Liberalism, Democracy, and Polarization

Is polarization a threat to democracy and what is the liberal position on this?

As I pointed out in Degrees of Freedom, most liberals have a preference for democracy. Modern-day democracy – with universal suffrage, a representative parliament, and elected officials – has been developed over the course of the twentieth century. The idea has its roots in antiquity, the Italian city states of the Renaissance, and several forms for shared political decision-making in Scandinavia, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and England. Democracy is not a liberal “invention,” but the term ‘liberal democracy’ has taken firm root. This is true because modern democracy is based on liberal ideas, such as the principle of “one man, one vote,” protection of the classical rights of man, peaceful change of political leadership, and other rules that characterize the constitutional state.

Remarkably, the majority of liberals embraced the idea of democracy only late in the nineteenth century. They also saw dangers of majority decision making to individual liberty, as Alexis de Tocqueville famously pointed out in Democracy in America. Still, to liberals democracy is better than alternatives, such as autocracy or absolute monarchy. This is not unlike Sir Winston Churchill’s quip “it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others that have been tried.” Yet there is a bit more to it for liberals. It is has proven to be a method that provides a decent, if imperfect, guarantee for the protection of individual freedom and the peaceful change of government.

Of course there is ample room for discussion inside and beyond academia about numerous different issues, such as the proper rules of democracy, different forms of democracy, the role of constitutions in democracy, whether referenda are a threat or a useful addition to representative democratic government, the roles of parties, party systems, and political leaders, et cetera. These are not the topic here.

In the context of the election of President Trump, but also before that, both inside and outside the US, there is a wide debate on the alleged polarization in society. By this is meant the hardening of standpoints of (often) two large opposing groups in society, who do not want to cooperate to solve the issues of the day, but instead do everything they can to oppose the other side. Consensus seeking is a swear word for those polarized groups, and a sign of weakness.

There appears less consensus on a number of issues now than in the past. Yet this is a questionable assumption. In the US it has been going on for a long time now, certainly in the ethical and immaterial area, think about abortion, the role of the church in society, or freedom of speech of radical groups. Yet most (Western) societies have been polarized in the past along other lines, like the socialist-liberal divide, the liberalization of societies in the 1960s and 1970s, or more recent debates about Islam and integration. Current commentators claim something radically different is going on today. But I doubt it, it seems just a lack of historical awareness on their side. I can’t wait for some decent academic research into this, including historical comparisons.

As a side note: a different but far more problematic example of polarization is gerrymandering (changing the borders of legislative districts to favour a certain party). This has been going on for decades and can be seen as using legal procedures to rob people not of their actual voting rights, but of their meaningful voting rights. Curiously, this does not figure prominently in the current debates…

The (classical) liberal position on polarization is simple. Fighting for, or opposing a certain viewpoint, is just a matter of individual right to free speech. This also includes using law and legislation, existing procedures, et cetera. The most important thing is that in the act of polarizing there cannot be a threat to another person’s individual liberty, including the classical rights to life, free speech, and free association, among others. Of course, not all is black and white, but on the whole, if these rules are respected I fail to see how polarization is threat to democracy, or why polarization cannot be aligned with liberalism.

INDIA: A case study in the demise of representative democracy

India of 1947 had battled decades of colonialism to embrace self-rule. Whatever divisions seeped through party ranks, coalesced – and how beautifully – to fight for the right the people to a democracy. Having a common enemy helped. Compounded by the ability of the political leaders of that time to weave magic through words, connecting the plights of the millions to the queen-ship of one propelled movements across the breadth of the Indian subcontinent. While much has been said of the academic prowess as well as the oratory skills of the Founders, it was their ability to connect across barriers of identity that ultimately pushed the wheel. How dearly they protected their freedom of speech, expression and press is perhaps telling of the importance they assigned to being connected with those they had chosen to represent. How is it then that a deeply flawed election system and disjointed lines of public communication yielded one of the biggest civil disobedience movements the world had ever seen?

