Peter Johnston’s recent column (“Liberalism, sovereignty,” 10/24) raises provocative points about the relationship of liberalism and democracy. Although “liberal democracy” is often held as a panacea to be imitated by the developing world, there is indeed a potential for tension and conflict between the “liberal” and “democratic” elements of that creed.
Most obviously, yet often overlooked by those obsessed with spreading democracy throughout the Middle East or with creating a “League of Democracies,” democracy is no guarantee of liberalism. A democratic election can produce a government, like that of Hamas in Palestine, which represents the will of the majority while utterly disregarding what liberals regard as the essential rights and freedoms of the people.
But Johnston also claims “liberalism” pursues absolute goals at the expense of the sovereignty of the people and that liberals believe any violation of the sovereign law of nature is “sufficient justification for a revolution.” This is absurd. While Communists and some radical Leftists sought to overthrow democracies in the name of universal rights, it is patently false to ascribe such ambitions to liberals and to claim that liberals dream of an undemocratic global utopia. Liberals believe government should protect the rights of all its citizens and should only limit individual freedom when there is a substantial benefit to the common welfare. They often disagree on how these principles should be applied, but they have no desire to impose their interpretation against the will of the people.
True liberalism, in fact, cannot exist when the people are not sovereign. The people are the only legitimate basis of government, and the right to vote is a fundamental liberal right. The liberal principle of the sovereignty of the people is the only way further liberal rights can be secured. Thus liberals have always worked by democratic means, whether by legislation or by court rulings to uphold the Constitution. Armed struggle is only justified to establish or preserve popular sovereignty against external or internal threat, never to force an already sovereign people to adopt a particular course of action. That would be inherently illiberal.
This is why the claim that the expansion of freedom in the United States “represents the triumph of liberalism over democracy” is problematic. Many of the liberal reforms Johnston cites, such as civil rights and the abolition of slavery, along with the enfranchisement of women, were dedicated to broadening the sovereignty of the people. On what grounds can he claim that “a majority of Americans have rejected” these initiatives, when only through these initiatives were the majority of Americans included in the democratic process and given the right to express their acceptance or rejection?
The history of the United States has been, to a large extent, the triumph of democracy through liberalism.
Johnston comes to the following disturbing conclusion: “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,” and by implication these “men of spirit” will be justified in doing so because “man is more than freedom.” Because he claims liberalism threatens the sovereignty of the people, he refuses to accept that the people themselves may hold liberal views. If the people back liberal initiatives, it is not truly the will of the people but rather the result of a liberal “conspiracy.” Therefore, he argues, a reactionary rump claiming to represent “the people” should kill those who oppose it.
We have already seen the result of this worldview when, fearing that the majority of the people would use the democratic system to pass the liberal reform of ending slavery and granting rights to black Americans, a conservative minority took up arms against American democracy. They, too, blamed a “liberal conspiracy” of abolitionists for poisoning the will of the majority. They proved all too well that when he seeks to deny freedom to others, “man is more than freedom.” Indeed, they were men of hatred, men of bigotry, men of injustice. They shrouded these truths in rhetoric about tradition, religion and the danger of sudden change — justifications beloved by such violent minorities as the Ku Klux Klan, the vicious defenders of segregation and the bombers of abortion clinics.
These tactics are rejected by all those who cherish democracy, by liberals and reasonable conservatives alike. They are practiced only by the “men of spirit” who share Johnston’s disdain of freedom.
Jason Perlman is a sophomore in Berkeley College.