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Fareed Zakaria made a scary prediction about democracy in 1997 — and it's coming true

Democracy is rising, but not the good kind.

A woman in a protest holds a sign that reads, "Mexican Democracy is a Fraud." Clasos/CON/Getty

Twenty years ago, CNN’s Fareed Zakaria wrote an essay in Foreign Affairs titled “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy.” His thesis was that democracies around the world were surrendering to illiberal reforms, and that the strands holding the traditions of democracy and liberalism together were rapidly eroding.

“From Peru to the Palestinian Authority, from Sierra Leone to Slovakia, from Pakistan to the Philippines,” he wrote, “we see the rise of a disturbing phenomenon in international life — illiberal democracy.”

Zakaria’s piece made an important distinction between democracy and liberalism, constructs that are often conflated. Democracy is a process for choosing leaders; it’s about popular participation. To say that a state is democratic is to say little about how it is actually governed.

Liberalism, by contrast, is about the norms and practices that shape political life. A properly liberal state is one in which individual rights are paramount. It protects the individual not only against the abuses of a tyrant but also against the abuses of democratic majorities.

You might think of liberal democracy as democracy with legal buffers. It’s what you get when the Hellenic ideal of individual freedom is buttressed by the Roman devotion to rule of law, or what some today would call constitutionalism.

Wherever it springs up, illiberalism assumes a familiar form: more corruption, greater restrictions on assembly and speech, constraints on the press, retribution against political opponents, oppression of minorities. All of these things are bad, but they’re not necessarily undemocratic. Putin’s Russia is spangled with repressive and illiberal policies, and yet Putin is overwhelmingly popular among Russians. He is, like many near tyrants, a populist.

The illiberal trend Zakaria noted in 1997 has, if anything, accelerated. The Western world isn’t becoming less democratic, but it is becoming less liberal. Even more alarming, what was a trend is now an increasingly fixed reality.

The belief that the democratic experiment was destined to end in something like liberal democracy was just that: a belief. There is nothing inexorable about the logic of democracy; it is just as likely to culminate in tyranny as it is freedom.

As Zakaria put it, “Western liberal democracy might prove to be not the final destination on the democratic road, but just one of the many possible exits.”

As far back as Aristotle, the dangers of democracy were well understood. Aristotle considered direct democracy (rule by the many) every bit as unstable as rule by one or a few. Instead, he argued for what he called a “polity,” or a regime in which popular will is channeled through representative institutions and political decision-making is governed by laws enshrined in a constitution.

Aristotle’s concerns were shared by the American founders, who for similar reasons preferred a republic to a democracy. They recognized that unchecked democracy is majoritarianism, and that tyranny of the majority is tyranny all the same. For Aristotle and the founders, constitutional government was vital to the mediation of popular passions. It was how balance was maintained and the totalizing tendencies of oligarchy and democracy were stunted.

History has been kind to Aristotle and the founders. It turns out that democracy, absent a robust culture of constitutional norms and practices, is prone to all sorts of hideous excesses.

In a December Washington Post column, Zakaria revisited his 1997 essay and asked a more pointed question: Is illiberalism now ascendant in the United States? His answer was less than hopeful: “We are now getting to see what American democracy looks like without any real buffers in the way of sheer populism and demagoguery.” (Spoiler alert: It looks a lot like it does everywhere else it emerges).

I spoke with Zakaria recently about what he saw twenty years ago and about what he sees today. I asked him why the distinction between democracy and liberalism is so crucial, and why illiberalism is a natural outgrowth of democracy. I also asked him if the election of Donald Trump speaks to a failure of the liberal democratic checks in our own system, and what that might mean for our political future.

Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, follows.

Sean Illing

There’s a good deal of confusion about the terms “democracy” and “liberalism.” What, in your view, is the difference, and why is it so easy for democracy to flourish alongside illiberalism?

Fareed Zakaria

Perhaps the best way to think about is to look at our founding. The Founding Fathers were very distrustful of democracy. They never called America a democracy; they called it a republic. And in many senses, the Constitution was designed as a check against the dangers of democracy turning illiberal.

The Bill of Rights, after all, is a list of things the government cannot do, regardless of what the majority wants. It is a check on democratic majoritarianism; it is saying that no matter what the majority may think, you cannot abridge the freedom of speech, you cannot abridge the freedom of religion, you cannot abridge the freedom of association. And so the Bill of Rights is a perfect example of the kind of liberal constitutional check that was placed on democracy, and that's always been the way in which liberal democracy has distinguished itself.

In Europe, you had illiberal democracies in the late 19th century in places Austria and, more recently, in places like Germany in the 1930s. It's really only in the post–World War II era that these two traditions have merged completely and mutually support one another.

When you look around the world at various emergent democracies, what you see is that these two strands haven't quite banded together. On the contrary, they're often splitting apart, and in some cases — most notably in Russia under Putin — populist dictators are working cleverly to accelerate this process.

Sean Illing

When we’re talking about liberal democracy, then, we’re really talking about culture, about a constellation of norms and practices, not merely a procedure for choosing leaders. Why are these cultural antecedents so essential to supporting liberal democracy?

