The Achilles Heel of Liberal Democracy

by Pranab Bardhan

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi

Many find fault with liberal democracy because it exacerbates inequality, particularly when wedded to unbridled capitalism. But inequality has been rampant in authoritarian countries as well, with or without capitalism. Many non-capitalist countries in actual history have been friendly neither to liberty nor equality, never mind the soaring rhetoric, whereas some liberal democracies have provided their alert citizenry with the means of taming the harshness of capitalism, showing the possibility of liberty and equality working together at least up to some distance.

Others find fault with liberal democracy because its emphasis on individual freedom may loosen community bonding and rootedness, but ‘liberty’ and ‘fraternity’ need not work at cross-purposes, and one should keep in mind that communitarian excesses without liberalism can hurt interests of minority and dissident or non-conformist groups and individual autonomy. For a discussion of these issues see my piece, “Can the Local Community Save Liberal Democracy?”. Yet why is liberal democracy so fragile? All around us demagogues rule even in traditional bastions of democracy; and majoritarianism so easily hollows out democracies and keeps only the shell (and even sometimes triumphantly gets that shell described by the oxymoronic term ‘illiberal democracy’).

In my article, “Coping with Resurgent Nationalism” I have suggested that if the constitution in some democratic countries incorporates liberal inclusive values and is reasonably difficult to change, it can provide the basis of some form of civic nationalism (or what Habermas called ‘constitutional patriotism’) that may resist the marauding forces of majoritarianism or exclusivist ethnic nationalism. But the ethnic nationalist leaders are so adept at whipping up our primordial or visceral evolutionary defensive-aggressive urge to fight against so-called ‘enemy’ groups, that such resistance is currently crumbling in many countries –for example, conspicuously in India under the onslaught of Hindu nationalism, even after several decades of reasonably successful civic nationalism based on values of pluralism enshrined in the constitution and undergirded by centuries of folk-syncretic tradition of tolerance and pluralism of faith among the common people.

In an insightful article economists Sharun Mukand and Dani Rodrik detect the fundamental problem in something lacking in the origin of the democratic political settlement. One popular version of this settlement in European history has been that democracy came about as a compromise between the economic elite (interested in securing their property rights) afraid of mass upheavals and the organized working classes and peasants, clamoring for political rights. This led to extension of franchise and political representation, and rights to express, assemble, and organize, which ultimately led to welfare states of varying strengths. The workers in their turn accepted some limits in their demands so that capitalist property rights and opportunities are essentially preserved. In this democratic settlement the economic elite had the strength of their wealth and the workers the strength of numbers. But the groups that lost out in this bargaining process (or never had a chance) are those who have neither wealth nor numbers—the various minority groups in society (defined by ethnicity, religion, ideology, language, gender identity or sexual preference). Way back in 1787 James Madison in the Federalist Papers rightly put the issue of minority rights at the center of democratic concern in a new republic. Today it has become the Achilles Heel of liberal democracy.

Mukand and Rodrik distinguish between political rights and civil rights, the latter largely relating to protection of those minority groups (including protection of the rule of law, habeas corpus, equal access to public services, etc.). They point out that in the aforementioned bargaining equilibrium between the economic elite and the majority of workers, those civil rights may go by default, and there may not be a strong enough group to fight for them or make any credible threats to the other groups. Some exceptions may take place where the ethnic minority is part of the economic elite (as in the case of the Chinese businessmen in parts of south-east Asia, or some Jewish Americans important in the business and media elite of their country—but even in these cases hate-crimes and discrimination against such minority groups have not been uncommon).

The distinction between political and civil rights is related to the distinction between participatory and procedural aspects of democracy that I have emphasized in all my recent writings on populism. Majoritarian populists either of the right or the left variety usually ride roughshod over the procedural aspects (like the “due process” that the minorities are entitled to under rule of law). The question is, how does one preserve and sustain these procedural aspects?

An alternate way of looking at the origin of democracy—still keeping to an essentially interest-based (rather than idea-based) explanation—may provide a bit more hope for the political logic behind the sustenance of civil rights or procedural aspects of liberal democracy. This alternative ascribes the rise of democracy to competition within the elite, rather than the threat of mass uprisings faced by the elite as a whole. In my 1984 book, The Political Economy of Development in India, I ascribed the survival of democracy in India, against a formidable set of odds, not so much to the strength of liberal values in the belief system of the Indian population, as to how in a country of immense diversity, even the elite is so fragmented (with no element individually sufficiently strong to hijack the system by itself) that they agree on some minimum democratic rules in their transactional negotiations, to keep their rivals at the bargaining table under some limits of moderation. (Of course, when the diversity or the lack of trust is extreme the process may unravel, and the rival groups turn to civil war, as has often happened in Africa).

In the book I had referred to the 19th-century British example of the industrial bourgeoisie allowing an extension of franchise to the working classes, not necessarily out of love or fear of the latter, but more to checkmate their elite rival in the landed aristocracy. (Roughly similar, episodic, cases have been cited by political scientists in the history of Denmark, Greece, Spain and France in the 19th century, and of Argentina and Portugal in the early part of the 20th). In Federalist Paper no. 10 James Madison looked upon a great number of what he called ‘factions’ (the most important example of factions in his mind was the different type of interest groups) and their diversity as the safeguard against tyranny –- he pointed to “the greater security afforded by a greater variety of parties (i.e. ‘factions’), against the event of any one party being able to outnumber and oppress the rest”.

