What is Democracy?

Death of Democracy

Part IV: What is Democracy

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What is this thing we call “democracy”.  Just as once there was some general consensus about the nature of truth—facts in the public sphere—we once believed we shared a relatively common meaning of the word “democracy”.  One of the reasons we (both in the U.S. and internationally) do not agree on how our governments should operate is that while we might call our form of government “democratic”, that is, reflecting the basic principles of democracy, we do not necessarily agree on the set of principles that constitute such an idea.  When we use the phrase “death of democracy”, we might not be talking about the demise of actual “democracy” at all.  In fact, we might be talking about something considerably more pervasive, profound and, if lost, catastrophic for American society.

NOTE: This is a long post.  Trimmed from its original length and constructed as much as possible in modular form, certain redundancies have been included so you can stop and restart without losing the main thread.  Be sure to follow the links to the referenced articles (perhaps more important than this post) as they contain vital context associated with the following content.


Twenty years ago, in an article entitled “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy” (published in the Nov./Dec. 1997 issue of Foreign Affairs), journalist Fareed Zakaria proposed that what

we call democracy is actually something other than what we think.

“…democracy has meant liberal democracy—a political system marked not only by free and fair elections, but also by rule of law, a separation of powers, and the protection of basic liberties of speech, assembly, religion and property.” ~Fareed Zakaria

Zakaria proposed that the definition above does not represent a universal view of the nature of democracy. Instead, he describes the above “bundle of freedoms” as “constitutional liberalism”.

meinungsfreiheit_democracy In his article, Mr. Zakaria proposed that while “democracy”—defined roughly as a process of conducting relatively free and somewhat fair elections—is flourishing in the world, constitutional liberalism is not.  For the last half (now nearly three-quarter) century, the world has seen so-called democracies shift away from a more liberal definitions of governing propriety.  Through erosion of established constitutional practices, circumvention of parliamentary or congressional rules by presidential decree (i.e. “executive order”), as well as congressional or parliamentary advocacy and establishment of policies which directly contradict the will of the general populace, what we generally think of as democracy has diminished.  Throughout the world, so called “free” elections do actually express a level of popular participation uncharacteristic of previous eras. However, the more liberal notion of full and accurate representation of a people by their legitimately elected officials as well as governance directed toward the equitable protection and well-being of its citizenry has not been realized across the board.

What is Democracy?

Is democracy merely about liberty within a voting context?  Does the definition of democracy stop there?  In practice, most definitions of democracy describe a political practice in which people determine who is to lead their country.  However, the notion of elections by the populace alone does not constitute what we as Americans tend to define as democracy.  Samuel P. Huntington, in his book The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late 20th Century, describes it this way:

Elections, open, free and fair, are the essence of democracy, the inescapable sine qua non.  Governments produced by elections may be inefficient, corrupt, shortsighted, irresponsible, dominated by special interest, and incapable of adopting policies demanded by the public good.  These qualities make such governments undesirable but they do not make them undemocratic. (author’s emphasis)

In the Valley of Illiberal Democracy

The meaning of the term “illiberal” represents a fairly straight forward expression of what one might consider the opposite of “liberal”.  “Illiberal” generally alludes to limitation, imposition of restrictions, and a general authoritative approach to governance.  When we apply the term to democracy, “illiberal democracy“ refers to a discontinuity between the electoral process and the actual governance of elected officials.  This is to say that even though democratic elections are conducted, once in power, elected official often behave in a manner characterized by restriction rather than liberty (thus, the term “illiberal”).

Will of the People.jpgAn interesting example of such governance might be represented in the move by the FCC to abolish “net neutrality” despite what many news sources indicate represents defiance of the will of the general public. In this case, as part of the charter of the FCC, citizens were afforded the opportunity to voice their opinions on the matter. The people expressed an overwhelmingly strong opinion to preserve net neutrality.  The FCC chairperson, Ajit Pai, even before assuming his current position, had expressed a desire to destroy net neutrality.  Despite public opinion to the contrary, as previously reported, on December 14 , the five member FCC panel voted to repeal 2015 net neutrality rules—the public be damned.  Based on public opinion, the vote should not have been necessary.  However, as expected, the FCC went ahead, voting for the repeal, breaking along party lines thus defying the general will of the people by a three to two vote to kill net neutrality.

