Democracy? Or Liberal Democracy?

Back in the Ice Age, when I was a high-school English teacher, I spent some time in my classes discussing the sometimes subtle differences between the definitions and connotations of words.

America’s political discussions would benefit from a similar focus.

What brought this to mind was a “guest essay” in the New York Times, discussing the importance of distinguishing between actual democracies and states that have edged–albeit through popular vote–into autocracy. Here is the crux of the essay:

In a report published in March, the Swedish research organization V Dem posits that “the level of democracy enjoyed by the average global citizen in 2020 is down to the levels last found around 1990.” In V Dem’s judgment, the elected autocracy — a political regime in which democracy is reduced to the unconstrained power of a majority — is today’s most common regime type. India, Turkey and Hungary are exemplars. These new authoritarians are very different from their Cold War-era relatives, which were often military regimes. They cross the borders between democracy and authoritarianism almost as frequently as smugglers cross state borders.

Many of today’s new non-democracies are in fact former democracies. And in many of these countries, citizens voted for authoritarian populists specifically in the hope of making democracy work for them. The government’s supporters in electoral autocracies like India and Hungary or electoral democracies like Poland, countries that organizations like V Dem and its American counterpart Freedom House countenance as democratic backsliders, will insist that they live in democracies. As of January, the percentage of Indians who trusted Prime Minister Narendra Modi was far higher than the number of Americans or Europeans who trusted their leaders. (To be fair, Mr. Modi’s popularity has taken a serious hit over the past month as Covid-19 has raged across India in large part because of what many describe as the starkest failure of governance since the country’s independence.)

There are a number of implications–and warnings– that might be drawn from this analysis, but what it triggered in my mind was definitional. When we use the term “democracy,” most of us think simply of majority rule. And as the described slide into autocracy illustrates, majorities can endorse very repressive measures and elect very unqualified and/or evil people.

A while back, I read a book by Fareed Zakaria (the title now escapes me) in which he drew a very important–even profound–distinction between “democracy” and “liberal democracy.” A system of flat-out majority rule can be every bit as tyrannical as a system empowering an emperor; what America has (if we can keep it) is majority rule constrained by the Bill of Rights, a liberal democracy which limits the sorts of government actions that a majority of our citizens can endorse.

These constraints–and the reasons for them–are widely misunderstood, but they protect our individual liberties.

The Bill of Rights puts certain matters beyond the regulatory power of the state. Your neighbors cannot vote to make you a Baptist or Unitarian, they cannot send government censors to your local library, and they cannot deny equal civil rights to populations they might wish to marginalize or oppress. In effect, the Bill of Rights is meant to limit the nature of decisions that government can make, even when a majority of citizens would like for government to impose those decisions on everyone.

The dictionary definition of “democracy” is “a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.” When most Americans hear “democracy,” however, the connotation is really “liberal democracy”–majority rule with constraints that safeguard individual freedom.

Unfortunately, that assumption elides a very important distinction between “pure” democracy and limited/liberal democracy, and that distinction matters. A lot.


  1. An important distinction. The USA has been downgraded as a “flawed democracy” for the last few years, according to various watchdog groups.
    I am not quite sure how to respond to the argument that America is not a democracy, but a republic. Can you help me parse the terms?

  2. Our primary problem, now guiding this country, is the lack of understanding that “other people” have the same rights as they do…finger pointing directly at the current Republican party. Their continuing dictatorship while being the minority party maintains the power to halt progress in the entire Congressional bodies at state and federal levels. Three questions come to mind; why would any thinking person want to delay or halt ending the Covid-19 Pandemic, why would they NOT want to investigate the January 6th insurrection and why would they NOT want to end the endless discussion of repairing the infrastructure and begin the actual work process?

    Where is democracy in the Maricopa County, Arizona, “audit” of the presidential election (going on for weeks now) by the Cyber Ninjas? Even the Arizona Republican officials are FINALLY questioning this process.

    “A system of flat-out majority rule can be every bit as tyrannical as a system empowering an emperor; what America has (if we can keep it) is majority rule constrained by the Bill of Rights, a liberal democracy which limits the sorts of government actions that a majority of our citizens can endorse.”

    Trump remains the tyrannical emperor, still disgustingly naked, as he rules the Republican elected officials who are the slim but flat-out minority party in the ruling House and Senate. The red states are all dictatorships ruling resident’s personal lives and keeping them at the low to middle-income economic levels with no hope of keeping up with soaring prices on everything. We continue seeing reports that the majority of Americans support President Biden’s struggles to free us of the restraints left by the Trumpism administration but little or no evidence of progress other than the number of those vaccinated against Covid-19.

