Special Reports / A democracy, the Democracy or liberal democracy?

A democracy, the Democracy or liberal democracy?

Jeffrey C. Isaac in conversation with Łukasz Pawłowski · 7 February 2012
An interview with Jeffrey C. Isaac, Professor of political science at Indiana University, Bloomington and editor-in-chief of “Perspectives on Politics”, a journal of the American Political Science Association.

Łukasz Pawłowski: Last year’s protests all over the world – especially in the Arab countries – were seen by many media as a landmark not only in the contemporary politics but in the modern history of mankind. The TIME magazine awarded its annual title of the person of the year to “The Protester”. In a long article justifying the choice TIMES’ journalist Kurt Andersen claims that the events of 2011 were more important for democracy than those of 1989 because they were animated by truly bottom-up movements not triggered by previous disintegration of a powerful autocratic regime as was the case with the Soviet Union. He then compares what happened in 2011 to the protests in 1968 and again asserts current events to be more significant because they have already changed the course of history without turning into “countercultural pageant”. All this leads Andersen to a conclusion that protests of 2011 may only be compared to the “Spring of Nations” in 1848. Is it not a bit of an overstatement?

Jeffrey Isaac: There has definitely been a pretty dramatic upsurge in democratic sentiments in many parts of the world lately and it is legitimate to draw historical parallels with previous events of this kind. But every aspect of the claim above is an overstatement. First of all, I don’t understand why the year 1989 was less profound. The connection between democratization of Europe and the fall of the Soviet Union should not be relevant in this judgment. Secondly, what does it mean that last year’s events have not become “countercultural pageant”? The Occupy movement in the United States and its analogues in Europe are all based on a very strong countercultural dimension – they oppose consumerist culture of contemporary capitalism in which the economic dimension came to play a pivotal role in structuring social relations. The Arab Spring is equally driven by countercultural currents. It’s true that Arab protesters are not American hippies – a lot of them support the Muslim Brotherhood – but does it make them less countercultural? It is a different culture they are opposing but the opposition itself is there. Finally, as a scholar, I need to make a probably trivial, yet important statement, namely that it is really too early to assess even the short-term significance of some of last year’s changes. All definite judgments on the consequences of the events of 2011 are therefore premature and far-fetched.

ŁP: Nonetheless, it is quite commonly said that 2011 brought a final awakening from the nap the History took in 1989 after the fall communism. The last 20 years are presented as a period of intellectual apathy and complacency, a time in which we believed there is no alternative to the ongoing spread of Western liberal democracy in the world. Do you agree that the last year’s events brought to light parochial character of the liberal-democratic political system?

JI: Looking at all the protests that took place all over the world together, I don’t see how they could signify the end of liberal democracy, simply because they did not put forward any macro alternative to it. The protests in Europe sparked by financial crisis and the Occupy movement in the United States have undoubtedly raised some fundamental questions about the relationship between capitalism and democracy and showed the extent to which liberal-democratic political systems in the so-called advanced democratic world have become highly corrupt and impervious to change. This proves that liberal democracy in all these countries should be constantly improved, but it is not tantamount to abandoning liberal democracy for some other political system.

ŁP: Can all those protests be seen as parts of one single process? I see very significant differences between them. The protesters in the Middle East and North Africa are getting killed in fights for institutions which are held up to scorn by protesters in Europe or the United States.

JI: What links these protests together is a rhetorical circulation of the idea of democracy – there is some overlapping discourse. At the same time there are numerous local differences. Do the protesters in the Arab World seek or aspire to achieve liberal democracy? It depends on which protesters we are talking about. Certainly among some of the Arab intellectual elites – particularly those who Western media and people like myself like to quote and associate with – there might be a genuine aspiration to achieve liberal democracy. Unfortunately (in my opinion) they do not represent everybody on the ground and in fact liberal-democratic ideas haven’t done very well in the recent Egyptian elections. The goal of politically organized Islamic forces – like the Muslim Brotherhood and groups to its right – clearly doesn’t lie in introducing liberal democracy. They want to get rid of the remnants of military dictatorship and presumably establish some kind of “Islamic democracy”. That system is likely to include many elements that liberals would regard as unacceptable – particularly with regard to women’s rights but even more generally with regard to freedom of religion, expression and association.

ŁP: Is liberal democracy the Democracy?

JI: Liberal democracy is not the only concept of democracy or the only effort to practice democracy. Nevertheless, from my personal ethical perspective, I consider liberal democracy to be the only legitimate form of organizing democracy at the level of a nation-state. Many people do not share this view. Islamists, Russian autocrats, Latin American populists or Chinese communists all claim to be articulating different and for some reasons better versions of democracy. I don’t sympathize with such claims. But I do think it is important to understand them.