This FCC situation is interesting in that differing components of what Fakaria calls “constitutional liberties” come into play. While the title of Mr. Pai’s plan “Restoring Internet Freedom” ostensibly alludes to the idea of “freedom”, in this case, the word refers to free markets and the ability for telecommunication companies to operate unfettered by what some might call government overreach. Sounds good as far as it goes. However, considering the implications of his proposals and the fact that the public, understanding those implications, rejects his position, the situation pits a level of so-called “freedom” over against the idea of true governmental representation of the people.  Whether the idea of net neutrality is or is not a good one, the people wish one thing while the government appears to be moving toward a completely different agenda.

Governance described as democratic ideally will not arbitrarily impose restrictions on the general populace.  The often heavy handed imposition of a fixed and usually somewhat oppressive agenda will most often come at the hands of special interest groups whose goals are enacted by those who have managed to democratically come to power.

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As noted above, John Dahlberg-Acton, famous for the phrase “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”, suggested that one of the dangers of democracy (and Fakaria agrees) is that too often a regime becomes “democratically” voted into power only to have that regime behave in a manner out of step with the people who elected it in the first place. (Some in the U.S. are beginning to experience this in the wake of the 2016 presidential election.)

Illiberalism Reconsidered

A year ago, in December 2016, Mr. Fakaria followed up his 1997 article in a Washington Post opinion editorial.  He again drew a distinction between a basic definition of democracy and a governance tradition we have come to expect relative to the idea of democratic rule.

What we think of as democracy in the modern world is really the fusing of two different traditions. One is, of course, public participation in selecting leaders. But there is a much older tradition in Western politics that, since the Magna Carta in 1215, has centered on the rights of individuals — against arbitrary arrest, religious conversion, censorship of thought. These individual freedoms (of speech, belief, property ownership and dissent) were eventually protected, not just from the abuse of a tyrant but also from democratic majorities. The Bill of Rights, after all, is a list of things that majorities cannot do. ~Fareed Zakaria


Of course, as there is a Zakaria position defining “illiberalism”, there is also descent such as Yarom Hazony’s article “There is no such thing as an ‘Illiberal’” which appeared in the Aug. 04, 2017 edition of the Washington Post. Hazony explains his title by suggesting “No reasonable purpose is served by lumping together totalitarians, autocrats, conservatives and democratic nationalists”.  If combining such diverse perspectives is the purpose of the moniker, perhaps Hazony’s position appears somewhat reasonable. But if attempting to parse the demise of “something special” in American life, perhaps such protestation rings hollow.
This is especiallySocial Contract 1.png true when the focus rests on the application of the term “illiberal” to diverse ideas (as Hazony does in the article above) rather than applying it to a form of governance (in this case, democratic rule). Since the issuance of the Magna Carta through Rousseau’s declarations, the implication maintained within the idea of “democracy” is that of “social contract”, an agreement to forego certain liberties in order to achieve a greater level of security, economic facility, or a relatively ordered (rather than chaotic) social life.  This agreement, however, is established for the benefit of the people, not in defiance of it. When that contract is violated by a governing body, “democracy” as we have come to understand it, ceases to exist.

Dissolving Democracies

It is as if the snuffing out of democracy across the globe and the rise of authoritarian regimes are a preordained Greek tragedy and all of us, in spite of our yearning for liberty, must ominously play an assigned part. ~Chris Hedges

As Chris Hedges seems to suggest, democracy and democratic governance continues to experience a slow but steady decline around the world.  Such demise appears to be in part grounded in waffling definitions of the nature (and implementation) of democracy versus a set of liberty (or liberal) expectations identified by Mr. Fakaria.  Interestingly, Yascha Mounk (one of the presenters during the conference on democracy reported here a couple weeks ago describes the situation in even more complex terms.

“Liberal democracy is bifurcating, giving rise to two new regime forms: ‘illiberal democracy,’ or democracy without rights, and ‘undemocratic liberalism,’ or rights without democracy,”  ~Yascha Mounk

Undemocratic liberalism”? Sounds like an oxymoron.  Is this idea what Americans are seeing played out in the behavior of the current administration in Washington?