In terms of representation and reach, India 2018 is better abled than India 1947. And yet, it fell upon the unelected shoulders of four men and one woman to correct a deeply violent, colonial and bigoted law. The right to sexual identity was granted by five cis heterosexual individuals; the ones in need of representation reduced to being mere petitioners. India celebrated breaking off one more shackle, the Judiciary reveled in being the harbinger of liberal values to the Indian legal system yet one more time and the Parliament, as always, stayed mum. It is not that either of the institutions have embraced staunch anti/pro liberal positions. The Indian judiciary has its share of misogynists much like the Parliament. Misogyny is not illegal. But what is illegal is the Parliament’s distance from her electorate. Even if one were to contend that a majority of India does not support homosexuality, the increasing momentum of the movement should have propelled an informed debate within and without the Parliament. Instead, the government chose to not object to the petitions filed in favor of decriminalizing homosexuality as if that is the extent of the responsibility they owe to the LGBTQ community of the country. The distance between a judicial decriminalization of homosexuality and one done through a legislative device is the distance between a populist democracy and a representative one. The counter-majoritarian difficulty seems almost trivial when democratic institutions lose their representative character.

The biggest reason behind the rising legitimacy of an essentially non-democratic institution as the Judiciary is not a power grab by the Supreme Court judges. Howsoever activist they might get, the requirement of giving a reasoned decision tempers their emotions. The Indian Parliament, on the other hand, has come to rely on this increasing politicization of the judiciary to avoid political battles that might require concessions from their mostly unreasoned manifestos. The result is a lack of deliberation that is disturbingly dismal for a democracy as huge as India. The requirements of representation have come to be restricted to a periodical holding of elections. Members of Parliament are neither Burkean agents nor Pateman’s representatives. They are a political class unto themselves working towards a steady demise of the largest democracy in the world.

Jair Bolsonaro suffers a knife attack.

Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s presidential candidate and leader in opinion polls, suffers a knife attack. According to close sources, his condition is grave. The aggressor is a militant of the Workers Party of Lula da Silva. Bolsonaro’s supporters resisted the temptation to lynch and directed the attacker to the police. Dilma Rousseff stated that Bolsonaro was the victim of his own hate speech. It is the left blaming the victim and justifying the aggressor. This is the “peace and love” left.

Philosophy of science and free speech

Here’s a link to an article I wrote just published in FEE.

I consider this part of an ongoing, gradual effort to incorporate Paul Feyerabend into the liberty canon. It’s probably a mistake, but I’m doing it anyway.

I also want to give a shoutout to the person that commented I’m “pretending that Ayn Rand didn’t exist.” Of course I know what Ayn Rand is, that’s the island next to Great Britain.

Nightcap

  1. You’ll Hate This Post On Brett Kavanaugh And Free Speech Ken White, Popehat
  2. Kavanaugh and Executive Power – the Good, the Bad, and the Overblown Ilya Somin, Volokh Conspiracy
  3. Judge Kavanaugh and Justice Kennedy’s Free Speech Legacy Jonathan Adler, Volokh Conspiracy
  4. How the Kavanaugh Nomination Reveals a Deep Challenge to Our Democracy David French, National Review

Could free speech have led to overseas empires?

Tridivesh’s recent post on China’s multilateral struggles got me thinking about the difference between the United States and China when it comes to coalition-building and international affairs more broadly.

I don’t think the Chinese are purposely attempting to smaller countries in debt so that Beijing may have a shorter leash for them. I think Beijing simply doesn’t know what it’s doing, and is proceeding apace with multilateral initiatives like the BRI through a trial-and-error process. Unfortunately, trial-and-error processes only work if there is a mechanism to identify the error that takes place during the trial. In the West, we call this mechanism “free speech.” In China, free speech ruins order and is thus discouraged at best and disposed of at worst.

China’s expansionist efforts will probably, as a result of the lack of free speech, end poorly for the regime. Beijing’s reputation will suffer, and it will have to resort to more coercive tactics to secure its alliances and influence over its smaller neighbors.

This thought process, in turn, got me thinking about how the West came to churn out so many powerful worldwide empires in such a short span of time, and how these empires managed to coexist with each other at various points in time. Given China’s troubles with establishing hegemony, the fact that the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, France, and the United States were able to achieve what they achieved is amazing. Throughout most of history, empires (or wanna-be empires) have sought to expand abroad while keeping order at home, just like China is doing today. In the sixteenth-century West, order at home was rejected in favor of liberty at home, and as a result the few societies that tried liberty ended up being able to afford overseas empires, where order was sought instead of liberty!

The short-sightedness of imperialists continues to astound me. If liberty at home leads to opportunities to establish colonies abroad, why on earth would you try to stamp out liberty in the colonies you’ve been able to establish thanks to liberty? Imagine if the people living in Indonesia, or India, or Algeria, or the Philippines, had all the liberty that Americans and western Europeans had. Alas…