The Stories We Tell: Crises of Liberal Democracy

Is liberal democracy in crisis or not? There are many opinions. The real crisis would be if there weren’t.

We love crises. They are imminent and serious. They require action, sometimes immediate action. It’s tough to think of a time when we were not in a crisis of some sort. There is always some urgent problem to be fixed. Today, one of our many crises is that of liberal democracy. The 5th Austrian Economics Monthly set out to address this matter. I will not discuss their arguments here, but note simply that it is worth checking out the talk as much for what is discussed as for what is left out. The conversation left me wondering about the stories we tell ourselves about crises and how they might be related to liberal democracy.

No one has been naïve enough to suggest, for example, that the recent electoral victory of Joe Biden in the United States will bring us right back to the way things were. The highfalutin hopes of epoch-making change that greeted Barack Obama in 2008 have been replaced twelve years later by sighs of relief from many corners, the embers of a stolen election still simmering in other corners. As media, particularly in the US, sometimes unjustifiably alternate between paroxysms of rage or joy, it is worth reflecting on what sorts of stories we would be telling ourselves about the crisis of liberal democracy if some of these key votes in the last half a decade had gone the other way.

The Brexit referendum on 23 June 2016 is an apt starting point. A decision of great importance was taken on the basis of less than a 4% difference. But statistics alone do not do justice to how torn some Britons were over the issue. As one good friend related to me before the vote: “My head says remain; my heart says leave.” As it turned out, “leave” dominated the hearts of many, and may still have done so even if it had come to a second referendum. For some, what was at stake was more than just economics and the common market. For instance, there was also national sovereignty to consider – that stubborn sense of independence that drove the Americans away from Great Britain some two and a half centuries ago. Some of the issues at stake could not be dispensed with no matter what the economic consequences were.

Although negotiations moved slowly, in the context of the European Union a step had decisively been taken away from ever closer union. Despite the many challenges the European integration project has faced in its short life, it has always managed to keep moving forward. For example, the opposition posed by French President Charles de Gaulle in the 1960s – the Fouchet Plans, the Empty Chair Crisis, twice blackballing the UK’s entry to the Common Market – ultimately failed. Integration would be deeper. And when it would not be deeper, it would be wider, viz. the 2004 enlargement of the EU, which welcomed into the family ten countries whose experience under communism has given them a different set of reference points whose consequences are playing out today. Regardless of how integration proceeded, setbacks were generally viewed as temporary and hardly revealing of deeper difficulties with the integration project itself. In contrast to these road bumps, Brexit stands like a wall in the middle of the road, forcing the integration project to detour or reverse for the first time in its history. With Brexit, the oft-mentioned “democratic deficit” in the EU has finally borne fruit.

Commentators would have been distraught enough if Brexit had been an anomaly. But, as it happened, it was followed a few months later by the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency, an occurrence considered back then to be even less likely than Brexit. Taken in conjunction with rising right-wing populism in Hungary and Poland, a veritable wave of anti-liberal democratic sentiment seemed to be overtaking the Western world. Western democracies appeared to be nearing Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey, Vladimir Putin’s Russia, or Xi Jinping’s China. In this reading, the crisis of liberal democracy in the West was posed by populist demagogues whose methods were more democratic than their detractors would care to admit. The question of the potential conflict between liberalism and democracy comes to the fore, which I have touched on elsewhere.

Given the despair (or hope) to which such developments have contributed, it is worth asking what stories we would be telling ourselves if some of these key votes had gone the other way. If the “Remainers” had won in the Brexit referendum, then the sceptred isle’s Euroscepticism would have been dismissed as the usual whingeing coming from disaffected Britons. The wall would have been just another road bump. The EU would move forward as it always had and always would. It would have been absurd to question the legitimacy of the first referendum by demanding a second one, since the will of the people is sacrosanct. The tendency of liberal democracy to permit dissenting views, not to mention results redounding to the common good, might even have been lauded.

