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Who Threatens Liberal Democracy?
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  • Boritz

    The threat to liberal democracy is big government and the “democratic norms” propelled by Wilson, FDR, LBJ, and Obama. The other huge threat to liberal democracy is the “democratic norm” of political correctness propelled by everybody except Trump and his supporters.

  • QET

    Mounk and Foa’s work is exemplary of TAI’s recent observation that social scientists do not understand anything (OK, that is my gloss on TAI’s observations). What, that Mounk is a “lecturer” at Harvard and the piece gets published in the NYT are supposed to be impeccable credentials, signifying “Experts at Work” or something? Please.

    That liberal democracy is no longer understood by reference to Aristotle, Locke, Madison, Tocqueville and other great thinkers (who were also great observers), but by the modern Weberian bureaucrat’s resort to arithmetic (“They have since gathered and crunched data on the strength of liberal democracies.”) abetted by absurd “concepts” (antisystem parties?), proves conclusively that these persons have absolutely no understanding of liberal democracy and thus TAI should be ashamed for giving in to its own Weberian dark side and actually referencing it as though anyone could learn anything from it.

    The most compelling evidence of the decline of liberal democracy is that apparently there are fewer and fewer people alive who even know what it is.

  • Beauceron


    The Left have been setting us up for a far Left Junta for decades now. Trump has certainly thrown a spanner in the gears of their project, but in the long run, it’s just a blip on the screen. We are moving toward a “friendly” totalitarian state, whether you like it or not. Our wealthy and educated elite– from titans of business to the professoriate– all favor totalitarianism as a way to preserve their positions in society. And many of our New American friends, who now make up a larger percentage of the population than ever before in this nation’s history, generally come from countries with a long history of despots, so they are amendable to the idea anyway.

    It’s a strange thing to watch a man like Castro celebrated on virtually every campus across the country. But there you are. The Left seized the opinion forming institutions of our society, the media and educational systems, decades ago and have slowly but inexorably shaped us into creatures of their own making. We won’t just get a totalitarian state, we’ll demand one.

    This is what most Americans want. This is what all of us are going to get.

  • Anthony

    Qet gets it right, fewer and fewer even know what Liberal Democracy entails (such does require both reading and inclination). By the way, Francis Fukuyama on Podcast gives reference – Democracy but not Liberal Democracy.

    • FriendlyGoat
      • Anthony

        Thanks. Two key takeaways: 1) Populist in office thrive on a circus-like atmosphere (that casts the leader as persecuted by media and political elites….); 2) …get American politics out of reality show mode.

        Overall, piece provides instructive analysis vis-a-vis exploitative opportunities and their sanctioning – that’s scary. Still, a very good presentation of the facts – though the tug of normalization is powerful and author makes case, attention spans are social-media fashioned now to some extent (do you normalize its pervasiveness). We will certainly await what unfolds.

  • There were opposing interpretation of liberalism and democracy all along. Look for the Acton-Mill discussion in Britain in the 1860s: Acton equated liberalism with protecting local communities and different cultural enclaves. This was seen as more inclusive and tolerant, and also as more difficult for government to control. Mill equated liberalism with bolstering a civic electorate united by a representative body that attracts their ultimate loyalty. This was seen as protecting the individual by offering him equal say in government.

    Current liberalism has Mill’s language of representation and vote, but Acton’s intention of melting down the cohesive electorate. Hence the European Union in its current form. Hence the penchant for international law and global citizenship. Hence the preoccupation with immigration and the intuitive reaction to strict borders as ‘racist’. At the time of the original debate, America opted for a sovereign electorate that imposes its will and its notion of equal citizenship by force if necessary: hence the Civil War. But as American elites were Europeanized, their perception of liberalism and democracy was Europeanized as well. They swallowed the European flair for complexity, elaboration, opacity, multiple-meanings, occult sources of power.

    One result is that all across the West, liberalism and democracy became identified with the Actonian view, which is an almost explicit regression to the late-medieval Holy Roman Empire. If you oppose this, you have no language left. You are outside polite discourse, and obviously outside liberalism and democracy. Which is why populists are crass and uncouth, to the point where they identify truth with vulgarity. Well, you see who benefited from this.

