By Michael A. Genovese
The statement, “Apres nous, le deluge” (After us, the flood) is widely attributed to Madame de Pompador, lover of French King Louis XV, but the sentiment can just as easily be expressed by the proponents of liberal democracies today. Challenged by globalization and hyper-change, liberal democracies are in a position where their futures are unclear, and what may come after may be even more unpleasant than the worst liberal democracies have to offer.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the West celebrated the victory of its democratic and market-based economic model. This led Francis Fukuyama to declare an “end of history.” Fukuyama’s widely read book The End of History and the Last Man became the semi-official text of Western supremacy.
But Fukuyama’s celebratory missive was premature as new obstacles interrupted the West’s party. The attacks on 9/11 triggered the West’s war against a virulent, stateless enemy. That conflict defined the past 15 years, and still the problem has not gone away.
Today the central conflict confronting the West is a battle between the old, seemingly crumbling liberal democratic model—defined by limited government, popular sovereignty, separated or checked governmental powers, rule of law, and respect for the rights of citizens—and the rising illiberal democratic model, in which elections, some of which are rigged, empower leaders to govern unrestrained.
Political scientist Juan Linz suggested a set of questions as a litmus test to identify an illiberal democracy or a country drifting toward illiberal democracy: Does the leader fail to reject violence unambiguously? Is the leader willing to curtail civil and political rights? Does the leader deny the legitimacy of elected governments?
In Europe, the threat of illiberal democracy can be seen in several countries. In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has crushed civil rights and liberties and now rules as an autocrat. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán models himself after Vladimir Putin, whose strongman rule he has often praised publicly. In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders promotes a nationalistic, populist and nativist brand of politics designed to undermine liberal values. And in France, Marine Le Pen picks up political steam as the tired and unsteady liberal state shows few signs it is up to the task of governing.
Considering these questions in regard to Donald Trump, all the answers point toward illiberal democracy. During the campaign, Trump promoted violence against the opposition and said he would pay the legal fees if any of his supporters were prosecuted for such acts. He promised to appoint a special prosecutor to convict his opponent Hillary Clinton of alleged crimes. He openly spoke of finding ways to change libel laws so as to limit press freedoms. He announced before the election, “the system is rigged.” And even after he won, he tweeted that he only lost the popular vote because of the “millions who voted illegally,” going so far as to claim at one point that he had won a majority of popular votes (Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by 2.9 million).
The values of illiberal democracies seem to be gaining popularity in countries that were once liberal democracies. This is especially true in countries where immigration has become a divisive issue. Limited governments in liberal democracies are seen as unable to meet the demands of the citizenry, leaving voters angry and feeling squeezed by the forces of globalization and hyper-change, with technology and social disruptions developing at breakneck speed. These governments are seen as weak, ineffective, and unrepresentative of the needs of average citizens.
The promise of illiberal democracy, where a strongman can come in and act with few restraints, seems a more streamlined form of democracy. With fewer checks on power, these governments move quickly, reflecting more responsiveness to the demands of modern times. The centralization of power allows the government to get things done quicker. Yet the centralization of power also allows for the evolution of an illiberal democracy into a tyranny, such as the case of the Russian oligarchy.
Is the current situation a leadership crisis or a systems crisis? If it is a leadership crisis, the solution is simple: Elect better leaders. If it is a systems crisis, the solution is trickier—the options are to abandon limited government altogether or find ways to overcome the lethargy built into the fabric of liberal democracy. Given how many countries in the West have succumbed to illiberal leadership, the problem appears to be systemic, and we might want to consider redesigning the system to better suit contemporary needs. To avoid the evolution (or devolution) of liberal democracy toward illiberal democracy, those who cherish legal safeguards must find ways to overcome the sclerotic nature of governing and empower elected majorities to lead by giving advocates of liberal democracy mandates to govern. Much of the sluggishness in liberal democracies is due to deeply divided societies. Thus, to reduce the attraction of illiberal democracies, we have to begin a dialogue aimed at achieving a societal consensus regarding what is wrong, and how to make it right.
The great fear is that moving away from liberal and toward illiberal democracy will profoundly alter the governing ethos, eroding public commitment to the rule of law. If we do not defend liberal democracy, we open the door to le deluge.
Michael A. Genovese is president of the World Policy Institute at Loyola Marymount University. He is the author of 50 books including The War Power in an Age of Terrorism (Palgrave Macmillan).
[Photo Courtesy of Daurleihgabe der HypoVereinsbank]