Across the channel the same counterfactuals emerge when one considers the 2017 French presidential election. Before Jupiter’s ascent and what one paper touted as a “revolution of the centre”, Emmanuel Macron received just 24% of the vote in the first round. It is not unlikely that the Republican candidate François Fillon would have been the favourite and gone on to win the second round had he not been involved in a financial scandal that hit the news shortly before the election. Financial scandals are common enough among politicians but particularly embarrassing when one’s platform promotes belt-tightening. Fillon instead placed 1% behind the National Front candidate Marine Le Pen, and half a percentage point ahead of the democratic socialist Jean-Luc Mélenchon. The country was divided indeed as to their preferred candidate. A Le Pen victory would have sparked real concerns about a Frexit (of an EU founding member, no less) and confirmed fears of populism’s surge (how different would a Mélenchon victory have been?). Macron’s commanding victory in the second round was due, as is so often the case, to dissatisfaction with his opponent. In politics, we have a clearer idea of our enemies than of our friends. But is the victory of a man with less than a quarter of the population’s support in the first round a success or failure of liberal democracy?

Some might even argue that liberal democracy in Europe was imperiled many years prior. Eurosceptics could point to the 2003 Treaty of Nice, for instance, which made inroads into matters of defence and criminal justice and fundamental rights within EU member states, as well as opting for qualified-majority voting over unanimity in several policy areas.[1] Negotiations concerning the “Treaty Establishing a Constitution for Europe” took place around the same time and culminated in national referenda in 2005, in which France and the Netherlands scrapped the idea of a European Constitution by margins of 55% to 45% and 61% to 39% respectively. When the Lisbon Treaty was drawn up in 2007, former French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing argued that it had simply reordered the institutional proposals of the constitutional treaty, complicating its design so as to prevent it from being put to a referendum. Ireland rejected the treaty by 53.4% in a 2008 referendum before accepting it by 67.1% in a second referendum in 2009. Public statements from other European leaders at the time reveal the urgency of the treaty’s ratification. To say nothing of whether referenda are a wise liberal democratic institution per se, Eurosceptics would view this narrative as one of enduring perfidy, if anything justifying Brexit.

If Brexit and the first round of the 2017 French election were close, the election of Donald Trump in 2016 was even closer and in a country of greater global consequence. Decided by some 78,000 votes in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, it raises the question: if Hillary Clinton had campaigned more in these states, would she have won? If so, we might have rejoiced in liberal democracy, with a look of bemusement reserved for those who had voted for Trump. We would be relieved that they had been defeated in the short term by Clinton and confident that they would be defeated in the long term by demography. She would have been feted as the first woman to assume the highest office in the country – the most powerful person in the world. We can imagine the difference in tone and substance in all policy domestic and foreign. The hopes and dreams poured into Obama would have been transferred to Clinton in the wake of her victory (but not a moment before, as history would have it).

Instead, these hopes and dreams have been channelled into Vice President-elect Kamala Harris while Biden took back the three states that secured Trump his victory in 2016. Not even this victory was foreordained. Trump’s support was still much higher than predicted. The occasional predictions on both sides of a landslide victory for their preferred candidate have proved exaggerated, which means that their underlying assumptions were also incorrect. It may be the case that Biden and the Democratic Party are not aiming to destroy America and Western civilization after all, just as it may be the case that Trump had tapped not into hidden wellsprings of racism and idiocy, but into legitimate grievances and laid bare (while making some valuable contributions of his own to) some of the absurdity of American politics and public discourse.

Unfortunately, it is unlikely that these assumptions will be corrected by either side for reasons all too apparent to many commentators today: the tendency to get trapped in echo chambers. Nowadays it is almost a truism that we can find supporters or detractors of any perspective. As we gravitate more naturally to like-minded people, it is unsurprising that we often find ourselves locked in echo chambers, where we bask in the reflection of our worldview and all of its supporting evidence. The obvious righteousness of our outlook precludes any real engagement with opposing viewpoints. It is against this backdrop that we often hear calls for a real discussion about one political question or another.

