A quarter-century ago, the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama announced that history had ended. The long search for the best possible political order had come to a close. Liberal democracy – defined as popular sovereignty plus individual autonomy and human rights – was the answer.
Today, in an age of terrorism, enduring war and resurgent autocracies, history has returned with a vengeance. Fukuyama, however, has recently reiterated in impressive detail his basic point that liberal democracy is the highest form of political development, a view that is widely shared. The cognitive scientist Steven Pinker contrasts liberal democracies with regimes based on demonising, utopian ideologies, concluding that: ‘democracies are vastly less murderous than alternative forms of government’. Like other modern writers, Pinker uses ‘democracy’ as shorthand for ‘liberal democracy’, meaning a grab-bag of favoured conditions: popular sovereignty, rule of law, voting rights, human rights, free speech, equal opportunity, separation of church and state, distributive justice, and a market-based economy. To its ancient Greek inventors, democracy meant simply collective self-government by citizens.
The liberal democracy package is so widely admired today, and so seldom scrutinised, that people tend to forget that it is, in fact, a package. Even skeptics lump democracy together with liberalism: in early 2008, the then President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan called on Western governments to stop obsessing about democracy, by which he meant: stop focusing on human rights. When Fukuyama, Pinker or Musharraf uses ‘democracy’ to refer to a commitment to universal rights or the separation of church and state, few stop to ask questions. But let’s do just that. Democracy and liberalism both contain much of value, but they’re not the same thing. They can be conjoined in a successful political order, but their marriage is not inevitable.
The history of citizen self-government in the Greek city-states clarifies what democracy is – and what it does (and does not) deliver. Ancient Athens, like some other Greek city-states, was a democracy, not a liberal democracy. Ancient Athenians neither embraced human rights nor separated religion from coercive state authority. Liberalism is a moral ideal born of the 18th-century Enlightenment and centred on the value of individual autonomy. Liberalism offers reasons why rights should be regarded as universal, as inhering in each individual human being, and why a coercive state must be neutral in regard to religion. A political regime might be liberal but not democratic – the 19th century Austro-Hungarian empire, for example.
Musharaff’s naysaying aside, democracy today has almost no forthright opponents. Even neo-Nazis in Germany dub their political party National Democrats (rather than National Socialists). Chinese autocrats describe their authoritarian regime as a democracy. The constitutions of post-revolutionary states, the foreign policies of major powers and the missions of international agencies all actively hold out democracy as their goal. So what? What is the problem if democracy becomes indistinguishable from liberalism, if collective self-government is equated with human rights and secular governments?
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