his recent book, The Future of Freedom. His study is more than a paradigm for U.S. foreign policy; it is also a blueprint for revamping the political process at home. “What we need today in politics is not more democracy but less,” Zakaria maintains, a recommendation that fits the popular-initiative-swamped California as readily as any fledgling democracy struggling to feed its people.

I would like to challenge this increasingly-influential thesis on historical, logical, and political grounds. In particular, I wish to argue, with John Dewey, that cutting democracy down to size is not the way to resolve the tension between democracy and liberalism around which Zakaria builds his theory.

The Future of Freedom starts with a premise that the historical chasm separates democracy and constitutional liberalism. While the former goes back to ancient Greece where Athenians elected their government through popular elections, the latter appeared hundred years later in the Christian West. This view is at odds with the earliest known statement laying out a rationale for democratic politics in Occidental culture – Pericles’ Funeral Oration recorded by Thucydides in the 5 th century B.C.

We learn from this document that Athenian democracy had a strong participatory bent: “Here every individual is interested not only in his own affairs but in the affairs of the state as well,” Thucydides/Pericles tell us; “we do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business: we say he has no business here at all.” The statement also touted the rule of law: “When it is a question of settling private disputes, everyone is equal before the law. . . . We give our obedience to those whom we put in positions of authority, and we obey the laws themselves, especially those which are for the protection of the oppressed, and those unwritten laws which it is an acknowledged shame to break.” Pericles’ oration highlighted the role of free commerce in a democratic polity, and it singled out “free liberality” as essential to the Athenian ways: “Our city is open to the world, and we have no periodical deportations in order to prevent people observing or finding our secrets. . . . We do not get into a state with our next-door neighbor if he enjoys himself in his own way, nor do we give him the kind of black looks which, though they do no real harm, still do hurt people’s feelings. We are free and tolerant in our private lives.”

To be sure, this was an idealization. Pericles’ account competed with a different view current at the time, the one that dismissed democracy as plebiscite and warned about “the inevitableness of the degeneracy of the multitude.” Such was the view of Plato who taught that the “outcome of too much freedom is only too much slavery in the individual and the state.”

Leo Strauss raised a generation of policy makers on texts like Plato’s Republic, which advised professional elites to steer firmly the ship of state and keep a watchful eye on the destructive proclivities of the masses. Zakaria shows an affinity with this view when he claims a “striking statistical correlation” between democratic politics and dysfunctional states. His argument is logically flawed, however, for it confuses correlation with causality.

Marital satisfaction goes down when a couple has a child, but to blame the decline on children is to commit a monocausal fallacy. Drop in income, sleep deprivation, inadequate childcare facilities, less quality time spent together – these variables impact marital happiness as well; factor them in, and the correlation becomes less striking, perhaps even spurious.

The same logic applies to Hitler’s rise to power, Zakaria’s favorite example of how popular elections breed dictatorship. The loss in World War I and onerous terms imposed by the victors had something to do with German fascism, as did economic depression, hyperinflation, and a history of institutionalized xenophobia. Far from being their favorite tool, free elections are a nuisance for strongmen, who scuttle democracy whenever they have a chance.

The problems plaguing India , another dysfunctional state on Zakaria’s roster, also have less to do with democratic elections than with the country’s long-standing religious and ethnic policies. Zakaria ties current turmoil in India to the point in time when “new voters – almost all from poor, rural, and lower-caste background – entered politics.” Lured by the Bharatiya Janata Party, these voters whipped up nationalist frenzy, started ethnic disturbances, and helped nudge the Indian Congress Party from power. This explanation draws an invidious comparison between the BJP populism stirred by the unbridled masses and the ICP liberalism instilled by the British colonial authorities, and it underplays the corruption, mismanagement, and power abuses in the Congress Party, which ignored low-caste voters’ grievances and economic needs throughout much of its reign.

India is one of many nations where, in the words of Zakaria, “Democracy is flourishing; liberty is not.” He calls such countries “illiberal democracies” and juxtaposes them to the authoritarian states like Chile , Taiwan and South Korea whose strong-willed leaders secured prosperity and order before moving to liberalize their countries’ politics. At the very least, this interpretation is incomplete: in all these cases the liberalization had at least as much to do with the popular pressure as with the dictators’ benevolence.

The positive correlation between economic growth and liberalization is also problematic, as it glosses over cases that do not fit the paradigm. Russian economy has been booming under Vladimir Putin’s leadership while the country’s civil liberties continue to retreat. “Singapore’s brilliant patriarch Lee Kuan Yew” for whom Zakaria professes admiration hardly deserves the image of a benevolent strongman either, as he presided over the country where you could be fined for failure to flush a toilet, caned for littering on the streets, fired for being a gay, and imprisoned and tortured for asserting your civil rights.

It is not that Zakaria is against democracy; every now and then he pauses to assure readers that democracy has great merit, that its victory is inevitable, but such statements, never exceeding a paragraph length, are vitiated by the pages and pages describing the havoc the popular will has wrecked on society. Constitutional liberalism, on the other hand, is touted as an engine of order, civility and prosperity in the world, its shortcomings mentioned parenthetically and disposed of in a summary fashion.

It is the propertied classes that bequeathed us respect for law, spearheaded public causes, taught society manners, and showed fortitude in the face of calamity, like the well-bread passengers of the Titanic who gallantly yielded to women and children seats on safety boats. Zakaria has statistics to prove his point: “In first class, every child was saved, as were all but 5 (of 144) women, 3 of whom chose to die with their husbands. By contrast, 70 percent of the men in first class perished. In second class, which was also inhabited by rich professional types, 80 percent of the women were saved but 90 percent of the men drowned.”

What about the third class passengers? You won’t find the data in The Future of Freedom, which is too bad, because the figures are telling.