    Why and how is Liberal Trumpism still maintaining control over Republican states? I caught the end of an interview last night which posed what was referred to as a frequently asked and answered question among politicians; “Why do so many people have an instant dislike of Ted Cruz?” Answer; “Because it saves time.” He then stated the same is true of Josh Hawley while showing the picture of him with fist raised in front of the crowd before the insurrection began. Why and how are those lawmakers and others still in power as the conservative party? “The Bill of Rights puts certain matters beyond the regulatory power of the state.” Those are empty words today; check your own state’s current Legislative action…and inaction.

  3. Well, the Queen of Manipulation, Hillary Clinton, was interviewed recently by The Guardian, and she agreed with Biden that future historians will look back at this era as the defining moment of democracy vs an autocracy — which one works better for society.

    Or, in worldviews, who managed better, the USA or China.

    Hence, our bullyism against China for surpassing us as the number one economy shortly.

    The problem is we are not a democracy or liberal democracy. And, if you look at Turkey today, they want to discard the stranglehold the Western Empires have had over them. I suspect Ukraine will want to join Turkey in this regard.

    Albert Einstein told us in 1949 that we were an oligarchy. In fact, we were an oligarchy from our inception. All of our so-called “rights” have come through struggle. This oligarchy chose a capitalist system which said those who own the most gold gets to make the rules.

    It’s a form of crony capitalism that has morphed into a kakistocracy as evidenced by Trump, although he was our attempt to form an authoritarian government because in the declining stages of capitalism, fascism rules. Every country, including India, that the USA controls, has established fascistic leaders – right-wingers who oppose the working class. Every single one.

    We’ve even set up an alternative fascist government in Venezuela despite the people voting for a socialist leader. Look what we’ve done to Brazil and most recently, Ecuador.

    Einstein’s 1949 dictum was confirmed in 2014 by a Princeton Study – we are in fact an oligarchy. I think the Citizens United ruling sealed it pretty tight.

    The red and blue divide isn’t really about politics – it’s about who runs the state and who makes the rules. If you like Fascism laid on thick, you’re going to love a red state like Florida, Indiana, and Texas. #Fascist

    If you like something that leans more democratic then you’ll gravitate toward a Blue state. If I am a young college graduate, guess which labor market I’m going to settle in? 😉 #Antifa

    Marx wasn’t a dummy.

  4. Just as after 9-11 Americans surrendered their right to privacy in order to feel secure, they now are willing to surrender their democracy restrained by the Bill of Rights in order to maintain white privilege.
    Racism is about to cost us our freedom.

  5. James Madison was aware of the problems associated with the concept “majority rules,” and he believed that that concept was more likely to develop at the level of the state governments than at the federal level. So, at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, he proposed that the Constitution they were writing contain a clause giving the federal government the power to overrule any law passed by a state government that was deemed to be dictatorial. The other delegates would not vote to include the clause, which was probably fortunate, because it is hard to believe that the Constitution would have been ratified by the states if it had been included.

  6. We are an imperfect union. Does it matter that we are? Is it more important to recognize we are what we are and find ways to change what doesn’t work? The big problem today is agreeing on what does and doesn’t work, not because of any great degree of difficulty in establishing that statistically, but because we have become too vested in our favored outcomes.

  7. Most of the comments today talk about “we” regarding our country. It is no longer “we”, it is “I” who can choose the blog to believe, the micro-genre of music to like, the time/place to watch a film/TV show…the “brand” of me. I can glory in that and my fellow team(s) members and have little concern over any thoughts of an entire country having real freedom, justice and equal opportunity.

    Check out the vote this week of multiple counties in Oregon voting to join Idaho as they feel it best represents their views.

  8. While I personally enjoy and get enlightened by this kind of intellectual discussion of how governments should be classified, it probably is not within the reach of the average American today. Why? On average, we have let ourselves be defined by entertainment and social media which we live completely immersed in. Reality is no longer our thing, again, on average.

    We lost the republic. It’s not even on TV.

    The only question left is can it be recovered? I certainly don’t know though hope springs eternal.

    Unfortunately in order for that to happen Biden et al will have to run out of patience with illusory bipartisanship, a worthy though no longer attainable goal.

  9. Professor-I think I may be offended by your lead sentence, because I was one of your first students in “the Ice Age.” However, I still respect you.

  10. I was one of your students in “the Ice Age.” However, I still respect you.

  11. Yea, but if your democracy forced everyone to be a Unitarian, it would have been an excercise if futility, because we Unitarians would then tell you that what we believe is that you have to decide what to believe. We don’t and won’t tell you!

  12. Our liberal democracy came within a hairbreadth of becoming a pure autocratic democracy (wherein the elected choose their voters). Liberal democracy is not out of danger.

  13. “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what they are going to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote.”—-Benjamin Franklin.

    Well, there you have it!

    There will never be pure and equal governance for all!

