Two decades ago, I wrote an essay in Foreign Affairs that described an unusual and worrying trend: the rise of illiberal democracy. Around the world, dictators were being deposed and elections were proliferating. But in many of the places where ballots were being counted, the rule of law, respect for minorities, freedom of the press and other such traditions were being ignored or abused. Today, I worry that we might be watching the rise of illiberal democracy in the United States — something that should concern anyone, Republican or Democrat, Donald Trump supporter or critic.
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.
In the West, these two traditions — liberty and law on the one hand, and popular participation on the other — became intertwined, creating what we call liberal democracy. It was noticeable when I wrote the essay, and even clearer now, that in a number of countries — including Hungary, Russia, Turkey, Iraq and the Philippines — the two strands have come apart. Democracy persists (in many cases), but liberty is under siege. In these countries, the rich and varied inner stuffing of liberal democracy is vanishing, leaving just the outer, democratic shell.
What stunned me as this process unfolded was that laws and rules did little to stop this descent. Many countries had adopted fine constitutions, put in place elaborate checks and balances, and followed best practices from the advanced world. But in the end, liberal democracy was eroded anyway. It turns out that what sustains democracy is not simply legal safeguards and rules, but norms and practices — democratic behavior. This culture of liberal democracy is waning in the United States today.
The Founding Fathers were skeptical of democracy and conceived of America as a republic to mitigate some of the dangers of illiberal democracy. The Bill of Rights, the Supreme Court, state governments and the Senate are all bulwarks against majoritarianism. But the United States also developed a democratic culture, formed in large part by a series of informal buffers that worked in similar ways. Alexis de Tocqueville called them “associations” — meaning nongovernmental groups such as choir societies, rotary clubs and professional groups — and argued that they acted to “weaken the moral empire of the majority.” Alexander Hamilton felt that ministers, lawyers and other professionals would be the “impartial arbiters” of American democracy, ensuring that rather than narrow, special interests, the society and its government would focus on the national interest.
The two prevailing dynamics in U.S. society over the past few decades have been toward greater democratic openness and market efficiency. Congressional decision-making has gone from a closed, hierarchical system to an open and freewheeling one. Political parties have lost their internal strength and are now merely vessels for whoever wins the primaries. Guilds and other professional associations have lost nearly all moral authority and have become highly competitive and insecure organizations, whose members do not — and probably cannot — afford to act in ways that serve the public interest. In the media — the only industry protected explicitly in the Constitution — a tradition of public interest ownership and management aspired to educate the public. Today’s media have drifted from this tradition.
I recognize that this is a romantic view of the role of these elites and hierarchical structures. Parts of the media were partisan and scandal-hungry from the start. Lawyers often acted in their own narrow interests; accountants regularly conspired in frauds. And those smoke-filled rooms with party bosses often made terrible decisions.
But we are now getting to see what American democracy looks like without any real buffers in the way of sheer populism and demagoguery. The parties have collapsed, Congress has caved, professional groups are largely toothless, the media have been rendered irrelevant. When I wrote a book about “illiberal democracy” in 2003, I noted that in polls, Americans showed greatest respect for the three most undemocratic institutions in the country: the Supreme Court, the Federal Reserve and the armed forces. Today, the first two have lost much of their luster, and only the latter remains broadly admired.
What we are left with today is an open, meritocratic, competitive society in which everyone is an entrepreneur, from a congressman to an accountant, always hustling for personal advantage. But who and what remain to nourish and preserve the common good, civic life and liberal democracy?