The Cultural Contradictions of Democracy: The Main Threats to Democracy Lie Within Liberal Societies Themselves
…What Is Democracy?
Let us continue by trying to define what we are talking about. In the beginning of the 21st century the term “democracy” is used primarily to indicate a society governed by officials elected and in some form controlled by the people. Typically it is assumed that in such a society citizens enjoy equality under the law, which presupposes a certain degree of informal social trust; that they possess several crucial civil liberties, such as freedom of speech and assembly; that basic human rights are observed and protected; and that outside the political domain proper there is a supportive civil society represented by numerous voluntary, “intermediating” associations. All these assumptions are based on the historical experience of building democratic regimes, since the progress of democracy aligned for centuries with the expansion of civil liberties and concepts of human rights. This is what the “liberal” in liberal democracy has come to mean, despite the fact that this use of the word is somewhat alienated from its etymology.
But this begs an important question: Was the rise of democracy the main driving force behind the development of contemporary liberal Western societies, or were long gestating developments in Western societies that fixed concepts of liberties and individual rights instead the drivers of democracy? The default assumption among most Westerners is the former, but the truth is the latter. American society, observed Gordon Wood, the reigning dean of early American history, did not become liberally minded because it was democratic, it became democratic because it was liberally minded. And thus the late Daniel Bell:
I am not a democrat. I don’t believe in democracy. I believe in liberty and rights… in certain elements which you can’t take away from people. Rule of law, the right of assembly, … hearings in open courtrooms—these are rights which guarantee the liberties of people. I basically prefer to deal with liberty rather than democracy.3
The system of civil liberties that exists today in all truly democratic countries comes from historical traditions nurtured by certain religious cultures turned outward into the temporal realm, and from the somewhat accidental felicities of good governance in key cases. They have nothing to do with the introduction of universal suffrage. No society can host a true liberal democracy that has not first become free and liberal-minded, and only people who have lost touch with their own histories can suppose otherwise.
This account of causality, once understood, raises three questions. First, if the establishment of basic liberties and rights precedes democracy, and if those liberties and rights are now firmly established and well secured in law, then why do we need democracy? What, and who, is it good for?