The double threat to liberal democracy: how to respond to the authoritarian challenge


Liberal democracy is not only being undermined by illiberal populism, but also by a tendency to emphasize “liberal” at the expense of “democracy,” notes Dani Rodrik, Professor of International Political Economy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. In this kind of politics, rulers are insulated from democratic accountability by a panoply of restraints that limit the range of policies they can deliver, he writes for Project Syndicate:

In his new and important book The People vs. Democracy, the political theorist Yascha Mounk calls this type of regime– in apt symmetry with illiberal democracy – “undemocratic liberalism”. He notes that our political regimes have long stopped functioning like liberal democracies and increasingly look like undemocratic liberalism….. In our paper “The Political Economy of Liberal Democracy,” Sharun Mukand and I discuss the underpinnings of liberal democracy in terms similar to those Mounk [a contributor to the National Endowment for Democracy’s Journal of Democracy] uses. We emphasize that societies are divided by two potential cleavages: an identity split that separates a minority from the ethnic, religious, or ideological majority, and a wealth gap that pits the rich against the rest of society.

The possibility of liberal democracy is always undercut by illiberal democracy at one end and what we call “liberal autocracy” at the other, depending on whether the majority or the elite retain the upper hand, adds Rodrik, the author of The Globalization Paradox: Democracy and the Future of the World Economy

Our framework helps to highlight the fortuitous circumstances under which liberal democracy emerges. In the West, liberalism preceded democracy: separation of powers, freedom of expression, and the rule of law were already in place before elites agreed to expand the franchise and submit to popular rule. The “tyranny of the majority” remained a major concern for elites, and was countered in the US, for example, with an elaborate system of checks and balances, effectively paralyzing the executive for a long time.

In retrospect, the civil war in the Balkans was the most important event of [the 1990s]. It prefigured what has come since: the return of ethnic separatism, the rise of authoritarian populism, the retreat of liberal democracy, the elevation of a warrior ethos that reduces politics to friend/enemy, zero-sum conflicts, argues analyst David Brooks. In those intervening years there’s been an utter transformation in the unconscious mind-set within which people hold their beliefs, he writes for The New York Times:

Back in the 1990s, there was an unconscious abundance mind-set. Democratic capitalism provides the bounty. Prejudice gradually fades away. Growth and dynamism are our friends. The abundance mind-set is confident in the future, welcoming toward others. It sees win-win situations everywhere.

Today, after the financial crisis, the shrinking of the middle class, the partisan warfare, a scarcity mind-set is dominant: Resources are limited. The world is dangerous. Group conflict is inevitable. It’s us versus them. If they win, we’re ruined, therefore, let’s stick with our tribe. The ends justify the means.

“The shift in mentalities seems like a shift in philosophy,” Brooks contends. “But it’s really a shift from a philosophy to an anti-philosophy. The scarcity mind-set is an acid that destroys every belief system it touches.”

Brooks appears to be unwittingly drawing on French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre’s insight that scarcity determines social relations and deprives citizens of the ability to make particular choices, diminishes their humanity.

Despite backsliding in countries like Russia, Turkey and Venezuela, the long-term trend in governance is toward democracy and human rights, argues Harvard University’s Stephen Pinker. Two centuries ago a handful of countries, embracing 1% of the world’s people, were democratic; today, more than half of the world’s countries, embracing 55% of its people, are, he writes for The Wall Street Journal.

“Secular liberal democracies are the happiest and healthiest places on earth, and the favorite destinations of people who vote with their feet. And once you appreciate that the Enlightenment project of applying knowledge and sympathy to enhance human flourishing can succeed, it’s hard to imagine anything more heroic and glorious,” says Pinker, the author of “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.”

How can democracies respond to the authoritarian challenge in an interdependent world with the West in apparent disarray and the autocrats on a roll? asks Alan Dupont, chief executive officer of political and strategic risk consultancy The Cognoscenti Group and a non-resident fellow at the Lowy Institute. The answer is through a democratic counter-strategy comprising four interconnected strands, he writes for The Australian:

  • First, democracies must encourage a robust, evidence-based public debate about the new authoritarianism to shed light on its true nature, practices, aims and strategies.
  • Second, democracies must marshal their still formidable soft and hard power into a comprehensive response that encompasses all facets of statecraft as well as civil society, a key differentiator and democratic strength.
  • Third, democracies must co-operate more closely in sharing information about the authoritarian threat and jointly defend their sovereignty and values in an open, rules-based international order.
  • Fourth, if authoritarian states persist in weaponising trade, aid and information, democracies must reduce their trade exposure to them, increase foreign aid and contest the authoritarian narrative in the critical information ­domain.


“Authoritarian states eventually fail because people prefer freedom to tyranny,” Dupont adds. “But this assumes they have a democratic alternative and democracies understand that the disturbing trend towards authoritarianism will not be reversed without a sustained and determined response.”

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