“To be sure, undemocratic liberalism usually retains a democratic sheen. The standard rigmarole of political life in a supposed democracy is jealously observed: There are regular elections and hard-fought campaigns, grand speeches and parliamentary votes. The institutional apparatus that supposedly serves to translate the will of the people into public policy remains in place. And yet, the actual purpose of these institutions – to let the people rule – is increasingly forgotten. To anyone who cares to take a skeptical look, it is obvious how ineffectual representative institutions have become at delivering on the noble task they supposedly serve.” ~Yascha Mounk

Liberalism and Hierarchy

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Perhaps such a phrase as “undemocractic liberalism” can be understood in different ways.  While Mr. Mounk addresses the “political elite” as potentially “undemocratically liberal”, consider, too, those liberals who feel a need to aggressively implement their ideas in the public sphere.  What happens when the presumed standard bearers who advocate for a free and open society behave in a manner that smacks of censorship and a curtailment of liberty?  What happens to a society when left leaning folks turn toward attempts to “liberate” various situations—perhaps out of frustration or  propensity—when in so doing these folks drift dangerously close to behaving in a manner they purport to abhor?  College campus kerfuffles over visiting speakers such as Richard Spencer (at Univ. Florida) and Milo Yiannopolous (at UC Berkeley) present examples of so-called liberals behaving in a not so liberal manner.  Are these instances of “enforced correctness” a part of what one might call “undemocratic liberalism” as well?  (Please note that as presented in a blog post last February, the free speech issue regarding Mr. Yiannopoulos and others is complicated, requiring appropriate adjustment in order to maintain both freedom and morality).

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Such “slips” in so-called liberal behavior represent a degree of confirmation that we live in a society oriented to hierarchy, top down control and power as the primary principle of governance.  From George Lakoff’s notions of the country as parent to Jonathan Haidt’s ideas about the “tribe-based” morality of identity politics, we tend to identify ourselves in terms of hierarchical (parental) authority structures.  Such an orientation automatically and continuously clashes with the idea of freedom.  In the case of Mr. Yiannopoulos, for instance, the general desire for freedom of speech wavers in the face of an abhorrence of and an unwillingness by some to allow hate speech.  Right-leaning folks too often seek parental-style protection in authoritarianism as its implementation casts aside both democracy and “constitutional liberalism” alike.  Similarly, too many folks on the left end of the political spectrum have begun to relinquish the principles of freedom in favor of a considerably more militant, coercive insistence that their “left way” (whatever that is) is the “right way”.

When we trot out our favorite “oughtness” (moral principle), regardless of our orientation, we attempt to force others to comply with our ideas—ideas which could be completely out of step with everything that person’s identity stands for.  Faced with fear and frustration, most of us tend to revert to that which gives us comfort.  We “run home to Mom & Dad” so to speak.  We seek the comfort of the familiar rather than challenging ourselves to become new, different, and special in the midst of what we perceive as unacceptable normalcy. This flight to the familiar has resulted in a level of tribalism and partisanship not seen in the U.S. in modern history.

No Place to Hide

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We face progressively deteriorating living standards and heightened fear regarding the economic future of communities and a constant threat of terrorism or violence of one kind or another.  Consequently, people all over the world have become enraged at the behavior of governments that continually fail to ameliorate the concerns of their people. Right and left alike have begun to push back against governments that fail to insure the welfare of their citizens. For folks in countries calling themselves “democracies”, the general public has begun to appropriately question the value of calling their governments “democratic” when these people feel so powerless to improve their own lives through the work of these governments.  As such, folks around the globe have begun to view their so-called democratic governments are fraudulent.

When we realize that our electoral freedom has been ignored, when we come to express a belief that, as songwriter Peter Mulvey phrased it “every election is a perfect crime”, when we begin to recognize the glaring chasm that exists between what we are told about physical and economic safety and the precarious actuality of life as we experience it in a world of wars and violence, an unstable world economy and numerous socio-political abuses by people in power, we find ourselves drowning in the distinction between “of” the people and “for” the people.


In more and more countries, vast swaths of policy have been cordoned off from democratic contestation.  Macroeconomic decisions are made by independent central banks.  Trade policy is enshrined in international agreements that result from secretive negotiations conducted within remote institutions. Many controversies about social issues are settled by constitutional courts.   ~Yascha Mounk


On one hand, we find ourselves faced with an international trend toward authoritarian rather than democratic governance.  On the other hand, we see folks on the left attempting to force compliance with their ideas of “right”.  Where do we turn for a reasonable solution?

A Free and Open Society?

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Free and open exchange of ideas and viewpoints has become the tragic casualty of both an authoritative right as well as by an elite-hating left.  The extremes have overtaken the sanity of a middle ground willing to compromise in order to move forward. Given this new bifurcation of socio-political perspective, perhaps those espousing more central perspectives represent the last possible salvation for us all.

