Since the end of World War II, and with particular intensity after the fall of the Soviet Union, national political systems the world over have reformed themselves to better resemble those of the United States and Western Europe. In political theory, this transformation has been described as the advance of “liberal democracy.” The transformation is democratic because it establishes in law, by and large, forms of representative democratic decision-making. It is liberal because it emphasizes the protection of individual human rights, among them the freedoms of contract, speech, assembly and religion.
In general, those states that have become more liberal and more democratic have also become closer allies with the United States. Trade between such states has flourished, and there have been no major wars between them. The phenomenal success of this political reorganization has led some to theorize that humans have finally found the ideal form of government, and are approaching the end of (political) history. Humans are on the way to an era of perpetual peace, in which strong economic ties and shared political values between “liberal democratic” states will render war unnecessary.
This projection is entirely too rosy. For, while “liberal democracy” is an adequate description of the transformations of the last half-century, and provides a general outline to non-Western states on how to become more western, it offers no compelling guidance to Western states on how to resolve their internal political problems. In other words, “liberal democracy” may bring states into modernity, but it provides few resources to resolve the internal conflicts of modernity.
Domestic debates on matters of policy illustrate this truth. At various points in American history, a majority of Americans have rejected various initiatives that would advance individual freedom. Today, the issues at question are gay marriage and legalization of drug use. Not so long ago, the issues were abortion and civil rights. Trace them all the way back to America’s first century, and the biggest issue in American history — slavery — fits the mold.
In each case, there was a conflict between the democratic will and the prescription of liberalism. And in each case, liberalism won out, though by various means: war, legislation or Supreme Court decisions. Given the consistent progress of liberalism (with occasional aberrations like prohibition and gun bans), it has become possible to tell American history as the advance of liberalism. With the election of Barack Obama, this story will become the court history of America.
This story represents the triumph of liberalism over democracy, the triumph of law oriented to ensure individual freedom over mere popular will. The resulting political theory is “liberalism,” not “liberal democracy.” Consider an objection: It is unfair to conclude that the progress of liberalism contradicts democracy. Democracy merely answers the question “rule by whom?” and bears no responsibility for the positions adopted by the people.
This objection has a superficial plausibility. The problem is that the fundamental principle of democracy is the sovereignty of the people, a principle overthrown by liberalism. Liberalism claims a comprehensiveness such as to occlude accounts of sovereignty altogether. Under liberalism, the law of nature — the inalienable rights of individuals — is sovereign, and any violation thereof is sufficient justification for revolution. Liberalism, then, is not a mere set of priorities to be enacted by an alternative sovereign — be it a monarch, an aristocracy or the people. Liberalism is itself sovereign. Thus the dictum of liberalism — ours is a government of laws, not of men.
If “liberal democracy,” then, is not the end of history, is “liberalism”? Will forms of popular government fade as the increasingly precise theorists of liberalism flesh out the content of the law prescribed by sovereign liberalism? Since liberalism is theoretically independent of culture, will it progress beyond the parochialism of the modern nation-state, bind up the many peoples of the earth in a one-world government, ushering in a long era of peace and prosperity?
This is unlikely. Liberalism owes its practical success to the stability provided by democracy — the ability of the people to bring their passions to the ballot box instead of the cartridge box. But once the people realize that liberalism does not respect their sovereignty, they will use the ballot box to illiberal ends. Or if liberalism, by a conspiracy of those educated into the prejudices of modern philosophy, manages to maintain control of the ballot box, the people will turn to the cartridge box. The human race has not lost its spirit in the last few centuries, and there are still some who know that man is more than freedom.
In the meantime, the West promises the rest of the world to lead it out of barbarism and into civilization. The promise is disingenuous. Once out of Egypt, the rest of the world realizes that the West does not inhabit the promised land. For the Western obsession with freedom is idolatry, the fruit of which is an extended period of desert wandering.
Peter Johnston is a senior in Saybrook College.