A Little Less Democracy, Please

Joshua Rowlands asks citizens and world leaders alike for a little more liberalism instead. 

“When a man or a party suffers from an injustice in the United States, to whom do you want them to appeal? To public opinion? That is what forms the majority. To the legislative body? It represents the majority and blindly obeys it. To the executive power? It is named by the majority and serves it as a passive instrument. To the police? The police are nothing other than the majority under arms. To the jury? The jury is the majority vested with the right to deliver judgments. The judges themselves, in certain states, are elected by the majority. However iniquitous or unreasonable the measure that strikes you may be, you must therefore submit to it.” – Alexis de Tocqueville.

While it may be true that great benefits have sprung from Western democratic institutions, it does not follow that we should seek to export these same democratic institutions to conflict-strewn regions of the globe. I argue that we must first undertake the more challenging task of nurturing liberal ideals. To introduce democratic institutions without first ensuring that liberal values are sufficiently established, will lead to exclusion, oppression and, at worst, genocide. In this light, Western commentators overstate the significance of democratic events – such as elections in Libya – but underplay the importance progressive policy positions – such as Saudi Arabia lifting the ban on women driving. Furthermore, I believe that government foreign policy, non-governmental organisation’s (NGO) objectives and analytic discourse should be adjusted accordingly.

The Misconception

It is a commonly held presumption that democratic institutions are beneficial to the societies that they govern. There is indeed a conspicuous correlation between regional instability and an absence of democratic institutions. The Middle East and North Africa, for example, contain only two democratic states, and the numerous conflicts between state and non-state actors are clear for all to see. Post-World War II Western Europe, however, has been a bastion of peace and democracy.

While the correlation between an absence of conflict and democratic institutions has only recently been observed, democratic peace theory can be traced back to the Eighteenth Century works of Thomas Paine and Immanuel Kant. Perpetual peace is just one purported benefit of democratic institutions – Amartya Sen, for example, links democratic institutions to an absence of famine, among other things. There is, moreover, a post-Cold-War consensus of democratic legitimacy – “the end of history”, as Francis Fukuyama described it – with even the most reprehensible of dictatorships attempting to validate their regime with the veneer of democratic legitimacy.

Reframing the Issue

But democratic institutions have not been immune from reasonable criticism. From Plato’s opposition to the Athenian polis, to Burke’s mistrust of the Parisian mob and Tocqueville’s suspicions about the American electorate democracy has always had its detractors. And such critiques are not merely theoretical. In The Dark Side of Democracy, Michael Mann examines why genocide and ethnic cleansing occurred within democratic movements: how the Armenian genocide originated in the Young Turk Revolution of 1908, how the Weimar republic descended into the Holocaust, how the retreat of oppressive communism unleashed ethnic conflict in former Soviet satellite, and how sporadic tribal tensions erupted into genocide in post-colonial Africa. We could add to this list more recent events still: the Myanmese campaign against Rohingya Muslims, the numerous secular conflicts that have arisen in the wake of the Arab Spring, and the insurgencies that followed Western interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Now consider the United Kingdom as a counter example. While universal suffrage was not fully implemented across all religions and genders until 1928, the core of liberal values were well established prior to this. The Republic of Ireland was liberated in 1922, the slave trade was abolished in 1833, the emancipation of Catholics began with the Papist Act of 1778, and the power of the monarch has been limited since the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215. And while this core of liberal values did not create a society that was post-racist, post-sexist or post-homophobic, it did create a state that – albeit imperfectly – recognised the right of all people to peaceful coexistence, and largely avoided the excesses of the French Terror and American Slavery.

Conversely, illiberal actions are illegitimate no matter how many people voted for them. Abraham Lincoln was right to oppose southern slave traders because slave-holding is wrong. Gandhi was right to demand that the British rule in India end, because British rule was predicated on a racialized conception of civilisation. Martin Luther King was right to fight for civil rights in America, as segregation caused suffering and diminished dignity. It is intellectually dishonest, and morally questionable, to say that the justness of an act is dependent upon the will of a majority. To protect against the most heinous of human crimes – the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, the ethnic cleansing of the former Yugoslavia, and the Rwandan genocide – democratisation must be preceded by the creation of an ideological hegemony of liberalism.