“… And so it is centrist politicians who have now become the last explicit defenders of liberalism. But, squeezed between a blatantly authoritarian right and an increasingly illiberal left, they have begun to seek refuge in new forms of technocratic rule. In the short run, the undemocratic bulwarks they are building against illiberal sentiments are protecting the rights of minorities. But their lack of urgency and the dearth of their vision mean that they do not even attempt to tackle the root causes of the populist rise, like the stagnation in living standards. In the long run, this is very dangerous: The exclusion of the people from the political process – especially when coupled with an unwillingness (or an inability) to pass real economic reform – will only serve to inflame illiberal passions, turning even more citizens against liberal democracy.”
~Yascha Mounk

As noted by Mr. Mounk, while centrist positions might be our last hope, the “lack of urgency” expressed  by politicians suggest that free and open exchange of ideas and willingness to compromise must arise from the general populace—not from politicians.

Coming of age as a conservative Republican columnist under the tutelage of staunch conservative William F. Buckley, in an interview by Charlie Rose, relatively conservative, Republican columnist David Brooks decried the loss of a certain kind of ”liberalism”.


We are in this pivotal moment. What exactly is going on? I was in Europe in the 90s.  I saw the decline of the Soviet Union, the German reunification, the Maastricht Treaty, Mandela coming out of prison, the Oslo peace process, I saw the great advance of what we call liberalism.  I don’t mean that as Walter Mondale liberalism.  I mean that as John Locke liberalism–the idea is that of a free conversation, free trade, free movement of people, global democracy–and it was just on the advance.  And now what we see since is that it is in retreat.  It started in retreat in the 90s with some of factional fighting, with the decline of democracies around the world, and now within our own shores. Sometimes as an assault on democracy, a tolerance for authoritarianism, even the habits of liberalism—respecting truth, having an open conversation whether on campus or even on the campaign trail.  And so it seems to be in retreat in a crisis.  And populists are people who decided that system of openness ain’t working for me.”  ~David Brooks


Mr. Brooks speaks of an “openness”, suggesting we have lost a fluid approach in our interactions. A closed, rigid, intractability appears in not only our politics but to our daily lives. This country—the United States of America–is supposed to be the beacon of freedom, of democracy, or rule by and for the people.  The fear that appears to have settled into a narrow-minded, myopic tribalism has rendered us anything but a beacon to the world—or to ourselves.  We no longer stand as an example to others.  Indeed, in the more recent obscene phrase “make America great again” we see an almost complete turn away from any understanding of what truly made the idea of America great–the notion that common people can be free.  Instead we have turned inward, like a small frightened animal cowering in the wake of its own imperialistic shadow.  The world no longer sees the United States are “great”.  Still worse, neither do we.

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The United States could be “great again”, although certainly not in an imperialistic ability to wield unlimited power, but in an unflagging idealism, in a stance beyond our government’s heavy handed machinations in the world.  The United States could represent a special society of people willing to embrace others from all over the world (and within our own shores) and to meld that diversity into the fabric of who we are and what we might accomplish together as one people—as We, the People. This phrase and its implicit sentiment represents the original meaning of the dream of American democracy.  Such might be the nature of how American democracy should be defined, but can we find—perhaps for the first time—the road to that kind of “greatness”?

Twenty-First Century Anomie

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We all know our country–the United States of America–is somehow wanting.  We too often try to blame our sometimes quiet, sometimes blaring unease about our life experiences on “them”, whoever they are. When we manage to stop pointing fingers away from our individual selves, we know the problem is not those elected official, nor those people of a different race, ethnicity nor sexual orientation.  We know it is neither the Russians nor the Democrats, the Republicans, the liberal nor the conservatives.  The blame does not rest in any of those groups. The blame belongs to us—We, the People, as a collective and especially individually.

Such an idea is not unfamiliar to any of us.  We know each of us should do more, be more responsible.  Sadly, many of us fail to believe in our own individual and collective efficacy. From the perspective of The People as a collective, such failure represents an obvious symptom of a government which has failed to work for us. From the perspective of each of us as individuals, the failure points to something much more profound.    Too many of us have come to believe that we, as a people simply are “not good enough”.  We too often believe that we cannot “make it right” and that we might not even be worthy of the effort.  Spurred on by such beliefs, the solution adopted by too many of us has been to turn on each other—others imagined as unworthy as ourselves.  A second avoidance ploy has been to seek out external authority, to “run home to Mom & Dad”, so to speak.  We attempt to find sanctuary in authority (such as the government), an authority figure (such as some sort of “strong man”—the gender reference is intentional here) or even something as superficial as a label such as “libertarian”, “Democrat”, “Christian” or “free market advocate”.  We think the presence of such external elements in our lives will protect us from the big, bad reality we call EveryDayLife and all those seemingly demonic creatures we used to call ‘those others” (who appear to be different from us).



