Democracy is an unending argument about democracy itself. When free citizens argue, we are often arguing not just about what policies or parties we should support, but about what democracy means. Our own positions aren’t stable. How each of us defines democracy depends on what situation we are facing and what fundamental interests are at stake. When a society confronts existential crises—war, invasion, terrorist attack, economic collapse—citizens of all ideological stripes will argue that institutional limitations on the people’s authority, like rule of law, checks and balances or a free press, must be ignored or over-ridden. The people must be sovereign. All power must rest with them, and the majority must prevail. If not, the people will perish. In conditions of crisis, people search for strong leaders, and the most persuasive rationale for strong measures and strong leadership is majority rule. Even when the crisis is not existential, would-be tyrants, and budding authoritarian populists know that the surest way to secure power in a democracy is to deploy the language of the majoritarian imperative. When they do so, however, they risk damaging, even abolishing democracy altogether.
The people must be sovereign.
This produces the most worrying political trend in the world today: ‘democratic backsliding’, the erosion of checks and balances and constitutional freedoms in nominally democratic societies.
In Hungary, Poland, Turkey, Slovakia, Israel, and the United States, just to name the most familiar examples, the erosion of democratic norms has been engineered by leaders claiming to speak in the name of, and with the authority of, the people. Authoritarian leaders usually justify undermining democratic checks and balances by claiming that some crisis demands that security and order prevail over every other consideration. When democracies ‘backslide’, the majoritarian version of democracy prevails over the liberal version, the one where power checks power to keep the people free.
These two versions—majoritarian and liberal—have been battling it out since the French Revolution. This conflict is unending because what we want from democracy changes over time and changes as we pass from one crisis to the next. It’s an illusion to suppose that ‘liberal democracy’ will prevail simply because citizens will always put their freedom first. It depends on context and the severity of the crises that democracy faces. Not even liberals will defend all the power-limiting institutions of liberal democracy if the crisis it faces is existential.
It’s also mistaken to suppose that there is only one definition of democracy that applies in all times and places. Countries as similar as Canada and the United States have different democratic systems and they disagree on such fundamental democratic values as the right to bear arms and the right to public health. People’s attachment to democracy is not abstract: it is a commitment to ‘their’ democracy, its national character.
The fact that democracies differ so fundamentally makes it difficult to create international indices of democratic development and retrogression. Indices purport to mark democracies on the same set of scales. This report compares them on measures of representation, rights, rule of law and participation. This enables citizens and policymakers to compare their country’s performance and learn from those that are doing better. This is useful, with the proviso that rights and rule of law, for example, may mean different things in different democratic societies.
Besides enabling comparison of national performance, reports like this contribute to our understanding of how to improve democratic functioning. This report’s major contribution is its broadening of the concept of ‘countervailing institutions.’ We are all familiar with the basic architecture of liberal democracy: separation of powers, checks and balances, constitutional rights, rule of law, and freedom of the media. Another longstanding indicator of democratic health is the size of the ‘civic space’ that governments allow for NGO’s and private bodies to advocate for change. To these familiar institutional guarantees of democratic freedom, this report draws attention to independent government regulators, ethics commissions, electoral management bodies, anti-corruption commissions and public broadcasting systems. This captures an under-appreciated feature of the modern liberal state: official bodies funded by government that nevertheless have independence guaranteed by statute or charter. At a time when a major threat to democracy is the steady consolidation of power in the hands of the executive, the independence of statutory government bodies from executive interference is a critical guarantee of the freedom of the citizen.
I would recommend that the next edition of this report adds universities to its list of countervailing institutions. Like the government bodies mentioned above, universities, both private and public, have their autonomy guaranteed by statute or charter, and their autonomy is critical to the ability of their teaching staff to research what they want and teach what they believe students need to learn. In this way, universities perform a critical function in safeguarding democracy. They educate citizens, train society’s future leaders, and curate, preserve and create the knowledge that society uses to make its public policy choices. These roles give universities considerable power, and this makes universities a prominent target of authoritarian populists everywhere. Real authoritarians in Hungary and Turkey and wannabe ones in the United States have made the autonomy of universities, and the freedom of their researchers a central part of their attack on the counter-majoritarian institutions of liberal democracy. It would be very useful for next year’s report to include universities as one of the critical countervailing institutions of our time.