Liberal democracy is generally understood to be a system of government in which people consent to their rulers, and rulers, in turn, are constitutionally constrained to respect individual rights. However, widely divergent views exist regarding the meaning of consent and individual rights, of the particular forms of government that are best suited to the preservation of popular rule and the protection of rights, and of the types and effectiveness of constitutional constraints within particular forms of government. Nonetheless, liberal democracy is common throughout most of the developed world. At a minimum, liberal democracy is characterized by the following:
- Widespread political participation by adult citizens, including members of minority groups that include racial, ethnic, religious, linguistic, and economic minorities;
- Secret ballots and frequent regular elections;
- Broad freedom of individuals to form and support political parties, with each party free to present its views and form a government;
- Governments that can alter, interpret, and enforce laws to suit (within limits) the majority's preferences;
- Effective guarantees of individual and minority rights, especially in areas such as freedom of speech, press, conscience, religion, assembly, and equal treatment before the law; and
- Limited governmental powers, which are kept in check by constitutional guarantees including separation of powers (so that all executive, legislative, and judicial powers are not, in effect, exercised by the same person or institution).
Because of the importance of rights guarantees and limitations on power, liberal democracy is often understood to be synonymous with constitutional democracy. Constitutional guarantees can take the form of widely shared and practiced understandings or formal written rules.
The phrase liberal democracy also points to something beyond government. It is a way of describing a kind of culture or civil society, including economy and lifestyle, which is as much a necessary condition of liberal democracy as it is a product of it. In addition to the governmental norms, liberal democracy is characterized by cooperative, consensual relationships among individuals and groups on a broad range of matters that extend beyond politics or government. Voluntary exchange and social interaction, along with confidence or trust on the part of people to engage in such interaction with those otherwise unknown to them, are essential elements and preconditions of liberal democracy.
intellectual origins of liberal democracy
Democracy—literally meaning "rule by the people"—has historically taken many forms. In ancient Athens, democracy meant direct rule by free male citizens. In the twenty-first century democracy is generally understood to mean indirect rule, that is, popular rule through elected representatives.
Liberal democracy owes its origins to particular philosophic doctrines and constitutional developments, which arose especially in England and the United States. The adjective liberal points to a set of philosophic doctrines emphasizing human equality that were developed in the early modern period, beginning roughly in the seventeenth century. The English philosopher John Locke (1632–1704) argued that legitimate government arises only from consent and the right to consent, in turn, stems from a fact of nature: human equality.
For Locke, writing in his Second Treatise of Government (1690), the state of nature that predates all government is a state wherein "Creatures of the same species and rank … should also be equal one amongst another without Subordination or Subjection." (Locke 1988, p. 269) According to Locke, because human beings are by nature political equals (although not equal in all respects), the only way in which anyone gains legitimate political authority over another is through the other's consent. Government remains legitimate only so long as it protects the natural rights of individual citizens (i.e., those who have entered the social compact by consenting, explicitly or tacitly, to the particular government). Natural rights include some things to which individuals are entitled in the state of nature, such as life, liberty (including freedom of conscience), and property. A strong conception of rights of the person thus existed at the dawn of modern liberalism and continues to inform the practice of liberal democracy worldwide.
Understanding rights is different, however, from preserving and protecting them in practice. Even majorities can only legitimately consent to pursue the common good. As Locke maintained, no one is all-wise or all-powerful, and human reason is influenced by passion. A rudimentary separation of powers doctrine appeared in Locke, who argued that government by nature consists of the legislative, executive, and judicial power, and that danger exists in combining these powers in one set of hands. Such concern for separation also appears in the French philosopher Montesquieu (1689–1755), who, like Locke, was sympathetic to the relative moderation and tolerance embodied by English constitutionalism. Both of these philosophers would influence the thinking of the American founders.