ŁP: Do you, however, think that those people can legitimately call themselves democrats?

JI: No, I don’t think so. Now of course, as a liberal democrat, I would never question the right of anyone to call themselves whatever they want. But at the same time, I reserve the right—which I exercise here!—to say loudly and clearly that they can be wrong. I thus question the “democratic credentials” of people who deploy the rhetoric of “democracy” to support agendas that inhibit or repress freedom of expression and association, limit an autonomous civil society, and constrain real political pluralism. The only way to have a democracy that assures dignity of all individuals, allows for political diversity and at the same time makes provisions for correcting the dangerous elements in particular political programmes, however well-intentioned they may be, is to have a pluralistic, liberal democracy. In a situation where there exists a plurality of opinions, the basic mechanism of self-government is political contention and competition. Liberal democracy provides means of practicing it, even though it does not guarantee desirable outcomes. In that sense authentic democracies in Russia, Venezuela, Egypt or in the U.S. must all be liberal democracies. Liberal democracy may be highly imperfect but what is proposed under the banner of those different types of democracy in each case comes down to acting on behalf of the people and above the people’s heads even if such action is claimed to be in some sense “for” the people. That is why I believe liberal democracy is a political system worth supporting and defending in a reflexive and critical way.

ŁP: What right, however, do the Westerners have for defending this system in the light of great deficiencies it displays in their own countries? That is what Spanish indignados and American Occupiers would, I imagine, reply to your argument. How can we promote liberal democracy, if we ourselves suffer from its – probably intrinsic – shortcomings?

JI: Well, I would reply that in my opinion various aspects of the political agendas of the non-liberal regimes violate human rights and are therefore wrong. I believe in certain universal values and see nothing wrong in expressing support for and solidarity with likeminded people –intellectuals, activists, citizens–in other countries. This is speaking in favor of what I think is right and humane. All I say is that the values of self-governing pluralistic political community based on meaningful sense of human dignity and political equality are worth defending. They are also worth defending in the United States and Western Europe. In regard to this point there is, I guess, no contradiction between my views and these advocated by protesters in Europe and America. Protecting citizens from national security measures that violate civil liberties of the people or from repressive policies against immigrants or from fiscal policies that privilege the super rich at the expense of everyone else are goals I wholeheartedly support. However, I trust that the only way to achieve greater social equality and social justice is through the use of the wide range of avenues that are available for politicization in liberal-democratic states. To that extent, when I say I would like liberal democracy to take root in Egypt or Syria I am not wishing for them anything different from what I would be prescribing for the country I live in. The same liberal-democratic values which are necessary to challenge authoritarianism in the Arab World are also relevant to challenge inequality in the United States, Greece, France, Germany or Poland. These values constitute only a broad political framework – particular policies must obviously be different depending on a given time and place.

ŁP: While the protesters might agree with the goals you described they would certainly reject the means by which you propose to achieve them. As I understand their claims, they believe current forms of representative democracy do not allow for ensuring human dignity and political equality and therefore a new way of doing politics must be introduced, one that does not fit into any existing political systems whether in America, Europe, Asia or Africa.

JI: I have to admit I am not drawn to rhetoric that diminishes differences between liberal democratic regimes, however flawed, and clearly authoritarian regimes. If the protesters think that representative government is inherently corrupt and therefore in need of abolishing, I have no choice but to dissent from that view. In my opinion representative government might be corrupt but we ought to challenge the corruptions through the legitimate political means that liberal democracy makes available. In the end we need a system that involves such elements as representative institutions, elections and competitive political parties – even if those parties end up being self-aggrandizing. For the time being – by which I mean the history of human civilization thus far! – we have not come with any better alternative. The most radical elements of the Occupy movements seem to be articulating anarchist sentiments. Some of that anarchism I am fascinated by, some of it I admire, some I have a nostalgic appreciation for, but most of it revolts me. The reasons why would take me a long time to explain, though some of them are implied by the comments I’ve already offered.

ŁP: I am surprised by your clear support for liberal democracy against other forms of government. Many academics avoid such definite statements in order not to be accused of cultural imperialism and lack of respect for regional differences. They often see their mission as analyzing the world of politics and not endorsing any particular solutions. 