Fareed Zakaria

It's something I've realized as I watch these developing countries move toward democracies: They tend to spiral downwards into various sorts of illiberalism. The question is why does this happen? And why does it happen in some states and not others? Some of it's institutional. If you're a deeply divided or sectarian society, there's more danger of spiraling downward.

But I suspect a lot of it has to do with a lack of leadership. South Africa, for instance, has survived despite enormous odds because Mandela really set an extraordinary example. I'd argue that India has managed to survive because the founding generation, Gandhi and Nehru in particular, were so committed to democracy. When Nehru was prime minister for the first 14 years of India, even though he had majorities in both houses of parliament, he was devoted to respecting liberal democratic norms.

So a lot of this does amount to luck, to accidents of history, to extraordinary leadership. This, as much as anything, helps to build up a culture of democracy. And if you don't have a robust culture of democracy, the finest constitution on paper won’t suffice.

Nelson Mandela Visits the White House
Nelson Mandela visits the White House.
Photo by Manny Ceneta/Getty Images

Sean Illing

I don’t want to get too much in the weeds on democratic peace scholarship, but we do have quite a bit of data showing that constitutional democracies are less violent and more stable than illiberal democracies.

What do you think explains this finding?

Fareed Zakaria

It's a great question. There's definitely a powerful correlation here. You rightly point out that it's not between democracies but rather between constitutional democracies. I think there's something to the idea that liberal democracies in particular believe in rules and order and norms and that that is the crucial factor. Perhaps also societies in which people are able to act as a check on unbridled emotionalism end up with a more considered and reflective process.

But I think we also have to be honest and admit that we're not quite sure why liberal democracies tend not to fight one another and are better able to preserve political order. There just aren't enough cases or data. I'm very wary of social scientists making broad generalizations on the basis of limited data.

That said, there is certainly some intriguing work that says consolidated liberal democracies tend to have much more peaceful relations with each other.

Sean Illing

Twenty years ago, you wrote that “[i]lliberal democracy is a growth industry.” How concerned are you today about the erosion of liberal democratic norms, both in Europe and in the United States?

Fareed Zakaria

I've got to be honest, the most worrisome country is the United States. America is still an enormous power — both materially and symbolically — but I'd argue the erosion appears to be stronger here than in other places, although it's beginning to happen everywhere. Let's be honest: What happens in Hungary is not likely to be a leading indicator of what's happening in the world; it has little symbolic value. But if the United States slides into illiberalism, that has a dramatic symbolic effect.

One of the things I worry about, and this very much came out of the essay I wrote, is how to make sense of American democracy, which is clearly a liberal democracy but one in which the liberal elements have always been sustained by many informal mechanisms.

Sean Illing

By “informal mechanisms,” you mean the kinds of civic associations that the French historian Tocqueville famously described in his book Democracy in America?

Fareed Zakaria

Precisely. Tocqueville wrote about this when he first came to America. He called them "intermediary associations." These are the groups in between the government and the family that exist as arbiters and regulators of society — professional groups, trade associations, rotary clubs, etc. All of this Tocqueville regarded as essential to civic society and to the maintenance of a liberal democracy.

All of these intermediary associations or buffers have eroded by at least two forces. One is democratization and a greater and greater transparency. So political parties have basically become vessels for popular politicians; they have hardly any internal strength anymore. Congress used to be a closed hierarchical system and active buffer against the momentary whims of the majority, but it's mostly lost this power. We now have a much more entrepreneurial system in which Congress members can pretty much do what they want.

Most of the professional associations have been eroded by the market; they're all highly competitive businesses. Whether it's the medical association or the lawyers associations or some other guild, they rarely set the professional standards anymore. They're all entrepreneurs now. Everyone, in a sense, has become an entrepreneur.

Why is this bad? Well, entrepreneurs are great at looking out for their own narrow short-term interests. But who's going to look out for society's long-term interests in the way that a Hamilton or Madison or Tocqueville believed was so important? It's just not clear who or what plays this role anymore.

GOP Presidential Hopeful Rick Santorum Campaigns In New Hampshire
Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum speaks at a Rotary Club breakfast in Manchester, New Hampshire, on January 5, 2012.
Photo by Matthew Cavanaugh/Getty Images

Sean Illing

Tocqueville’s name comes up a lot these days, as it should. I know I wonder if we’ve become too atomized and too fractured to sustain the liberal democratic culture that Tocqueville wrote about and which has made this country possible.

Fareed Zakaria

Tocqueville came from the old world, and perhaps that's why he had such a deep and broad perspective. He understood that the best functioning societies have to be what Aristotle called a "mixed regime." A society can't just be one thing or another; there needs to be an aristocratic element and a democratic element and a proper balance between them. Tocqueville very much saw America as possessing that kind of mixed or hybrid regime, and believed it was held together by the civic bonds I mentioned a minute ago.

What's interesting for me, as someone who grew up in India and who's a fan of the market and liberalization, is to recognize that rampant marketization and liberalization also has some drawbacks. Those old guilds and professions did serve a purpose. When a doctor told you to do something 30 or 40 years ago, you could pretty sure he was doing it out of a sense of professional obligation.

