Liberal democracy is a political system distinguished not only by free and fair elections, but also by the rule of law, separation of powers, and the safeguard of our fundamental liberties of speech, assembly, religion, and property. Liberal democracy cherishes individual liberty as its primary value. And yet, an increasing number of democratically elected regimes throughout the world ignore the constitutional limits on their power, and routinely restrict the individual liberties of their citizens.
Scholars label these regimes as illiberal democracies, and wonder if they reflect authoritarianism innately present in a voter population that is attracted to authoritarian leaders. Is there such a thing as an authoritarian voter?
Liberalism as a model of political and economic liberties often coincides with democracy, but it is not explicitly linked to the practice of democracy. Liberalism is theoretically and historically separate from democracy. Moreover, categorical definitions in this area can be tricky when we consider that Sweden has an economic system that curtails property rights, France has had a state monopoly on television, and England has an established religion.
In 1996, on the eve of the Bosnian elections that sought to restore civic life to that war-ravaged country, American diplomat Richard Holbrooke contemplated: “Suppose the election was declared free and fair, and those elected are racists, fascists, and separatists…That is the dilemma.”
In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban made the concept of illiberal democracy central to his political aspirations. His party’s goal was to create an illiberal state that does not make liberalism the central element of state organization, but “instead includes a different, special, national, approach.” He rejected checks and balances, and promoted nationalism and separatism. Similarly, the Iranian parliament, which is elected more freely than most parliaments in the region, imposes severe restrictions on the citizenry’s individual liberties.
Clearly, elections in these regimes, and others, are not as free or as fair as those in mature Western democracies, but they reflect popular participation in politics and support for those elected. Moreover, there is a scope of illiberal democracies ranging from those that approximate liberal democracies to those that are almost open dictatorships.
Illiberal democracies do not appear to be a transitional stage of democracy. Fareed Zakaria has noted that “few illiberal democracies have matured into liberal democracies; if anything; they are moving toward heightened illiberalism.” Many countries are opting for governments that blend the electoral features of democracy with substantial illiberalism. Western liberal democracy is not their model. Democratically elected illiberal governments presume that they have a mandate to rule as they see fit, provided that they hold regular elections. Constitutional liberalism may lead to democratic governance, but electoral democracy does not necessarily lead to constitutional liberalism.
In his latest book, “21 Lessons for the 21st Century,” Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari explores the liberal story and notes that government authority ultimately derives from our individual free will as expressed by our political feelings and choices. He argues that elections are always about human feelings not about human rationality. He provokes the reader by noting that there is ample evidence that some people are far more politically and economically knowledgeable that others. Thus, “If democracy were a matter of rational decision-making, there would be no reason to give all people equal voting rights – or perhaps any voting rights at all.”
For better or worse, he argues, elections are not about what we think, but about what we feel. Democracy rests on human feelings derived from our mysterious free will. It is our free will that is the ultimate source of authority, and although some people are more knowledgeable than others, we all posses a free will. And thus, we should all be entitled to vote.
Liberal democracy sees the individual as an autonomous agent constantly making choices based on feelings. But our feelings can be appropriated by illiberal movements. Perhaps this explains the rise in illiberal democracies. Writer AnaÏs Nin put it this way: “We do not see things as they are; we see things as we are.” And we may be authoritarian voters.