Every single child from the first and second class cabins survived the ordeal. By contrast, 52 children, or 66 percent, from the lower class parents didn’t make it. Seventeen women out of 220 traveling first and second class hadn’t found their way to safety, compared to 89 women out of 165 who had third class accommodations. The aggregate survival rates for the Titanic passengers and crew look as follows: 1 st class – 62.2%, 2 nd class – 41.4%, 3 rd class – 25.2%, crew – 24.0%. Lest you wonder, the official report on the Titanic disaster concluded that the third class passengers had no more trouble reaching safety boats than other travelers.

I don’t know why Zakaria skipped these figures, but this omission epitomizes a larger problem with his methodology – the failure to deal systematically with the liberalism’s limitations, to explore the complex, mutually-enriching bond between democracy and liberalism. His narrative pictures civilized classes spreading liberal values throughout society, sometimes in defiance of the popular will, but it ignores the pressure from bellow that has kept liberalism honest, socialized opportunity, and turned privileges into universal rights.

Looking back on the history of civil rights, we can see that every major statute designed to promote freedom in the West constituted a system of privileges that the upper orders of society held onto till the bitter end. Earls and barons coerced King John into signing the Magna Carta that granted them wonted liberties; the Glorious Revolution of 1688 forced the nobility to share their privileges with the propertied classes; the American Revolution spread liberties among the wider social strata; the Civil War extended civil rights to the blacks; the suffrage movement gave women voting privileges; and the 1964 Civil Rights Act put into place legal mechanisms to insure that all U.S. citizens could actually exercise their right to vote, use public facilities, attend desegregated schools, resolve racial disputes, petition the Civil Rights Commission, access federal assistance programs, and work in an environment free from religious, racial, sexual, and ethnic discrimination.

Zakaria credits U.S. Congress for the latter achievement yet characteristically fails to mention the Civil Rights movement, as if Rosa Park and Martin Luther King had less to do with the civil rights revolution than Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey. Nor does he bring up the fact the 1964 Civil Rights Act exempted the U.S. Congress, Judiciary, and Executive Branch from compliance with the Title VII provisions banning discrimination in the workplace (it was not until 1991 that the federal government yielded to public pressure and extended the statute’s provisions to its employees).

“The cure for the ailments of democracy is more democracy,” said John Dewey summing up the achievements of the Progressive era that vastly expanded the opportunities for the people to participate in politics through initiative, referendum, recall, open primaries, and direct senatorial elections. According to Fareed Zakaria, this was the wrong turn. The situation deteriorated further in the 1970’s when Congress passed laws limiting political campaign contributions, mandating open meetings, undermining the seniority system, and curbing the power of committee chairs. How misguided these reforms have been can be gleaned from the sorry plight of California where politics now resembles “Athenian democracy in its prime” and where “much of the state’s mess is a result of its extreme form of open, non-hierarchical, non-party based, initiative-friendly democracy.” To solve the problems plaguing democracy in America and elsewhere in the world, urges Zkaria, we need to do what Ulysses did to escape the siren voices of popular sentiments: “Politicians today should bind themselves more often to the ship of state as they pass through turbulent political waters.”

It is by no means obvious what ails California today (could it be an economic downturn, energy crisis, gubernatorial mismanagement?), but it seems clear that Zakaria misreads John Dewey.

Democracy, for Dewey, is first and foremost a quality of experience. It is inscribed in our bodies and emotions which lend a polity its somatic-affective substance. Democracy is a political system where no group is legally handicapped in its pursuit of happiness, where everybody manages to get one’s serotonin fix and no one has to give up a place in a safety boat because a better-heeled person comes along. Constitutional framework spells out how life chances are to be distributed among citizens, and to that extent, it is important to democracy. How a society lives up to its constitutional promise is another story. American democracy cannot be reduced to a document drafted by the framers any more than Islamic militancy can be blamed on the Quran.

What Dewey was after was an emotionally intelligent democracy. He dreamed about an America where people are emotionally literate, where emotions are intelligent and intellect is emotionally sane, where tolerance, compassion and humor permeate daily intercourse. A liberal affective infrastructure is the lifeblood of democracy, and it flourishes only when life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are guaranteed for every citizen by law and do not depend on anybody’s whim.

Authoritarian regimes fail this test. No matter how well they feed their populace, they breed an emotional culture injurious to civil society. Authoritarianism reproduces the somatic-affective conditions that infuse its citizens with envy, cruelty and sarcasm and stir passions that are bound to overload political circuits when repressive regimes begin to open up. Those born into privilege tend to see the influx of new voters and the tumult it causes as a nuisance or menace. They feel nostalgic for the good old days when businessmen weren’t concerned with the bottom line, party bosses didn’t have to deal with pesky interest groups, and pillars of the community imposed their will without fearing popular backlash. Alas, this nostalgia is more than a tad reactionary.

There’s no such thing as “too much democracy” any more than there is “too much liberty.” Liberty and democracy are separable only in abstraction, democracy whittles away without liberty, and vice versa. A country where electoral politics is free, open and fair cannot be repressive and xenophobic. “Illiberal democracy” is a contradiction in terms.

Encouraging authoritarian regimes is a dubious option for U.S. foreign policy. We should not press emerging nations to model themselves after China ’s enlightened totalitarism or Singapore ’s repressive paternalism. U.S. foreign policy must rededicate itself to human rights, rewarding nations that take civil liberties seriously and pressuring authoritarian regimes to open up. We also need to remind ourselves, especially when we feel an urge to lecture other nations, that democracy is an ongoing project. We have a long way to go before we achieve an emotionally intelligent democracy that the great American pragmatist, John Dewey, dreamed about at the dawn of the Progressive era.