Who Wants to Die for Liberal Democracy?

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Liberal democracy is much more than a political system. It is a comprehensive belief system with its own myths (“the will of the people,” “limited government”), ethics and metaphysics, in addition to its procedural articulations (representative legislatures, judicial review, etc). Liberal democracy’s strength lies in its flexibility. In theory liberal democracy is compatible with almost any kind of religion, philosophy or way of life that doesn’t involve infringing on the rights of others. Neoconservatives call them “natural” rights. Left-liberals call them “human” rights. In either case for the liberal democrat these rights belong to everyone and are guaranteed by the State. This is the theory and it has its complications and imperfections in practice. There can be disputes over what our rights are (life or choice?) and even liberal democrats will admit that sometimes the government abuses its power. These difficulties notwithstanding, liberal democrats still believe in the theory, the ideal.

It’s possible to be a liberal, especially in the 19th century sense, without being a democrat. In fact Paul Gottfried argues in After Liberalism that mass democracy and classical liberalism are incompatible. Regardless liberal democracy is the de facto creed of the United States today and arguably of the whole Western world. The liberal democrat believes that not only is the State necessary to protect our rights, but also that representative democracy is the just kind of State, as long as there are experts to protect minorities. A friend of mine, a neocon and a law student, often tells me how the Courts protect the rights of minorities against the legislatures. Courts are a kind of expert or manager. So are university professors and the media, whose role is not procedural but educational. The democratic masses tend toward righteousness but sometimes need a bit of paternalistic guidance to get there. Credentialed intellectuals provide that guidance.

Liberal democracy ultimately amounts to a system of arbitration between competing interests and values. The final arbiter is the State, which presents itself as “responsive” and impartial, the former being a function of its democratic character and the latter of its expert elements.

It’s easy to be a liberal democrat. You don’t have to believe in much. Liberal democracy tells you what you can’t do and says nearly nothing about what you should do. It’s more concerned about the intensity than the content of belief. Extremism is frowned upon, because extremism in religion or philosophy, or anything, may lead one to reject the State’s legitimacy as an arbiter. This means that while you can be both a liberal democrat and a Christian, for example, you must be a liberal democrat first and a Christian second. You can refuse to hire a homosexual to teach Sunday school, but when he takes you to Court and wins, that verdict is final. You cannot appeal to God or any other authority above the State to justify resistance. Resistance is never allowed — or rather, it is allowed only through the “democratic process.”

Because it is pluralistic and accommodates any point of view as long as it is sufficiently watered-down, liberal democracy produces very little opposition. Few groups have any reason to want to overthrow it actively. On the other hand because it has stigmatized fervor and minimized the influence of traditional sources of zeal and valor, such as religion and nationality, liberal democracy produces very little real loyalty. If practically no one has a desire to overthrow liberal democracy, neither does anyone have a reason to lay down his life for it. Liberal democracy is not worth defending, let alone exporting abroad.

This is where conservatives come in. Conservatives keep liberal democracy alive in two ways. First they give Left-liberals a reason to exist, a bogeyman to oppose. More profoundly however conservatives are the life-support system for liberal democracy in that they preserve vestiges of strong value systems such as religion and nationalism. So some conservatives genuinely believe that America is a Christian country (it’s not) and what they’re fighting for is not liberal democracy, but God. This is one reason why the least conservative sectors of society, such as the universities, tend to be anti-war. They have no residual values for which to fight, all they have is liberal democracy, which furnishes no reason whatsoever.

Religion however is too dangerous for liberal democrats, it too easily overrides the claims of the State. A better hoax is nationalism. You’re not dying for liberal democracy, you’re dying for your country — for your forefathers, for your brothers, for generations yet unborn! Nationality means blood. This too can be very dangerous for liberal democracy however, when blood has a greater claim to loyalty than the procedural State. So neoconservatives are struggling to create a new nationality, a brotherhood of ideology, the “proposition nation.” The strategy requires uprooting existing national loyalties, and for this reason neoconservatives adamantly denounce “hyphenated Americanism” even at the same time as they’re creating it through their liberal immigration policies.

Liberal democracy requires so little commitment from anyone that left to its own devices it may be able to survive indefinitely, with the traditional sources for value and purpose in human life steadily growing fainter but never disappearing completely and leading to a collapse of the system. In war however the defects of liberal democracy become more apparent, which can lead to its military defeat abroad and perhaps even destabilization at home. But liberal democracy must by its very nature wage war. The logic of liberal democracy is that there must be a supreme arbiter, the State, to uphold a universal set of rights. It follows from that that the State must be universal as well. If multiple arbiters are permitted in the world, if there are other states (or non-states) with different procedures and values, then the authority of the liberal democratic State is in question. (For the same reason, liberal democracy cannot permit secession.) The logical and necessary conclusion of liberal democracy is world government. And who wants to die for that?

Daniel McCarthy [send him mail] is a graduate student in classics at Washington University in St. Louis.

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