Fareed Zakaria’s article for Foreign Affairs entitled “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy” identifies several developments in modern freely elected governments that he considers “illiberal”. These governments do allow free elections. Once elected these illiberal governments do not respect individual rights. These illiberal governments do not have strong separation of powers in their government branches. These illiberal governments allow the accumulation of power within a strong executive branch. These illiberal governments allow leaders to presume they have a mandate from their election to make policy decisions for their constituency as if it was a unified block, instead of individuals with varied backgrounds, beliefs, interests, and concerns. These lawfully elected governments nationalize property; suspend some independent government institutions (such as legislative or judicial branches of government); and compel individuals by force to comply with executive directives regardless of the directives legality.
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In short, Zakaria states that freely elected illiberal governments exhibit tyrannical properties antithetical to true constitutional republics. The free elections give the illiberal governments international legitimacy but the resulting democracy differs greatly from the capitalistic, limited government, found in the United States or other constitutional republics. These illiberal governments to Zakaria represent a “disturbing phenomenon” (Zakaria 1). Constitutional republics should focus their diplomatic energies to ensure that freely elected democracies develop constitutional institutions to ensure that embryonic democracies do not develop into illiberal democracies. The growth of illiberal democracies will eventually give democracy in general a bad name that will be a hindrance when trying to promote its benefits or at least the benefits of constitutional democracies to emerging governments.
Zakaria uses recent history to demonstrate the emergence of the illiberal democracies. He uses examples from around the globe including Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Peru, the Palestine Authority, the Philippines, Sierra Leone and Yugoslavia to name just a few. He shows clearly, that although freely elected, leaders such as Alberto Fujimori, and Slobodan Milosevic, committed untold horrific human rights violations, suspended their constitutions, and used their elected offices to consolidate their power at the expense of other government institutions.
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Zakaria believes that constitutional democracies encapsulate a less belligerent attitude to its neighbors because the people within them would rather seek the benefits of trade and economic growth than spend money to force adoption of any particular belief system. Zakaria believes it takes time for democracies to develop true constitutional republics, but slow movement to the goal is far better than embracing only the concept of free elections, and then discarding independent judiciaries, independent legislatures, and individual rights.
Zakaria does not ignore the fact that the election of popular leaders and their subsequent suspension of constitutional protocols typically occurs because of threats the populace face seem more dangerous than the consolidation of power within the executive. Peru, under Fujimori faced the attack of the Shining Path Rebels. Milosevic faced the dissolution of Tito’s Yugoslavia. Hitler faced the scourge of hyperinflation. Clearly the will of the people required solutions to these problems, but without constitutional restraints, democracies soon become illiberal ones. Zakaria’s fears that democracies will become synonymous with despotism seem a bit farfetched since no reasonable intellect would call Hitler’s Germany, Fujimori’s Peru, or Milosevic’s Serbia democratic. Zakaria seems to ignore the fact that once free elections have been suspended a democracy ceases to exist. Is the promotion of strong constitutional institutions possible when a populace believes they are barriers to solutions, and not guarantors of their rights?
Zakaria states that the writers or the United States constitution wanted it to forestall democracy, by creating obstacles to a majority opinion wishing to overstep the rights of states or the rights of individuals. The Supreme Court judges are not elected and yet sit on the bench at their own pleasure for as long as they want (unless impeached and convicted). California has the same number of Senators as Alaska or Montana, states with a fraction of California’s population. The cause for such inequality is to prevent any one State from having too much power. Zakaria ignores the Electoral College and its sole existence for being to prevent the unwashed masses from having too much power over the political, land owning, elite. The Constitution, Zakaria believes, removes the possibility that a Hitler or Fujimori would be able to secure increasing power from either the judiciary or the legislative branches because they were designed to prevent just such encroachment. The concept of liberalism, keeping government from interfering with individual economic activity and personal freedoms, does coincide with the US democracy that prevents amalgamation of power. US elections are free and fair, but those elected have powers which offset each other, thereby preventing power from gradually migrating to one office.
At the birth of the US, liberalism was more present than any pretense of democracy. Only free white men had the right to vote. Votes could be bought and sold for a beer. Gradually the liberal economy led to perceived injustices which started a political pendulum swinging between the opposite poles of democratic response and Government excesses. Whiskey and other taxes in 1786 led to Shay’s rebellion. Shay’s rebellion leads to cries for stronger Federal Government. Stronger Government led to Madison’s imprisonment of Marbury, which led to the increased power of judicial review. The fifteenth, seventeenth, nineteenth, increased democratic participation while the twenty-second limited it. The concentration of power at the executive level led to a “police action”, in Vietnam, which in turn led to the unrest of the 1960s.
