Has America Become an Illiberal Democracy?

On last Sunday’s GPS show on CNN, Fareed Zakaria made an excellent presentation on the rise of illiberal democracies. Our constitutional liberalism inscribed by its framers rightly and deliberately constrained the elements of democracy, which they justly feared, with an elaborate system of checks, limits, and dispersion of power.

The rise of many recent democracies without the liberal foundations of free speech, reason, and tolerance becomes the very example our framers feared; majoritarian rule running roughshod over the minority. Our foreign policy’s encouragement of democracy without constitutional protections of liberty or a liberal cultural heritage was short-sighted.

Zakaria referred to an essay he penned for Foreign Affairs in 1997, "The Rise of Illiberal Democracy". An excerpt from that essay:

The tension between constitutional liberalism and democracy centers on the scope of governmental authority. Constitutional liberalism is about the limitation of power, democracy about its accumulation and use. For this reason, many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century liberals saw in democracy a force that could undermine liberty. James Madison explained in The Federalist that "the danger of oppression" in a democracy came from "the majority of the community." Tocqueville warned of the "tyranny of the majority," writing, "The very essence of democratic government consists in the absolute sovereignty of the majority."

While his essay in Foreign Affairs proved prescient, the motivation for concern about America following the path of illiberal democracy seems to be the election of Donald Trump.

Zakaria correctly attributed the erosion of mitigating institutions such as the reduction of the power of political parties, and the demise of many voluntary associations so importantly noted by Alexis de Tocqueville.

But he failed to attribute the elevation of democracy above liberty to the progressive movement the Democrats still identify with so solidly. Also from Zakaria’s essay:

John Stuart Mill opened his classic On Liberty by noting that as countries became democratic, people tended to believe that "too much importance had been attached to the limitation of power itself. That... was a response against rulers whose interests were opposed to those of the people." Once the people were themselves in charge, caution was unnecessary. "The nation did not need to be protected against its own will." 

This was precisely the thinking of Woodrow Wilson, our only PhD president, in his actions to reduce the constitutional restraints on democracy. In those early days of the Progressive Era, many states felt inadequate to regulate business interests that dwarfed them in scale, and were willing to accept a stronger central power. Wilson and the progressives responded to constitutional restraints on central power with a platform of greater direct democracy such as the 17th Amendment’s direct election of senators.

Wilson believed that a professionally staffed administrative state directed by the executive would be free from political influence. While this may seem naïve today, change agents have the advantage of seeing the faults of the status quo clearly, while the faults of their proposals must await history to be written. Potential for harm is magnified when time-proven principles are submerged by an ideology of pragmatism in the hands of leader who pretends to know the will of the people.

Such a leader is little more than a demagogue, serving more to shape and exploit the will of the people than to deduce it. The founders and framers understood that "demagogue" and "democracy" originated from the same root.

Franklin D. Roosevelt articulated a stronger central government as a defender of liberty against a tyranny of commerce and an unguided marketplace. He faced constitutional challenges, many which he overcame. Like Wilson he failed or refused to consider the threats to the liberty of the people posed by an enlarged central government.

Constitutional restraints on central power weakened, but remained intact. As the unelected bureaucracies and regulatory agencies grew in number and in size, however, both liberty and democracy suffered. The Supreme Court evolved more to uphold majoritarian legislation than to protect individual constitutional liberties, and executive orders sought to use the regulatory agencies to further bypass the contentiousness and gridlock of congressional legislation.

Obama justified his abuse of executive power with complaints of congressional obstruction. With his pen and his phone, he alone would express the people’s will.

Trump may exhibit authoritarian characteristics and Zakaria is correct is articulating the weakening of some of our restraints on majoritarian democracy, but he is late to the scene of the crime. The essence of the extended progressive movement and the modern Democratic Party had been actions to neuter the constitutional restraints on majoritarian legislation, executive power, and central rule.

The ACA challenged religious freedom, despite assurances to the contrary. Political correctness on college campuses and government agencies abused free speech. The use of government agencies such as the IRS to further political objectives became an insidious form of corruption violating the most sacred liberty of equality before the law.

Perhaps this power in the hands of their worst nightmare, may return the left to principles of constitutional liberalism that Fareed so respects. But why did it take the election of Trump for them to recognize the sacrifice of the principles of constitutional liberty and liberalism to majoritarian democracy that the progressives and Democrats have championed for nearly a century?

Henry Oliner blogs at www.rebelyid.com