The notion of liberal democracy consists of two components- one, “democracy”, referring to a political process, and the other, “liberal”, referring to a political outcome. The argument that it is a contradictory notion lies in the fact that to presuppose or predefine politcal outcomes as liberal (consistent with liberal principles of individual autonomy, freedom from coercion, and equal and inherant rights) appears incompatible with the political process of democracy- under its literal definition meaning “rule of the people”. There is no apparant reason why the “rule of the people” will necessarily produce a society which is liberal. Might the people not instead choose illiberal political outcomes? Indeed, empirical analysis of political systems around the world suggests that illiberal democracy is the reality of many of them. However, an examination of some of the prominent theories of democracy reveals common liberalist themes running through the various definitions of, and justifications for, democracy. Theories of democracy as a system of balance are those that come closest to recognising the potential contradiction in the notion of liberal democracy- arguing that democratic rule must be underpinned by constitutionally protected bodies of rights in order to ensure desirable political outcomes. Clearly, understandings of the notion of democracy itself are crucial to the question of whether liberal democracy is a contradictory notion. Another crucial question is how the notion is used. If used as a descriptive term, it would appear entirely valid- many political systems may reasonably be described as liberal democracies. If however the notion is used prescriptively, at once prescribing a political outcome (liberalism), and a political process by which the “people” decide outcomes, the inherant contradiction is more clear.
Nevertheless, many democratic political sytems can, as Freedom House’s survey attests, reasonably be described as liberal democracies. Democracy in itself is of course a complex notion, but an analysis of several prominent democratic theories would suggest that liberalist themes run central to the conceptualisation of, and functioning of, democracy. Central to Dahl’s theory of democracy are key liberal assumptions such as that of “intrinsic equality” and of “personal autonomy”. Freedom- both to compete for, and to choose government- is at the core of Schumpeter’s theory of democracy as competition. And the model of a consolidated democracy which Linz and Stepan develop broadly resembles a liberal society- with autonomy in civil, political and economic society, supported by the rule of law, identified as vital ingredients of a consolidated democracy. On the basis of these theories there would appear to be a close association, rather than a contradiction, between the principles of liberalism and the democratic process. It could then perhap be argued that “illiberal democracies” represent flawed democracies, rather than instances where illiberal outcomes are the legitimate product of democratic processes.
Theories of democracy as a system of balance come closest to acknowledging the contradiction between a preference for the “rule of the people” and the desirability of liberal political outcomes. The primary representation of such theories in action is in the design of the US political system- a system of checks and balances designed to limit power, central to which is the existence of a comprehensive body of individual rights which is constitutionally protected so as to ensure that liberal political outcomes are not jeopardised by majority rule or the actions of political elites. The question is, does this system represent “democracy” or is it in fact the embodiment of liberal democracy’s inherant contradiction, in that to ensure the “rule of the people” produces liberal outcomes the “rule of the people” is restricted so that they are not actually fully in control of political outcomes?
Whether liberal democracy is an inherantly contradictory notion or not appears therefore to rest on how exactly democracy is defined. If it is accepted that, as in the US political system, democracy is a political process underpinned by a constitutional body of rights, then there is nothing contradictory about the notion of liberal democracy. In fact, if the constitution is a liberal one, then democracy is liberal democracy. However, if on the other hand democracy is conceived solely as a process by which the people govern, or choose their government, then the answer is rather different. Then, if the notion of liberal democracy is, as is common in the contemporary world’s ideological climate, used as a prescriptive term- to prescribe the form a political system should take- then it is inherantly contradictory, as it entails prescribing a political process by which people rule whilst at the same time prescribing the outcomes which are available to them (liberalism). But, as a descriptive term, the notion has more legitimacy- as there are many political systems which may fairly uncontroversially described as liberal democracies. Where the danger, and the contradiction, lies is in the assumption that all democracies equate to liberal democracies. As we have seen, this is far from clear.
It is then difficult to give a concise answer as to whether the notion of liberal democracy is inherantly contradictory or not. From one point of view, the contradiction is clear. “Democracy” refers to a political process by which the “people” are able to rule, yet the “liberal” component of the notion refers to a political outcome, thus dictating the outcome of the supposedly “democratic” process. The existence of “illiberal democracies” would appear to demonstrate that if allowed to rule, the people may just as readily choose illiberal political outcomes. On the other hand, examination of prominent theretical analyses of democracy reveals close associations between democratic theory and liberal principles of autonomy, equality and individual rights. Significantly though, theories of democracy as a system of balance recognise that unconstrained democratic processes can produce illiberal outcomes, and prescribe a constitution underpinning those processes in order to ensure desirable (liberal) outcomes. The question is whether such a system can truly be considered democracy, or if it restricts the democratic process to the extent that it is compromised. Given the complexities of these issues, it is clear that caution should be exercised in the use of the notion of liberal democracy. As a description of an empirical reality it has much validity. As a prescriptive term on the other hand, whether it is inherantly contradictory depends on what assumptions are made on the nature of democracy itself.
- Zakaria, F. (1997): The Rise of Illiberal Democracy, in: Foreign Affairs, November/December 1997 Issue
- Zakaria, F. (2007): The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad (Revised Edition)