One, of course, needs more institutional structure for sustenance of civil rights. If elite fragmentation is such that each fragment is suspicious that some other fragment may get too powerful to endanger its civil rights, each fragment may then have a stake in a social contract that ensures some minimum framework of civil rights for everybody. (This is somewhat akin to the Rawlsian theory of justice under a kind of ‘veil of ignorance’, applied here to procedural rights). Mukand and Rodrik have a somewhat similar case in the special situation when there is no permanent majority or minority in society, and if coalitions keep shifting.

To make such a social contract binding the elite fragments may then be interested in constitutions or other such founding documents that limit over-reach on the part of anybody through built-in arrangements like separation of powers and checks and balances. In particular the institutions like judiciary within the governmental set-up, and the media, universities, and other civil society organizations outside can become watchdogs against abuse of power, particularly in oppressing minorities. In India, Turkey, Hungary, Poland, Russia, Brazil, and elsewhere popularly elected governments are now systematically using their majoritarian muscles to weaken and intimidate these institutions that safeguard minority rights. In the United States these institutions, for all their faults, have been somewhat stronger all along, and are offering a bit stiffer resistance so far against a marauding President and his subservient party legislators, but even there the judiciary seems to be in the process of being captured by partisan political appointments, and the media torn by sectarian polarization.

Yet on the lines of Madison’s thinking it is the diversity of interest groups, regions and identities and their collective action ability that may be the main source of lingering hope in extremely diverse countries like India. The Hindu nationalists currently enjoy a great deal of advantages in their onward march: a massive cadre-based disciplined, though thoroughly bigoted, organization (RSS) attempting to forge cultural homogenization among the Hindus, a charismatic political leader not averse to spreading misleading half-truths, lies and disinformation, access to a disproportionately large amount of corporate donations for election funds, and an infernal ability to use the arms of a pre-existing over-extended state to harass and persecute dissidents and intimidate the rest (through ample use of investigative and tax-raiding agencies, and misuse of colonial-era sedition laws against critics of the government, threats of withdrawal of public advertisements from critical media outlets, allowing impunity for the partisan lynch-mobs or police against minorities, and so on). The atmosphere of fear and intimidation has immobilized many civil society groups. Labor unions as a possible center of organized opposition have been in a kind of structural decline. Sadly, even the judiciary seems to have been compromised, and often timid or erratic.

Nevertheless in the long run the odds are against such drastic homogenization and cramming of the manifold diversities of Hindu society into the Procrustean bed of an invented, artificial, poisonous, religious nationalism—against which Gandhi, the father of the nation, fought all his life. Hinduism has never been an organized or standardized religion and in a country of extreme linguistic, cultural and other diversities and powerful centrifugal forces, the project of suppression of the civil rights of the world’s largest minority population in any one country (nearly 200 million Muslims, apart from other dissidents) is unlikely to be viable over a long period, at least not without giving up all semblance of democracy. Social movements for group and regional autonomy and political movements for more decentralization and devolution of power are likely to grow in reaction. Already the military lockdown of Kashmir and particularly the anti-Muslim Citizenship Amendment Act and the proposed National Registry of Citizens for the whole country have provoked widespread unrest, often led by women. It has been an invigorating sight in recent times in the streets of different parts of India where diverse crowds of young people have gathered in thousands chanting the preamble to the liberal-pluralistic Constitution of India, while a repressive government has continued to use violence and intimidation against protesters. In the near future civil disobedience movements and regional resistance against arbitrary laws that seem to violate the spirit, if not always the letter, of the Constitution are likely to grow and provide formidable opposition.

Of course, this opposition needs to be organized in all fronts, in the legislatures, in the media and in the streets, and by the state governments that are still controlled by opposition parties. For far too long even the opposition states have allowed the central government to usurp powers arbitrarily, to assault the basic structure of the constitution in many ways, reorganize and overhaul some states, violate the spirit of federalism in not involving or consulting the state governments while ramming through crucial legislations on policing, law and order and social welfare services (all of which constitutionally are state subjects), in changing the terms of reference of the constitutional body of Finance Commission that allocates resources between the central and state governments, in introducing questionable forms of election funding, and so on. Even when the central government actions are technically legal, one can follow Gandhi who had taught Indians to organize mass civil disobedience when the laws are not socially legitimate.  Such movements even when started by refreshing bursts of spontaneity and the vigor and authenticity of decentralized leaderlessness, for gathering steam and ultimate sustenance over the medium to long run they’ll need some coordination and direction, particularly from some degree of association with mass organizations, with minimum common agenda for diverse groups and youthful leaders.

This is an uphill battle for protecting the essence of liberal democracy that liberals all over the world should keep a vigilant eye on. It is vitally important particularly at a time when the Achilles Heel of liberal democracy everywhere looks grievously exposed.