JI: What you are describing as a disposition of many academics to avoid taking a stand is, in many cases, a sign of a professional pathology. I quite often see it as an abdication from any kind of ethical and political responsibility. On the other hand, we should not forget that ambivalence is a valid stance of an intellectual and the distance from power or even an extreme weariness of power is not a bad thing. I don’t want to be categorical and say that all my academic colleagues should take a stand in political matters and if they don’t it means they are cowards. Not at all. Personally, however, I’m an intellectual who does believe in participating in public discourse when I have something in important to say, and this sometimes means stating clearly what I’m for and what I’m against—even if often it involves arguments that do not reduce easily into “yes” or “no,” “support” or “opposition,” “good” or “bad.” I’m not afraid to say that I believe in some kind of extended, deepened liberal democracy. As a liberal democrat though, I feel that the ways by which we advocate this position and the ways by which we engage in different political communities in the world should be chosen with care. It would be stupid to think that simply trumpeting your support for liberal democracy helps to make it happen. In certain contexts such a strategy may have exactly the opposite effect and alienate others instead of bringing them closer.

ŁP: Do you therefore support democracy promotion by such institutions as National Endowment for Democracy or Open Society Foundations? 

JI: I have a lot of admiration for the things that democracy promotion institutions like the National Endowment for Democracy do, but I also think that politics can become narrow-minded and narrow-minded advocacy of democracy is no better than any other kind of narrow-mindedness. I think it is worth keeping in mind that the “democracy promotion” business is a complex and dense network of activities, and that it involves NGOs, governmental and quasi-governmental institutions, and indeed transnational institutions such as the EU. So-called “democracy promotion” is not a monopoly of the US government, and indeed even within US quasi-governmental or para-state institutions such as the NED, a range of activities – from election monitoring to political party-building, to the building of independent civil society institutions, to support for civic initiatives like Otpor under Milosevic – are supported by a range of affiliated groups. It is also important to distinguish between the long-term investments in the infrastructure of liberal democracy throughout the world that are undertaken by institutions such as NED or USAID, and particular foreign policy commitments justified in the name of “democracy” (such as the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq). So even with regard to such quasi-public efforts, it is impossible to be categorical, and from my vantage point it is important to figure out what exactly we are talking about, what is being done by whom in the name of “democracy promotion,” and in particular what kinds of individuals and groups, on the ground, are being so promoted. Now, when we talk about the Open Society Institute or the Soros Foundation, we are talking about something else, a set of private philanthropic efforts that really are separate from the foreign policies of states. I think overall Soros has done hugely important work in many parts of the world. I would be remiss if I didn’t single out the Central European University in Budapest, which is a major institution. Of course I support things like this. Indeed I have many friends who teach at CEU, I have attended many conferences at CEU, and I am very mindful of the efforts of CEU colleagues to promote generally liberal democratic values of inquiry and civic education throughout post-Communist Europe and especially in Hungary, where I am sorry to say these values are currently under siege.

ŁP: Many people are skeptical about policies pursued by democracy promoting institutions for a different reason. They claim that true democracy can only come from the free will of a given people and therefore cannot be a top-down venture carried out by some organization. To support this point of view American failures in “democratizing” Iraq and Afghanistan are often invoked. Practitioners of democracy promotion, however, protest against comparing their work to military interventions by saying that, first of all, their work is solely demand driven and secondly, that their single goal is to introduce fair rules of political participation – they don’t want to influence people’s will but only make its expression possible. Do you see any way to reconcile these two positions?

JI: What I said about the need to be very specific about which “democracy promotion” efforts are being considered goes a long way to answering this question. Of course “democracy promotion” can be and has been used as a slogan to justify quite anti-democratic or at least highly questionable policies. This ought to be criticized. And of course it is true that support for “democracy” in other parts of the world, whether by governmental or quasi-governmental or private institutions, can easily become technocratic in ways that are contrary to the spirit of democracy. It is important, I think, for those who support democracy to be constantly mindful of their own limits and of the centrality of what is taking place “on the ground,” so to speak. Democratization anyplace requires the active involvement of the people in that place who are subject to the institutions being democratized. Liberation must involve the praxis of the people who are unfree. At the same time, I really do believe in the famous statement made by Martin Luther King, Jr. in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”—we are all part of a single “garment of human destiny.” I believe that where there are people seeking to democratize their societies it is important and indeed ethically imperative for people elsewhere who subscribe to democratic values to support them. Such support, when done properly, is not “interference” or “imperialism”—though this is what autocrats like Putin and Chavez claim. It is solidarity in the name of freedom. How to offer such solidarity, what kinds of civil efforts and political efforts are worthy of support, etc., are matters of concrete political judgment. In my view the most important thing that scholars and intellectuals can do is to keep these questions alive and to foster their intelligent public discussion, in the places where they live and work, and in whatever “foreign” and global forums are available. Democratic praxis knows no bounds.