Given the feelings many of us continue to carry within us, the deep sadness, relentless fear, unrequited anger and soul-crushing uncertainty, obviously, these ameliorative ploys are not working. We need something more profound than a bumper sticker, a political slogan, a rally chant or an incompetent demagogue willing to tell us what we want to hear (or tweak us enough to present a false enemy).  We seek and fail to find that place where we feel protected from real and imagined dangers, where someone other than ourselves will take care of things so we become absolved of the responsibility of doing so ourselves.

Perhaps we—especially in the U.S.—have reached an unrecognized moment of anomie (to use Durkheim’s term), a state of disintegration where truth has begun to leak from traditional containers such as words like “democracy”.  When fundamental concepts—right or wrong, helpful or destructive—are challenged, under attack or destroyed, we feel lost, unmoored from that which once afforded the luxury of complacence.  When a country as mythically impregnable as the United States of America is devastatingly attacked, with thousands killed such as occurred on 9/11, we are suddenly forced to rethink who and what we really are. When we hold (erroneous) notions about race and a person of color is elected to the highest office in the country, the core identity of those maintaining such ideas shudder and crumble.   Even worse, when irresponsibly opportunistic politicians promote concepts like “fake news” which erode the idea of truth itself, such actions puncture traditional vessels of stability to the point that they no longer serve as reservoirs of our shared assumptions.  Just as we need to transcend the escapism of tribalism, identity politics and isolationism, perhaps we also need to transcend verbal constructs such as “democracy”, seeking new concepts to express what we really mean—concepts which bridge rather than exacerbate our apparent differences.

“Western liberal democracy might prove to be not the final destination on the democratic road, but just one of the many possible exits.” ~Fareed Zakaria

Seeking a Different Place

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Are we really so suddenly caught in a valley of illiberalism?  Is this state really so sudden or are more of us simply experiencing what has always been present all along?  How can a country which began as a slave-owning, male dominant society hope to identify itself as the moral beacon of the world?  The United States has not overcome its orthogenesis; it still bears the stains of hierarchical abuse present at its inception and throughout its history. This country is not so different now from when it began; the emperor simply is no longer so complacent in his presumption of attire.  The jig is up.  Now what?

… The question is no longer whether we can preserve our political order in its current form. (We probably can’t.) It is what reforms are needed to ensure that the precious, fragile combination of liberalism and democracy does not entirely vanish from the face of the earth. If the center is to hold – if we are to rescue what is best about our imperfect political order – a lot will have to change.”  ~Yascha Mounk

Many in the United States and abroad still dream of a free and open society. The assumption of just such a society has rested in the minds of many Americans throughout much of U.S. history.  Unfortunately, many of us are beginning to realize the dream has been an illusion. We have experienced dwindling freedom and civil liberties as well as reduction of general protections at the hands of the wealthy and corporations. Such is the nature of so-called “illiberal democracy”.  Such an experience continues to grow.


“We are now getting to see what American democracy looks like without any real buffers in the way of sheer populism and demagoguery.”
~Fareed Zacharia

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Perhaps “good people” seek neither a liberal nor a conservative society. Perhaps good people should seek a human society in which we all feel safe, protected and free in our expression of who we are. Perhaps words like ‘democracy’, ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ should fade away, dissolved by honest, face to face encounters not with catch phrases and assumptions, but through genuine, truth-seeking encounters our neighbors—encounters buffered by principles akin to the Golden Rule.

Furthermore, maybe we need to be oppressed—really oppressed—in order to wake up and to express our true humanity toward ourselves and others. Maybe we need to feel the weight of freedom’s absence in order to awaken to the need to reach “toward a greater, more noble purpose, toward more profound, more human meanings” which transcend the shallow tribalism in which many of us forge our identities. Some believe that whether we want it or not, such oppression is already happening. In the past, we might have been delusional in many respects, being oppressed and not recognizing it. Perhaps ‘we ain’t seen nothin’ yet! Maybe. But why let it come to that?

At this time, neither our policies nor behaviors tend to focus on establishing a free, open human society. Such an experience is neither axiomatic, shared, nor, for some of us, even possible. But we have to begin somewhere. We must develop the habit of transcending a need to preserve the hierarchical relationships that oppress us all, choosing instead to talk with rather than win over. New habits, new and freer identities? Let’s give it a shot. Future posts here will continue to explore such avenues, probe possible inter- and intrapersonal solutions. Let’s see what we can come up with. Further up and further in.


Summary of Referenced Articles

You decide.  Take a look