    • Dhako

      I think you reading things without context, at least the American’s experience. In other words, America (from beginning) had a liberal constitution that was meant to restrained the atavistic popular politics that was given as a franchise of most property-owning White male. And this is why the bill of rights was added in the constitution. And, also, the Hamilton in his attempt to create the first nation-wide currency with it’s debt-assumptions across the region, can be read as first tentative liberal economics of the kind Adam Smith could have nodded even in early as late 18th century. Hence, from that perspective, the constitutional edifice of the new regime (USA) was as Liberal anything can be in late 18th century. Which means, if we assume, the constitution and the the economical model of the nation to be the “meta-narrative” of polity of the structure of the new national house, then, you can definitely say, the US started life as a liberal polity, at least in-terms of the blue-print of the new nation.

      However, what you have to set that reality against it, is the fact, that US started life with the widest franchise of the vote of most white-men who had properties, which means, the democratic ethos was already there at the beginning of the new regime. And this meant, politics of the new nation has to “accommodate” itself to that reality. Hence, in far more pronounced way, from the beginning the US had tension between the democracy that essentially was there as a given and the liberal new order that was meant to give the structure of the nation its salient. Hence, you can read the early skirmishes between Jefferson’s Republican party and Hamilton’s Federalist, as essentially a fight between the liberal economist (The federalist) who were mostly concern with creating a commercial empire out of the new regime, whereby the financial properties of New-York’s smart-set should be given a political support from the federal government on one hand, as the small-farmers Republicans and the landed Virginian aristocracy |(in and around Jefferson and Madison) who were more concern in clipping the wings of the Federalist. And that fight was resolve decisively in 1801 election of Jefferson and his republican’s party into the presidency.

      Again, in That fight between economic liberalism against democratic sentiment was at the forefront of the fight in which Andrew Jackson waged in his attempt to win power in 1830, whereby, in the end, he did away the first attempt of the semi-federal reserve bank (i.e., the bank of america), which was essentially a blow against the economic liberalism of early 18th century. Hence, America’s history in a cyclical sense, you can read it, that fight constantly through out its history. Moreover, William Bryan Jennings was another manifestation of America democratic itch to do battle against well-heeled financial economical liberalism, given that he allegedly sad that the US shouldn’t be crucify at the alter of gold, which he meant, I suppose, on the gold standard of that time. Again, the fight between FDR and the Wall-street supporting Republican party, was essentially another manifestation of economical liberalism (at least in the version that exited in mid 20th century) doing battle against democratic will of the population (or the forgotten man) as embodied by the landslide election of the FDR. This fight democracy and liberalism (at least in it’s economical aspect of it) is as old as the Republic itself. ,

      • Thanks. There is a lot in what you say. I basically had Lincoln in mind in my comment on the USA.

  • FriendlyGoat

    There is a possibility that the more people we actually have (nationally and globally) practicing “free speech” with the modern amplifiers of radio, television, the Internet, self-promotion on the likes of Facebook, wide broadcasting of snippets on the likes of Twitter, and the flood of personal messaging vehicles/devices, the less we enjoy hearing all the “free speech” and therefore the less we even value the concept. It is possible that we are losing any personal filters for distinguishing quality talk from junk talk and merely blow off everything immediately in order to make room for the next incoming thing.

    Aside from politics or the following of celebrities’ “speech”, as an older adult, I have often thought how much I appreciate not being obligated as a kid (60’s) to follow any where near as much noise as young people are bombarded with today. I lived in a town that received two over-air TV stations. Radio was then-current rock or then-current country. Kids called kids on parents’ land lines. We lived almost completely in the moment with the people in our immediate company. If we had separate teen lives with school, summer job, non-school sports, church groups, scouts, 4-H, in-town girlfriend, out-of-town girlfriend, any of those things could be partitioned off and kept at least somewhat separate from the rest. Today’s generations find such “freedom from” not only impossible, but unknown in this country and a growing number of all others. What that alone does to liberal democracy is only to be observed—-as we have no means for either predicting or turning the society back to any slower or quieter environment.

    • CapitalHawk

      I do think it is now virtually impossible for a young person to leave behind the mistakes of youth, and in this way we are forcing our young people to mature much more quickly than before. Imagine if all of the activities of the baby boomers was documented on Facebook and Instagram, posted for all to see and then recorded for all time to be searched by all future potential mates, friends, employers, etc. I’m guessing a large number of them would have run into significant problems later in life as a result.
      Pre-internet a person could grow up in one town as a certain person and, if they so chose, leave and then reinvent him or herself in another place. This is virtually impossible now. As Trump would say, Sad!