    The main reason is politicians stir up the basest instincts of their human followers, basically to create more turmoil and keep them in power.

    Lord Acton absolutely hit the nail on the head in 1887 in which he said, and bear with it, it reads;

    “I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way against holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. —–Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority.—— There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it. That is the point at which the negation of Catholicism and the negation of Liberalism meet and keep high festival, and the end learns to justify the means. You would hang a man of no position, like Ravaillac; but if what one hears is true, then Elizabeth asked the gaoler to murder Mary, and William III ordered his Scots minister to extirpate a clan. Here are the greater names coupled with the greater crimes. You would spare these criminals, for some mysterious reason. I would hang them, higher than Haman, for reasons of quite obvious justice; still more, still higher, for the sake of historical science.”

    Human rulers are incapable of ethical conduct even if they thought they could be in the beginning. The sad thing is, they recognize this and still perform illegitimate and unspeakable acts against their fellow man! Mankind is broken, worse than animals!

    Political leaders, religious leaders, and last but not least the leaders of the fourth estate, are all culpable and all guilty because they all seek power, position and influence at the behest of personal aggrandizment at the expense of a confused and gullible group of well armed lambs as Franklin alluded to!

    In a third letter to Creighton, Acton quotes with some approval a conversation he had with John Bright, one of the leaders of the Anti-Corn Law League, who stated to him that “If the people knew what sort of men statesmen were, they would rise and hang the whole lot of them.”

    As a lamb, who would you vote for? One wolf for the other? Or maybe switch it up and vote for the lion or tiger, LOL!

  14. Any ism is subject to abuse, including democracy with its requirement that the majority rules, since the minority, after all, should be entitled to representation even though they lost at the polls. How winning politicians can be sensitive to such a small d right will command a considerable set of skills few can manage, including the undersigned.

    I think our present system with all its shortcomings in practice but whose excesses are providently limited by the Bill of Rights is currently the best of a list of alternatives, but even the best of isms will be in constant need of amendment as new challenges present themselves as we go along, chief of which will be how we refashion our socioeconomic/political system to withstand the impact of artificial intelligence on the need for a human workforce and how we are to distribute the wealth to those who do not work because there are few jobs they can do better than increasingly efficient robotry. That (and other externalities presented by other social impacts caused by our improvements in the production of goods and services) will most likely lead to what we now call socialistic practices and I have no clue as to what “system” may eventuate from such a future collision of interests other than to suggest that it will take some real Houdinis as politicians to keep the peace when that day arrives (and perhaps robots are demanding the right to vote).

    Impossible eventuality? So was landing on Mars.

  15. James Todd, Prof Heather Cox Richardson can explain that to you. Find her on face book.
    If not there find her on the web

  16. When discussing democracy, my thoughts go to the numerical majorities that occurred in ancient Athens and eventually condemned Socrates to death or exile for urging young people to think for themselves, thereby stirring up the status quo and “corrupting” the youth of Athens. Our founders were aware of this, and included the Bill of Rights in our Constitution in order to counteract the possible ill effects of pure democracy. Today’s papers are full of instances of politicians trying to negate the Bill of Rights, but those 10 amendments still stand, even under threat. But they need help, and I think there is a definite need for both critical thinking and thoughtful discussion about the ten amendments in the Bill of Rights in our schools. I hope it’s not too late.

  17. Una,

    Excellent info, I started to look at it and will finish it later. Time for planting and gardening the rest of the day.

  18. I was taught in civics class, senior year of high school, 1962, that America has a democratic republic form of government. For better or worse, richer or poorer, through good and far worse politicians, despite January 6th … we remain steadfast … a democratic republic.

  19. I’ve always heard them called “constitutional democracies” or “constitutional republics”. Of course, if we ignore the documents, we become a democratic oligarchy (Good or bad?) or a dictatorship, benign or oppressive.
    I deduce that humans are ungovernable at this population size/civilization level. Hope I’m not here when it all goes sideways. My kid will survive. He’s an ex-marine prepper.

  20. We couldn’t be further from the Greek idea of a “republic”. It was wise representatives from across the country discussing and compromising to determine what would work best for the entire country – “country over party, ideology, religion, etc.”

  21. I wonder how many of those 70 MILLION Trump voters believe the word “democracy” means the Democratic party and the word “republic” means the Republican party. That could explain their continuing support of all Republicans and the reason their support is not weakening. Have we been looking for common sense and logic where there is none?

  22. I am probably showing my age, and the quality public elementary school I attended, but I was taught that:
    1) The US is a Republic
    2) The US is a Representative Democracy
    3) The US believes in majority rule with minority rights

    I learned the term “Liberal Democracy” much later, it does seem to fit what we used to believe in.

    Thank you for bringing up this topic, Sheila. I always like philosophical discussions that relate to the real world.

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