Today, everybody is out to make a buck, and that's a consequential change.

Sean Illing

Markets have their own morality in that way...

Fareed Zakaria

Yes, markets can do many things fantastically, but they're not the only force that should determine relations in society. I sometimes think to myself, if the college curriculum was determined entirely by market forces, would that be a good thing?

I suspect not.

Sean Illing

I want to shift gears a little bit and talk about the role of political parties in the United States. You wrote in a recent Washington Post column, “Political parties have lost their internal strength and are now merely vessels for whoever wins the primaries.” Vox's Ezra Klein has written about this, and I think it's something that ought to receive more attention than it has.

Why are you alarmed by the withering of parties?

Fareed Zakaria

One of the roles that political parties historically have had is very much this form of mediating between popular passions and public policy. Parties are the institutions that have channeled that passion and tried to make some sense of it by systematically incorporating it into policy. This is really the story of democracy.

What we've always relied on is the public delegating these complicated policy issues to political parties because the public has broad preferences and can't be sure whether this particular earned income tax works or whether the minimum wage makes more sense. Parties have played that role of trying to shape public policy. Well, this requires that the parties have some internal strength, or an ability to be gatekeepers of some kind. They also need some say in who the candidates ought to be. The election is a necessarily democratic process, but not the choosing of the pool of candidates.

We've now gone to a system in which the picking of the candidate is an entirely open democratic process, and then the election is an entirely open democratic process. And we're really the only country that does this. In every other Western democracy, the political parties retain the right to have an internal undemocratic or semi-democratic selection process.

And so the result is that political parties have just become shells. They don't exist in any meaningful sense.

Sean Illing

Before the election, I tried to say something about why the founders went to such great lengths to design a republic resistant to demagogic shocks. I believe that system is failing us today. Do you?

Fareed Zakaria

I think that's certainly the danger. My concern is precisely that the checks that the founders baked into the system have gradually eroded. Let's remember that the founders put in very strong checks against tyrannical majoritarianism: The Senate was not directly elected, the electors were meant to curb demagogic characters, and so on. All of that has gone away, along with the informal nongovernmental and nonpolitical buffers, and so when you look around for the checks today, it's not clear where they are or if they exist at all.

We have the media, but, as you know, the media is a highly competitive free-for-all. It's maybe able to play some of this traditional role as a check on power and a defender of public interest, but it's increasingly more difficult to do so when organizations are competing so ruthlessly for eyeballs.

What we're really talking about here is a decline of institutions across the board.

President Donald Trump says that he no longer wants a “deal” on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

Sean Illing

How serious a threat is Donald Trump to our liberal democratic culture? Obviously the term “fascist” has been tossed about, and probably too haphazardly, but there are some authoritarian tendencies in Trump that are truly alarming.

Fareed Zakaria

Unfortunately, I think we're about to run a great test of this proposition. I think the word "fascism" is used way too loosely in general and specifically about him. But there's no question that he's a populist, and the danger with this kind of raw populism is that it wants to create too direct a connection between popular passions and public policy. The whole point of liberal democracy is to create a system that reflects and addresses popular passions but also allows for some deliberation, for some consideration of liberal values like the rights of minorities and free expression and private property.

These values cannot be overridden by popular passions, and one of the things you see consistently from Trump is the feeling that if he finds something that hits a nerve with the public, like the ban on Muslims, the fact that it may be unconstitutional or deeply illiberal doesn't seem to bother him at all. This is very troubling, to say the least.

Sean Illing

And thus we return to the question of whether our checks — both formal and informal — are strong enough to do the work of protecting liberal democracy.

Fareed Zakaria

Well, we can be thankful that we have a complicated system, and so it won't be possible for Trump to simply exercise his policy preferences on all these issues. And to be fair to him, he has appointed people like James Mattis and Rex Tillerson, who do not seem likely to go along with some of these things. But it is a strange situation to be in where you hope that the president's appointees are going to be the check on him.

Sean Illing

We’re just about out of time, so I’ll zoom back and ask this final question: I think for a long time it was assumed that the democratic experiment was destined to end with some form of liberal democracy. But this is clearly not true, and in fact democracy is just as likely to give way to an illiberal populism.

What do you think democracy looks like in 10 or 20 years?

Fareed Zakaria

I think you've put it exactly right. The happy narrative we told ourselves was that there was an almost ineluctable path to liberal democracy, and the evidence suggests that this is not how it works. Liberal democracy seems to be one of the many exits on which the democratic experiment could end, but there are others, like illiberal democracy, that are equally likely.

It appears this is what's happening in Turkey right now and in parts of Central Europe and in Russia. It's important to remember that despite all the repression, Putin is very popular. What we're learning is that authoritarian politicians have figured out how to achieve a balance between liberalism and illiberalism that keeps people satisfied. If they can give enough bread and circus to the public, they can maintain a stable working majority buttressed by a certain degree of repression of the press and political opposition.

And we have to reckon with the possibility that this model might become the most stable alternative to liberal democracy.

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