Illiberal Democracy

I think the recent Palestinian elections are a good reminder of some of the issues raised in Fareed Zakaria’s book Illiberal Democracy .

His main point is that in recent years we in America have grown increasingly fixated on elections as the key element of democracy, and have not paid as much attention to the other institutions which are just as crucial to having a true democracy that respects the rights of citizens. He argues that we’ve come to believe that “elections = democracy” when the reality is that “democracy = elections + rule of law + independent press + stable non-government institutions”. He illustrates this with several examples including situations where free elections result in a distinctly non-free society which appears to be the way both Iraq and Palestine are heading.

One corollary to this is that Bush’s simplistic “elections = democracy = freedom = security” formulation which he’s been pushing recently is deeply flawed, as the Palestinian elections have shown, and arguably as Iraq is showing.

I think the overall lesson is that elections need to be held in the context of establishing working institutions including a truly free and independent press, a stable and independent judiciary, and functioning non-governmental institutions like unions, community groups and so on. Elections without institutions are just rolling the dice: if you get a party in power that believes in liberty and the rule of law, then elections can lead to a free and stable society. But if you get a party if power that considers elections a means to absolute power only, then you get Illiberal Democracy.

It’s worth remembering that Zakaria made a lot of these points several years ago, only the Bushies don’t seem to have been listening.

I dunno, Bush has been doing a pretty good job of abusing power himself, perhaps the administration is more aware of this stuff than you think.

Well, technically, you seem to mean liberalism rather than democracy. I am using ‘liberal’ in the Lockian sense, as a political system built around liberty (usually negative liberty, freedom to make one’s own choices without external coercion). I’m not sure democracy itself is inherently based on those other factors. couldn’t you technically have a democracy in which the rule of law changes as the people decide? It might not work well, but it would still be a democracy.

Still, point taken. I would have used a different word though (and I realize it is not your usage, but the author’s).

I understand your point: I think more clear terminology would be “liberal democracy” (again using Liberal in the Lockian sense).

Specifically I think Zakaria is arguing that most people in the US support “liberal democracy” and when they say “democracy” they really mean “liberal democracy” (a democracy which respect the rights of citizens and minorities). However in recent years, the “liberal” part is getting de-emphasized and we tend to focus more on just the “free elections = democracy” part.

So you do get a democracy, but its what Zakara calls “Illiberal Democracy”.

For a specific example, Bush keeps saying that spreading democracy to the Middle East will promote freedom and security. But what he really means is that spreading liberal democracy will promote freedom and security. I believe that is likely true. However, spreading Illiberal democracy as we have done in Iraq and as has happened in Palestine, may not have the desired result.

That is really a great book. I don’t know about the semantics of it, but I really found it a great read (in downtown Fallujah during the election season, no less). Even though it is always fun to point out yet another trick Bush has ironically learned, I thinkthe bulk of Zakaria’s argument encompasses emergent nations and out foreign policy response, somewhere he certainly has not been paying attention to the book.

Yep. Bush has been instrumental in pushing the simplistic formula and even applying it here. His one moment of credibility was the 2004 election - once that was finished he thought it was a blank check that let him do whatever he wants - nevermind we flat out didnt know about his more egregious uses of power (thanks New York Times) or he won by a mere 34 electoral votes (or 3 million out of 121 million cast) - even if it means dismantling core principles of our democracy. For him the election was everything.

Sharansky is a noted conservative Israeli writer and politician, his book The Case for Democracy has been referred to by Bush as a key influence on Bush’s policy. But it is clear from the above quote that Bush didn’t understand Sharansky’s view. So we have Illiberal Democracy rather than true free democratic society in both Iraq and Palestine.

Certainly here in Australia the government resembles an oligarchy far more closely than it does a democracy; rule by committee more than anything else.

And yet there is a case to be made that even illiberal democracy sets a nation down the course toward moderation and political progress.

Consider Asian countries like the Philippines or Indonesia, where the earliest presidential elections simply confirmed new dictators into power. Eventually, the evolution of democratic institutions in both countries made the reign of a Marcos or a Suharto impossible to sustain…I’d say there are a dozen such examples across the globe (Ukraine, anyone?) of illiberal democracies forcing real liberalism onto their governments from the bottom upward.

A similar argument has been put forward for encouraging illiberal democratization of Islamic countries. The voters might sweep Islamist mullahs into power initially, but as we’ve seen in Iran, the love affair with “elected autocrats” fades within a generation, and eventually the people demand real openness of their government. Hitchens, for one, has suggested that the very best thing that could happen to the Middle East is a large-scale voting-in of Islamist governments, so that people could figure out just how useless those are and then convert their democratic structures into real forums for progressive governance.