It would seem to me, however, that this discussion is already taking place. If anything, our liberal democracies are inundated with a tidal wave of discussions. The more pressing matter is what we are doing in initiating or carrying on a discussion. This question is of no mean significance since one of the cornerstones of liberal democracy is free and open debate. In making a public pronouncement, is one playing to the base, trying to convince one’s opponent, or trying to convince an undecided third party? Each one of these requires a different approach and is subject to different degrees of success. In the case of the aforementioned Austrian Economics Monthly discussion, it was clear to all speakers that liberal democracy was in crisis and that classical liberals needed to furnish a response. But the appropriate response depends on what constitutes the crisis. Is populism or the deep state and bureaucracy the problem?

The evidence we would marshal in support of either argument would draw on historical events some of which, such as Brexit or the 2016 and 2020 US elections, could easily have gone the other way. Our stories are therefore highly contingent. This means not only that crises are highly contingent, but our very understanding of crisis – what it is, whether we are in one right now – is equally contingent.

As one can find plenty of arguments holding alternately populism or the deep state responsible for our present discontents, allow me rather to suggest that either one of these could just as easily be natural outgrowths of liberal democracy. Populism is an expression of the will of a portion of the people. In its nationalist form it can be an extension of liberty and national autonomy – the freedom of the nation-state. It is not coincidental that nationalism and democracy developed side-by-side in the 19th century. They contributed to struggles for liberation and self-determination, of which we have plenty of examples in 20th century decolonization.

Populism’s emotional and conflictual characteristics are no less immanent to liberal democracy. Indeed, as Matthew Edwards has observed in these pages, the need for an “other” may be as inherent to liberal democracies as it is to authoritarian regimes. A potential weakness of liberal democracy could be our failure to acknowledge this. Politicians are accused of demagoguery when they stoke the fires of dissatisfaction, play to a particular group of people, and speak in terms of conflict. But this is what politicians are supposed to do. We may desire that politicians speak always in terms of unity, and liberal democracies may give everyone a voice; however, they have greater trouble spurring collective action – even for low-cost tasks such as voting. Appealing to pure reason alone is insufficient. The effective organization of masses of people requires emotionally charged appeals, based often in shared grievances for which someone or something is at fault (whether it be the rich, foreigners, the “system”, etc.). It is no surprise that the rhetoric of war is employed in peacetime to arouse support for a cause. To expect otherwise seems to be an almost unique defect of liberal democracies, which, as observed above, are based on free and open debates that are meant to enlighten or provide the basis for action.

Here we come to the way in which bureaucracy or the deep state is the natural result of liberal democracy. We wish that our action be based on intelligent and rational discussion, not stupid and emotional discussion. We readily admit that some people are more intelligent or rational than others, particularly experts in their respective fields. We would want decisions concerning healthcare, for example, to include the opinions of healthcare experts. In fact, we might prefer a small group of healthcare experts to make decisions on healthcare as opposed to all people, experts and non-experts, having a say in the matter. Even if we didn’t, a decision must be made in any case, and it is more difficult to decide when there are too many opinions, too many people talking. We could not possibly put every political matter up to a vote of the whole population since that would take forever – there are too many people and too many issues to consider. The decision-making process must be expedited. We therefore make some decisions by regular procedures – encapsulated in everything from our laws to administrative policies and regulations – and other decisions we entrust to representatives who debate and deliberate on our behalf. Sometimes the laws and regulations in place are illogical in light of the present situation. They are potentially frustrating. Sometimes our representatives do a poor job of representing us and seem to have more in common with other members of the political elite than they do with us. They are potentially corrupt. Free, rational discussion and policymaking can result in faceless administration and an unaccountable elite class.

What is more, we sometimes delude ourselves into thinking that discussion is action. And we need action, especially if we’re in a crisis. We explain crises by means of stories. Our stories are based on historical events that did not have to turn out the way they did. Our stories form part of the ongoing discussions that characterize liberal democracies. Is liberal democracy in crisis or not? There are many opinions. The real crisis would be if there weren’t.


  • Scott B. Nelson

    Scott B. Nelson is Research and Strategy Advisor at the Austrian Economics Center and Hayek Institut. He lectures on politics and philosophy and publishes books, scholarly articles, and commentary. His last book is Tragedy and History: The German Influence on Raymond Aron’s Political Thought. His next book is on Cicero and prudence in politics.

The views expressed on austriancenter.com are not necessarily those of the Austrian Economics Center.

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