Reclaiming Liberal Democracy
It's an endangered way of life.
In the war of words, one right-wing strategy that has particularly left thoughtful people “wringing our hands” is its decades-long project to desecrate the word “liberal.” So it's time to turn this nasty campaign on its head.
In his Times opinion piece “The Enemies of Liberalism are Showing Us What It Really Means,” Ezra Klein gives us a quick definition of liberalism: “... the shared assumptions of the West: a belief in human dignity, universal rights, individual flourishing and the consent of the governed.” Klein distinguishes the general term liberalism from its “liberalism vs. conservatism” ideological and policy definition. To add to the confusion, the word has meant different things over its history of use – in the 19th century it embraced a sort of libertarian individualism and distrust of government, whereas in the 20th it became an advocacy of government's role in creating a more level playing field for the opportunity of all individuals. It also became an excuse for unchecked market capitalism, and an international relations term for (peaceful, they had hoped) cooperation between nations based on economic interdependence. The increasing desire for people on the left to draw lines between “progressivism” and liberalism is another twist on the term. That's a lot for one little word to hold. Luckily, you can still, at this writing, add a liberal amount of butter to your cookie recipe without being ostracized within most communities – just don't say the word out loud.
For our purposes, I'm saying let's just drop the distinction. Hardly anyone outside the discipline of political theory knows or wants to think about all of these definitions. I'm claiming the liberalism of Klein's definition as what I stand for at this deflection point in history, despite all of its baggage. Conservatives and “progressives” are welcome to claim it as well. For the sake of our freedom I really hope we all will, because its opposite is horrifying.
One gigantic red flag that we need to reclaim this word is Viktor Orban's fairly recent use of the term, “illiberal democracy” for his political style of gerrymandering, system-rigging, crushing the independent press, among other autocratic tricks, all of which techniques put him back into office this spring against the will of the majority of Hungarian voters. While he has more recently walked back his use of the word “illiberal” in favor of “Christian liberty” (not to be confused with, well, “liberty,”) anywhere in the world where “liberal” is used as an epithet should give us a 1930s-Germany sort of chill up our spines.
The left has been critiquing liberalism for a long time, and from every possible angle, and these critiques are healthy discourse. Democracy will never be perfect – it's an asymptote that we can only bring our institutions closer and closer to for a “more perfect” union – social critique is a necessary part of the democratic project, and exposing and disentangling the deep systemic injustices and assumptions within modern liberalism is a never-ending project. The fact that we can argue endlessly about our varied and nuanced ways of describing a more ideal society is one of the beautiful (albeit annoying) things about living in a democratic society – we're free to think and talk about how to make it better. And... we need to remember what we've got, and how far we've come, and how far we can still go if we keep democracy alive.
Russia's invasion of Ukraine is plainly laying out the definition of liberal democracy as we haven't seen it in decades; we're seeing in living color what it is, and what it isn't. We're watching a budding democracy, led by a courageous, playful, glowingly human president, stand up to a repressive, brutal, murderous, anti-democratic authoritarian bent on crushing Ukraine's spirit. Volodimyr Zelensky is an exemplary product of liberal democracy – he has the type of creative intelligence that can grow and flourish in the laboratory of free thought that our type of governance provides. It's probably why Putin hates him.
In the war of words, just as happened with the word “liberalism,” we're already hearing the word “democracy” attacked from the extreme right under its cover of the Republican Party. Polls are showing that an increasing number of Americans and other democratic citizens believe that democracy may not be the way – that maybe the autocratic rule of a strongman who promises protection of your “way of life” is worth a try. All we need to do is look at Russia today to see if that's a viable plan – for awhile Putin's slow descent toward autocracy was accompanied by economic growth and a seemingly better quality of life for Russians (except of course for LGBTQ people, non-Orthodox Christian people, journalists, Syrian people, Chechen people, opposition candidates... ). Now, you (or someone you love) can be thrown in prison for 15 years for speaking against the Ukraine war, the brightest people in Russia are fleeing the country by the thousands, Russia's shiny happy economy is looking a lot sadder, and the iron curtain appears to be dropping once again. And while we focus our outrage on Putin now that he's gone too far, people like Orban and LePen and the far right everywhere are sitting back, playing long and subtle word games to divide and destabilize us, taking over state and local elections under our upturned noses, and waiting for their moment.
So I'm leaning back into defending old-fashioned liberal democracy, because I can't see a more progressive use of my democratic energies at this time. I'm radically accepting the term “liberal” for who I am: liberal democracy is my “way of life;” it's my culture. It's the culture that protects LGBTQ kids, women who need abortions, and victims of religious abuse and coercion when their own communities won't. Yes, it also starts its own wars, turns desperate people away at borders, moves painfully slowly toward justice, created most of the problems its trying to fix, but it has the capacity to grow and change. Authoritarianism doesn't. Authoritarianism is terrible for the environment, equal rights, any rights, education, animals, plants, humans, science, social critique, any religion or sect outside the state-sponsored one, farmers, ranchers, the poor, the middle class, any rich people the autocrat doesn't like.... It is good for white-collar criminals and oligarchs though – if you're one of those, stick with Putin, Orban, and their like. Just don't say anything to piss them off.
Let's stay smart about language. May we stay unified, just and free, and may we never stop dancing.