America must educate a new elite worthy of the name.
Democracy’s Progressive Police
Self-government is hostage to hostile captors.
After the end of the Cold War, the United States moved away from its policy of replacing enemy socialist governments with friendly governments of any kind, be they nominally democratic, military dictatorships, or run by an authoritarian strongman, and moved toward a policy of creating “liberal democracies,” ostensibly as a way of spreading Western values. Such Western-style liberal democracies, as opposed to states with democratic institutions, place a premium on the protection of individual liberties and the model of civil and human rights as practiced, at least in theory, in the U.S. and across Western Europe.
While people generally welcome democracy in principle—men typically wish to govern themselves—liberal democracy, with its emphasis on sometimes very progressive individual liberties, has been welcomed less and less in recent years. Why? Because as leftist policies have grown more extreme, liberal democracy as a concept has transitioned from support for individual liberty to support for progressive politics, including the full legalization of abortion, full rights for a constantly growing list of sexual minorities, and a belief in multiculturalism as a master value. If a state adopts laws against progressive values, its leader is not merely labeled socially conservative, but is declared to be anti-democratic, even if he was elected democratically and passed laws legally.
Many shrug at these distinctions as merely academic. But all who care about the future of the West should oppose the forced merger of “democracy” and “progressivism.” Far from a matter of semantic disputation, this shifted definition of democracy is a threat to democracy’s survival.
After the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the United States, using methods strikingly similar to the “civilizing” attempts of British and French colonists in the nineteenth century, established a liberal democracy in an attempt to graft Western values into the country. Had the U.S. opted instead for an electoral democracy with elementary protections based on the rule of law, and not attempted to force Western liberalism onto a culture which clearly did not want it, Afghans may, possibly, have been more willing to buy into the system. But a conservative Islamic democracy, with popular local support, was not the model preferred by the U.S. State Department.
The European Union has acted ignominiously toward two of its more conservative members, Poland and Hungary. Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party (shortened to PiS in Polish) has for years controlled the parliament and the presidency. Due to the party’s conservative policies, some in the opposition, along with progressive European Union bureaucrats, claimed that if PiS were to win the 2020 elections and stay in power it would be the last free election in Polish history. PiS went on to win the elections, but nevertheless, anti-PiS former Polish Prime Minister (and former European Union Council President) Donald Tusk returned to Polish politics to lead the main opposition party. If one believes that Poland just had its last free election, why would anyone wish to head the opposition? The only logical conclusion would be that Polish elections are still free and that those who claimed otherwise were merely trying to scare voters and drum up foreign opposition to a Polish government that insists on putting the interests of Poland above the demands of Brussels.
Similar games are being played against Hungary as well. The ruling Fidesz Party, led by PM Viktor Orbán, banned the dissemination to minors of materials relating to homosexuality. The backlash from liberal democrats was fierce. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte even stated that Hungary should be expelled from the EU over the law. LGBT rights appear nowhere in the Treaty of Maastricht, the EU’s founding document, nor does any definition of “European” include maximal support for LGBT rights. Hungary went against Western progressivism, and as a result is no longer a true democracy in the eyes of progressives.
But the Fidesz Party has democratically won parliamentary majorities for over a decade, and many Hungarians who do not support Orbán are skeptical of LGBT rights. Orbán is counting on this and has announced a referendum on the law. It is likely the referendum will pass, democratically, by a sizable majority. If Orbán wins the referendum and liberal democrats still attempts to punish Hungary, then it will be indisputable that liberal democrats do not support “democracy” as most people understand it.
This same story has been repeated throughout the West. Italy elects a migrant-skeptical coalition government, and Brussels reacts by tut-tutting the Italians and implying that elements of fascism exist in the democratically-elected coalition. America elects an establishment-skeptical president, and Democrats spend four years delegitimizing the election. Progressives are trying the same thing in Hungary, but this time the hypocrisy is undeniable. When democracy gives liberal democrats power, they accept it. But when democracy produces policies which go against their ideology, they abandon democracy in a heartbeat and just keep the liberalism.
This substituting of definitions fundamentally misunderstands (or purposefully twists) what democracy is supposed to be, and how people see it writ large. When people hear “democracy” they think of the will of the people. They do not understand that “democracy” is a term of art that refers to whatever policy Western progressives have cooked up at a given time.
By trying to merge the definitions of progressivism and democracy, liberal democrats could ultimately cause the collapse of democracy itself across the West. If liberal democrats malign democracies every time they vote conservatively and lambast citizenries for being “anti-democratic,” eventually those citizenries will no longer care. The West just watched this happen in Afghanistan, and we would be foolish to imagine such a collapse could not happen elsewhere. If democracy becomes a byword for “progressive politics,” then people across the West will not just reject liberalism—they will reject democracy too.
The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.