      • FriendlyGoat

        I actually did what you are saying. Grew up in one small town, went to a state college town, got married, arrived completely unknown to anyone in yet another third small town and had a completely different —–suddenly very adult—-life with no overlap at all, even though the towns were all in one state and not all that far apart. It’s not that my high school life was all “that” lawless or notorious, but the older company owner who hired me first into a responsible position did not know my family or anything at all about my young life or town of youth. That separation survived for decades with my high school rock band past not casting any doubts upon my sudden transformation to trusted accountant in a privately-held company.

  • FriendlyGoat

    One of the lessons of our century is that we were almost universally disappointed in what liberal democracy might have been able to do for Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Egypt, Turkey, Syria, and any number of other Islamic places. Instead of getting the hoped-for progress in those “hard” places, we see them in many respects floundering on the concept and electing resistance to forward thinking. Meanwhile, it could certainly be argued that Putin is a questionable result in Russia, the UK has lost its soul in the game of polarization, France and Germany are degrading and the USA just told the world to forget about us as a good example of democracy for the foreseeable future.

    • CapitalHawk

      I think the main lesson we have learned is this: The people in those countries think differently, and value things differently, than we do. Thus, when given an opportunity to elect representatives, they vote for people that share those values with them, not us. This is why, when you have Palestinian elections, they elect people who want to destroy Israel. Because the vast majority of Palestinians want to destroy Israel.

      Related to this: If we import lots of those people into our country, they don’t suddenly become liberal democrats (small “d”). As most recently illustrated by a Somali at Ohio State, they bring their values and way of thinking with them.

      • FriendlyGoat

        Both the Bush and Obama administrations believed that, given the chance, Islamic countries would vote to soft-pedal Islam in government. They didn’t.
        So, we learned in those places that one of the “threats to liberal democracy” is religion. Curiously, the religious community in our own country just determined the outcome of our 2016 election too. Evangelicals absolutely produced the Trump result in a way no other group could. Most of them don’t really know why they did so—–mostly apologizing for Trump as they went—-and haven’t the faintest idea why the result will be everything BUT Christian. But we are where we are.

        • CapitalHawk

          I don’t think the threat is “religion”. The threat is one particular religion – Islam. Christianity, Buddhism, Shintoism, Hinduism, and even Atheism seem to be able to function in a liberal democratic society. Islam, most especially the MENA versions of Islam, seem to be unable to do so.

          • FriendlyGoat

            That’s true. Islam actually detests democracy, believing at the root that no voters can or should actually supersede ANYTHING in Islamic holy writings. Unfortunately, Christianity is capable of unabashed meanness and history is full of the examples. Some even thought we were “done with that”. Well, we the big Christian nation, just told the world that “guess what, we’re not done at all.” In this country Christianity just damaged both our politics and itself in large and far-reaching ways. Donald Trump, at this moment, is de facto leader of the evangelical protestants in America and most of them don’t even know that they installed him in such a position. Do you think the Falwells and Dobsons will ever criticize him NO MATTER WHAT? Nope. The whole bunch of them were captured as surely as Jim Jones captured his followers who all drank kool aid. Once in, they can’t get out. Gotta keep rationalizing. No career choice to do otherwise.

          • CapitalHawk

            It is obvious that you are struggling to explain the election of Trump. I think you are falling for the explanation that makes you feel good, which is “It’s the fault of the religious right!”

            This is not accurate. The religious right voted for the Republican candidate in 2008 and 2012. Both times they lost. In Mitt Romney in particular, they had a perfect candidate. He still lost. With Donald Trump, the religious right did NOT have a perfect candidate and many of them refused to vote for him. See the results in Utah for a nice example of this. Donald Trump won Utah 452,000 votes to 274,000 for Hillary. In 2012, Mitt Romney won Utah 740,000 votes to 251,000 for Obama. In 2008, McCain (definitely not a favorite of the religious right) won Utah 596,000 to 327,000 for Obama.

            The reason Trump won was that Union members in Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin abandoned the Democrats. Fill in your explanation for *why* they did that, but that is what happened and why Trump won. Not because of the religious right.

