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.