The Solution

With the end of the Cold War came a wave of optimism, and a confidence in the inviolability of human rights and global solidarity. The actual course of events has left many of those optimists disappointed. For example, a 2018 Freedom House report begins: “Political rights and civil liberties around the world deteriorated to their lowest point in more than a decade in 2017, extending a period characterized by emboldened autocrats, beleaguered democracies, and the United States’ withdrawal from its leadership role in the global struggle for human freedom.” In a world where a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize may be complicit in crimes against humanity, pessimism is understandable.

Democracy is not the answer to these woes – liberalism is. Democracy tells us what to do, but liberalism tells us what must never be done. When a majority wants to violate the rights of a minority, democracy tells us to do so. It is liberalism that tells us not to. We need to reframe our discourse at all levels – sub-national, international, and supra-national – to a discourse of liberalism, not a discourse of democracy. To this end, we must return to the ideas of the enlightenment, of Locke and Mill, of Rousseau and Kant. We must revisit the Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. We must, above all, live by Voltaire’s infamous dictum: I wholly disapprove of what you say and will defend to the death your right to say it.

And we must be evangelical. Think of the harm that has been done by exporting ideas of nationalism, fascism, communism, Wahhabism, to name but a few. And so think of the good that may be achieved by exporting the canon of liberal thought. To proceed, however, we must overcome three obstacles. The first relates to the stigma of implementation; the second relates to the practicalities of implementation; the third, relates to the measuring of success.

Talk of exporting an ideology – predominantly “from the West, to the rest” – should prompt caution, or even suspicion. We must not forget the crimes committed in the name of the “white man’s burden”. But liberalism is not Western. Confucian, Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic and countless polytheistic societies all had periods of adopting liberal values of tolerance and cooperation, while “western” states were still conducting crusades, burning heretics, and trading slaves. Moreover, liberal hegemony within “the West” is far from secure. On a range of issues – from the refugee crisis to fighting terrorism, tackling global warming to eradicating poverty – Western states and electorates could do with a bit more liberalism. We are not, therefore, merely exporting liberalism from one nation to another, but seeking to collectively nurture liberal values across the globe.

Even if we can agree that liberal ideals ought to be propagated, it remains to be seen how we should proceed. I propose a twofold solution, that works at the macro and micro level. At the macro level, we should make use of existing international norms and structures surrounding human rights. By linking the concept of state sovereignty to human rights – especially Articles 1-21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – we are saying that whether or not a state’s authority is legitimate is directly linked to how it treats its citizens. This can be undertaken by state and non-state actors in the international sphere, using established institutional mechanisms. At the micro level, we should be looking to support sub-state actors. These actors could be NGOs, media organisations, political parties, minority ethnic, religious or cultural groups, or even individual citizens. Support could also take a variety of forms, from material aid to awareness raising – anything that spreads or strengthens liberal values, institutions or practices.

However before we embark on this project, we must identify the criteria that determine success or failure. Unlike democratic institutions, liberal ideals have no direct physical manifestation. Instead, we can look to an absence of illiberal activities, such as press regulation, extrajudicial state activity, or the use of torture. The occurrence of these illiberal activities is then inversely proportional to the level of adherence to liberal principles. Measuring in this way, although far from perfect, is already common place, such as in the Cato Institute’s “Human Freedom Index”, Social Progress Imperative’s “Social Progress Index”, the Legatum Institute’s “Legatum Prosperity Index”, and Freedom House’s “Freedom in the World” report.


In a world of growing demand and diminishing resources, existential manmade threats and unimaginable technical possibilities, it is becoming increasingly clear that the will of the majority is morally irrelevant. Liberal principles, however, are the rules that govern how we should interact with each other. Liberalism is unique among political ideologies, because it is neutral as to differing conceptions of the good. When I advocate liberal principles, I make a promise directly to you. I promise that no matter what your ethnicity, gender, religion or sexuality may be, no matter what political beliefs you hold, no matter who you choose to associate with, I will guarantee your right to life and liberty, to own property and pursue happiness. Democracy is all well and good, but it is a little more liberalism that the world needs right now.

Joshua Rowlands is a graduate in Political Theory from The University of Manchester. His research interests focus on socio-economic justice, in theory and practice.

Photo by Androosh