  • Gary Hemminger

    Both the whacko left and loony right don’t care about democratic norms anymore…and no amount of logical argument is going to bring them back into the fold. What they care about is power. The left wants the power to demand its progressive ways on the populace, and they couldn’t care less about how the constitution might limit their ability to force these demands upon us. What really scares the left about Trump is that they think he is going to use his “pen and phone” just like Obama did to force his demands on us as well. the fact that the whacko left didn’t think about this when they allowed Obama to go crazy with his “pen & phone” is the most telling part about the whole thing. The hypocrisy is so rich you can cut it with a knife.

    Because the power and money are so good, when one side gets it they will do anything to wield it…even if it means violating democratic norms. So when they finally and inevitably lose power, the other side can wield the same sword of anti-democratic norms to get what they want. It is a sort of anti-democratic norm death spiral. the only way to stop it is for reasonable people to stop it. I think there are about 30% of the folks out there who make up the whacko left and about 30% who make up the loony right. the rest of us 40% better start getting control of these whacko’s and loonies or we are in for a rough ride.

  • jsdozcn9

    “Many observers are painting Donald Trump as the avatar of the new authoritarianism”

    If you would call the police after a robbery, you are an “authoritarian”. That living under the rule of law is a good thing is only recognized by some people until they experience rule by whim. When the government uses the law arbitrarily as a means of oppressing its enemies and rewarding its friends, it leads to a downward spiral that can only be remedied by revolution. This is one reason Clinton lost the election.

    There is no new authoritarianism. There is a huge problem of lawlessness and it has been rejected by the voters. This lawlessness is expressed in not enforcing existing laws such as immigration laws, corruption in the IRS, and politicization of the justice department such as blocking prosecution of Clinton and refusing to protect all Americans under civil rights laws.

    • Andrew Allison

      Putting up with never-ending digs at Trump is the price we have to pay (sigh) for what is, generally speaking, a thoughtful and informative blog.

  • Andrew Allison

    Leaving aside the question of why anything which appears in the NYT should attract widespread attention, the implied assumption that liberal democracy is the only kind is stupid. Since TAI apparently needs a lesson in this, democracy is a form of government, not a political leaning.

  • markterribile

    “The poor have sometimes objected to being governed badly. The rich have generally objected to being governed at all.” —G. K. Chesterton (from memory). In this case, the rich fear that the poor will vote.

  • PierrePendre

    What do the media and the Left mean when they talk about fascism? There are no private political armies on the streets of the United States or Europe. No politicians appear on podiums wearing operatic uniforms designed in-house. There is some violence but it comes exclusively from the Left (anti-Trump young adults, campus de-platforming, BLM) and there is a determined attack on free speech and democracy in forums controlled by the Left (the academy, Kelloggs corrnflakes etc.) The Right is absent here.

    Presumably, anti-fascist fearmongers are not frightened of reincarnations of Hitler and Mussolini – though their names are much cited in speculative scenarios – because there are none. What they mean is conservative government by which they mean government which is not ideologically liberal, non-politically correct and doesn’t denigrate a disliked community of the population which in this case would be whites.

    But fascism isn’t the antonym of liberalism much as Democrats want us to believe it is and may even sincerely believe it is themselves since their capacity for self-delusion is well-developed.

    Proto-fascist governments are careless of the rule of law, are selective of the laws they apply, habitually try to get round the restraints of pluralism and democracy and ignore the right to the presumption of innocence. Mr Trump is accused of all of these things before having taken office; Mr Obama’s government is actually guilty of them.

    How many governments anywhere apply immigration laws on their northern, eastern and western borders and ignore them on their southern border? How many governments openly bully their supreme or constitutional courts to uphold illegal texts and are applauded for doing so by their tame media? How many governments ignore the blatant illegality of their major cities defying the law in matters like, say, sanctuary for illegal aliens including criminals. How many governments rage against gun control but do nothing about the astonishing criminal death toll in the inner cities that their own party controls.

    It seems to me that in many respects there isn’t much difference between liberalism and the modern definition of what fascism is.

    Mr Trump says that he will uphold the law of the land and for that he is accused of being a fascist by people who refuse to uphold the law of the land. This is the politics of Alice in Wonderland conducted by people who also specialise in another political pathology that was common to both communism and real fascism which is the systematic subversion of the meaning of language.

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