The constitutional history of England is often understood as the unfolding of liberal institutions and practices largely through the gradual limiting of royal power, from the Magna Carta (1215), to the Petition of Right (1628), through the growth of the common law and independent courts. Perhaps the most significant events surrounded the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and 1689, of which Locke gave, in part, a theoretical account. The Revolution centered on the flight of the Roman Catholic King James II (1633–1701) on the approach of the army of William of Orange (1650–1702). When parliament gave the crown to William of Orange and his wife Mary (1662–1694), it did so along with a Declaration of Right (1689), which, among other things, ended the royal power to suspend laws and required free and frequent elections for parliament. These moves, coupled with the barring of future Roman Catholic accession to the British throne, were seen in accordance with Locke's theory that legitimate sovereign power only exists as a result of a social compact between the people—in the form of their representatives in parliament—and the monarch.
By the mid 1760s, Lockean social compact theory was exercising considerable influence in British North America. Preachers, statesmen, and political activists in the American colonies argued that the king and parliament ruled America without the consent of the governed and concomitantly failed to protect the rights of colonists. Lockean doctrine found perhaps its most succinct expression in America in the Declaration of Independence (1776). In that document Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) wrote, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable, rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
Despite relatively widespread agreement on the principles of just government, the Americans faced the practical problem of implementing these principles. Between the Declaration and the Constitutional Convention (1787), Americans realized that individual rights were being violated due to the weaknesses of state governments and the even greater weaknesses of the national government created by the Articles of Confederation (1781). Under the Articles, states retained their sovereignty, and the federal government had no real power. Within states, laws lacked stability, and the executive and judicial branches were enfeebled because they were subservient to the legislative branches. The U.S. Constitution (1789) provided what its defenders called an "energetic" national government that was, however, constrained through numerous institutional mechanisms, including especially separation of powers.
The constitution provided the institutional framework for liberal democracy in the United States, although by contemporary standards participation was limited and minority rights were ill protected, especially by the states. However, widespread consensus existed among America's founders that the natural rights principles of the Declaration of Independence made slavery illegitimate, even though it could not immediately be eliminated. During the U.S. Civil War (1861–1865), President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) claimed that America must remain a "government of the people, by the people, for the people." A liberal democratic core is the center of this definition of American republicanism, for it does not reduce to simple majoritarianism. In Lincoln's terms, following Locke, no person is good enough to rule another person without the other's consent.
Even after the Civil War, however, black citizens could not reliably exercise rights to which they were entitled under the constitution, including the right to vote. The grandest rhetoric of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, as expressed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968), was premised on universal liberal understandings of natural rights. Likewise, the right to vote could be denied on the basis of sex prior to passage of the Twenty-ninth Amendment (1920). This eventual enshrinement, like much of the civil rights movement, was itself premised on embedded liberal understandings. Prior to women's suffrage, women were often understood to be "virtually represented" by their husbands. A common view of America's founders was that women, as human beings, possessed natural rights, and the lack of suffrage was not necessarily thought to be a reflection of innate intellectual or moral disability.
The French Revolution (1787–1799) followed closely on the heels of the American Revolution. Throughout the eighteenth century, many members of the French intellectual classes had found inspiration in the Glorious Revolution, and the American Revolution gave further impetus to democratic sentiments. The French Revolution, which overthrew the French monarchy, did promote democratic reforms, but it could hardly be called liberal insofar as individual rights were notoriously insecure throughout the revolutionary period. By reducing democracy to a sense of the popular will, the French Revolution seemed remarkably unconcerned—even in principle—with liberal rights. Nevertheless, France has, since the revolution, enjoyed a steady if uneven march toward liberal democracy. In its twenty-first century incarnation, French government is characterized by separation of executive, legislative, and judicial powers and guarantees of individual rights.
Many modern, apparently stable liberal democracies are of recent constitutional vintage. Few constitutional orders (with the notable exceptions of England and the United States) date back prior to the twentieth century. For example, Germany, Italy, and Japan owe their contemporary liberal institutions to their defeats on the battlefield in World War II (1939–1945). Spain and Portugal
had highly autocratic forms of government (which were neither liberal nor democratic) as recently as the 1970s. The countries of Eastern Europe and those composing the former Soviet Union only began moving toward liberal democracy with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. With this historic event, some—including the American political theorist Francis Fukuyama (b. 1952)—argued forcefully that the liberal democratic idea had triumphed in world history. That is to say, when the Berlin Wall fell, so did the most serious remaining intellectual alternative to liberal democracy, namely, Marxist communism. Like other challengers that had fallen by the wayside, communism denied human beings equal recognition at the level of both government and civil society.
