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.

Eye Candy: travel advice for Dutch citizens

NOL Dutch travel advice
Click here to zoom

Interesting map, for a few reasons. The United States is in green, which means there are “no special safety risks” to worry about. What I take this to mean is that as long as you stay out of, say, North Sacramento, or East Austin, when the sun goes down you’ll be safe.

The “pay attention, safety risks” label makes quite a big jump in my conceptual understanding of this map. What this warning means is that if you are particularly stupid, you won’t end up getting mugged and losing your wallet (like you would in green areas), you will instead end up losing your life or being kidnapped for ransom (or slavery).

This is quite a big jump, but it makes perfect sense, especially if you think about the jump in terms of inequality and, more abstractly, freedom.


  1. What is the ‘-dom’ in ‘freedom’? John Kelly, OxfordWords
  2. Does Trump Have a Point About Europe? Jeffrey Stacey, Duck of Minerva
  3. When Racism Is Fit to Print Andrew Sullivan, Daily Intelligencer
  4. How deep is the decline of the West? John Gray, New Statesman


  1. The illiberal conception of freedom Nick Nielsen, The View from Oregon
  2. The echoes of Chinese exclusion (immigration) Irene Hsu, New Republic
  3. The Middle Kingdom: all under heaven? George Walden, American Interest
  4. Have we forgotten how to die? Julie-Marie Strange, Times Literary Supplement

Freedom of Religion Secures Other Rights As Well

Ethan’s post on “The Why of Religious Freedom” inspired me to add one more to his list of reasons why freedom of religion deserves special treatment and protection. The freedom of religion preserves other freedoms we hold dear. Even those who do not wish to belong to an organized religion or to hold strong religious opinions have their freedoms secured because of the protection granted to religious freedom.

Freedom of religion, the first freedom protected by the US Constitution’s First Amendment, is part of having freedom of speech. Imagine a country where you could say anything you wanted, except those ideas and principles you hold most dear to your heart. How free would you feel your speech actually is? If you have freedom of the press and can print any opinion or argument you care to, unless it is about your conscience, how free is your press? To say that you may express your political opinion and vote unless you have religious reasons for that opinion similarly denies the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment.

Freedom of religion is also a guarantor of freedom of assembly. This last weekend while in Atlanta for the Teaching Professor Conference in Atlanta, my colleagues and I toured Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s church and neighborhood. The civil rights movement for many years worked through the churches because it was the only place African Americans were freely allowed to assemble together in many areas. As they assembled, they had the freedom to speak out against the injustices and oppressions they faced and work together to overcome them.​

As Rev. King put it, “Freedom is like life. It cannot be had in installments. Freedom is indivisible – we have it all, or we are not free” (The Case Against “Tokenism”). To extend that argument, when we say ‘freedom of religion’ it is the people who are free, free to believe how they will, to speak and gather and act according to their beliefs freely. In “The Ethical Demands For Integration,” Rev. King argued:

“A denial of freedom to an individual is a denial of life itself. The very character of the life of man demands freedom. In speaking of freedom … I am not talking of the freedom of a thing called the will [or in our case, religion]. The very phrase, freedom of the will [religion], abstracts freedom from the person to make it an object; and an object almost by definition is not free. But freedom cannot thus be abstracted from the person … . So I am speaking of the freedom of man, the whole man.”

If we cannot be free in our religious thoughts and exercise – whether connected with an organized religion or not – we cannot be a free people.

Pot smoking and freedom: ‘Murica!

My latest Tuesday column over at RealClearHistory takes aim at the history of marijuana in the United States. I’ve got a 600 word limit, but hopefully I packed in plenty of info. Here’s an excerpt:

During the much-loathed Prohibition era (1920-33), marijuana was targeted along with alcohol and other substances deemed immoral by bootleggers and Baptists. Unlike alcohol, which was re-legalized in 1933, marijuana ended up in a legal limbo that continues to this day. The legal, political, economic, and cultural battles surrounding marijuana use in the United States have helped shape three generations of lawyers, businesspeople, activists, academics, and medical professionals. Thanks to the questions posed by marijuana prohibition, rigorous and creative arguments in favor of the drug’s legalization have contributed to a better understanding of our federal system of government, of Judeo-Christian morality, and non-Western ethical systems (pot-smoking “Buddhists” are practically cliche today), of the human body and especially the brain, of global trading networks throughout history, and of intercultural exchange and communication. Freedom still defines us as a society. Freedom binds Americans together. Freedom drives our conversations and our institutional actors. This may be difficult to remember as the news cycle grows ever more sensational, but this quiet, humble truth still remains.

Please, read the rest.