India is the world's largest democracy, having imported parliamentary institutions from England in a constitution of 1950. Yet India's society is sometimes too traditional in nature to be truly liberal. Communal loyalties (often in opposition to official state policy) stand in the way of a smoothly functioning civil society. Not only does serious religious strife between Hindus and Muslims continue, but also certain traditional religious beliefs prevent the development of a culture of trust and voluntary cooperation. From the mid- to late twentieth century, India experienced serious problems at the government level in maintaining separation of powers and of preserving individual rights.
All liberal democratic nations today recognize, explicitly or implicitly, the inseparable philosophic principles of human freedom and political equality and their significance for government and society. Liberal democratic principles might be universal, but this does not imply they can be implemented universally or immediately. That many nations remain outside the family of liberal democracies is a testament to the enduring importance of cultural, religious, political, and moral traditions that cut against liberal democracy.
enduring problems and prospects
For the newest liberal democracies and those nations that aspire toward liberal democracy, some problems seem obvious, including lack of experience with liberal democratic institutions and the remnants of sometimes hostile political cultures. Even in the longest established and most powerful liberal democracies, theoretical and practical problems abound, both from within and from without.
Of the obvious problems from within, protecting minority rights is a perennial concern, because of the basic tension between the claims of liberalism on the one hand and democracy, or majority rule, on the other. Of the obvious problems from without, liberal democracies have from their earliest days been challenged on the battlefield and in the world of ideas. At first, resistance came from clerical establishments and then later from powerful illiberal ideologies such as Nazism and communism.
Less obvious challenges from within have to do with the status of the consent principle itself. At least partly from the French Revolution came a version of liberalism that opposes traditional moral and social authority but not the overall power of the state. The French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859) in his work Democracy in America (1840) warned of the dangers of governmental power and centralization coupled with a weak civil society. He suggested that people who crave or acquiesce to such government power for the sake of immediate comfort lose the capacity for self-government. As government takes over the traditional workings of the marketplace and civil society, people are expected to do less for themselves and for the common good and so less can be expected of them politically. It is "difficult to imagine," he claimed, "how people who have entirely given up managing their own affairs could make a wise choice of those who are to do that for them. One should never expect a liberal, energetic, and wise government to originate in the votes of a people of servants." (Tocqueville 1988, p. 694.) In this view, liberal democracy needs freedom in the form of spontaneous, non-governmental activities and organizations, which also provide social cohesion. In the absence of such activities and organizations, hyperindividuality and moral libertinism necessitate more and more state control, which encourages still less active citizenship.
In the twenty-first century, those on the liberal right (or "classical liberals," as they are sometimes called) are inclined to share de Tocqueville's concerns and support the market and limited government not simply for economic reasons but also as a check on state power and as a means of developing citizenly virtues. On the other hand, those on the liberal left often see state power in its modern, administrative incarnation to be a positive good. In their view, such power is necessary for social justice and to tame the worst effects of the marketplace.
Whatever the merits of these arguments, it is clear that liberal democracy requires freedom to be political in a meaningful consensual way but also necessitates freedom from politics, that is, freedom to engage in one's own pursuits. Democracy would be totalitarian rather than liberal if citizens were constantly occupied by obligations to the state and were able without constraint to impose on other citizens similar obligations.
The ability to impose nonconsensually one's views on matters of fundamentally contested moral and constitutional principles raises yet another challenge to liberal democracy. Such impositions are invariably linked to questions of overall government power, who exercises it, and the manner in which it is exercised. In the United States this problem has taken the form of concern over the limits of judicial power. Of all branches of government, the judiciary is, by design, the least consensual. It is subject to popular control only very indirectly. To the extent modern liberalism exalts the individual qua individual, certain conceptions of rights might well be in tension with conceptions of the common good. The power of the state in the form of nonconsensual courts can be used to overturn laws that might be seen as legitimate consensual decisions of the popular branches of government.
See also: Democracy.
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Bradley C. S. Watson