Zakaria expresses fears that democracies will become illiberal if the executive branch transfers power from other branches to itself or usurps the rights of individuals or institutions. With that in mind there are several amendments from the US Constitution that would benefit the Iraqi Constitution.
The concept of illegal search and seizure, warrants, and probable cause, embodied in the Fourth Amendment to the US constitution seems to be missing. Without guarantees citizens face arbitrary invasion of their property although the Iraqi constitution forbids arbitrary seizure of property. A prosecutor (part of Iraqi judiciary, not the executive) then could theoretically issue search or arrest warrants on the slightest pretense of suspected illegality and terrorize political opponents.
The concept of a Grand Jury embodied in the Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution and its guarantee of the rights of due process and the prevention of self incrimination seem not to present in the Iraqi Constitution. The Iraqi Constitution does forbid physical coercion of self-incriminating testimony, however stops short of preventing it altogether. Without the obstacle of a grand jury to prevent mass arrests of perceived Government enemies, an Iraqi Fujimori could conduct a “dirty war” against the populace. Grand Juries provide a written record of their proceedings which are an anathema to a prime minister (or a prosecutor) needing to carry out policies in secret.
The rights to a speedy trial and to confront witnesses, embodied in the sixth amendment to the US Constitution have no equivalent in the Iraqi Constitution. Iraqi citizens may be arrested, thrown in prison, and left to rot, without any protections what-so-ever. This anti-liberal concept is just the type of activity that Zakaria states accompanies modern illiberal democracies.
The Iraqi Constitution does not state an age of majority for Federal elections as defined by the US 26th amendment. The Government seems to have the power to restrict citizen voting rights because no declaration of what traits a voter must have for the Federal Government exists. A useful amendment may be something to the effect that all Iraqi citizens reaching the age of majority, regardless of sex, age, religion, income, or personal preferences should not be denied the right to vote. Such a statement would prevent legislation denying arbitrary restriction to voting in Federal elections, thereby usurping the economic and political power of their constituency.
Limiting federal government powers in Iraq may prove to be important to its ultimate evolution, but may be a cause of its failure in its current nascent stage. Allowing liberalism to truly flourish now may only aid the multitude of domestic enemies fueled by religious and tribal animosities present in the current Iraqi State, without any benefits to its friends. Of course, that is exactly the opposite of what Zakaria would argue. Though the Iraqi Constitution gives its populations many of the rights US citizens enjoy, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, habeas corpus, et cetera; there are large loopholes as discussed above that directly affect the liberty of the people. Zakaria believes these liberties must be present for the prevention of an illiberal democracy, and that illiberal democracies will be in direct or indirect conflict with liberal ones. Zakaria does not comment on the survivability of illiberal democracies only that they run counter to the principles of liberal ones. As Machiavelli observed a government can be strong by either being ruthless or flexible, but rarely survives by being both at the same time. With that concept in mind, and seeing that Iraqi Constitution now really tries to be both now, it cannot survive. Adding the liberties to allow its citizens protections from an arbitrary judiciary whether in direct control of the executive branch or not, should help it survive in the future.
Fareed Zakaria. “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy”. Foreign Affairs. November, 1997: Vol. 76, Number 6
Liberal. Progressive. Liberal progressive. Progressive liberal. Radical. Social democrat. Democratic socialist. Occupiers. Social justice warriors.
What do we call today’s leaders of the political left? Where do they stand in the eye of history? Answering these questions resembles sometimes trying to grab an eel with your bare hand. Most likely it will slip away, but it may bite as well.
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Kim Holmes, a historian who served as assistant secretary of state under Colin Powell, has undertaken an ungloved eel-hunt in The Closing of the Liberal Mind (Encounter, 2016). It is not an entirely thankless task in that there are those of us who will thank him. (Thank you, Dr. Holmes.) But a book such as this will win no friends in places such as The New York Times or The Chronicle of Higher Education, which are among those who insist that today’s leftist priorities are the plain extension of the same principles that animated the leftist priorities of past generations of liberal activists. Holmes opposes that narrative.
Holmes’ thesis is that “progressive liberals” are not “really liberals,” but are “postmodern leftists.” The eel is touched. What, in turn, is a “postmodern leftist”? The postmodern part, says Holmes, is the belief that “ethics are completely and utterly relative” and human knowledge is whatever people say it is. (Truth, fantasy, error, and lies flow together in the endless stream of consciousness.) The “leftist” half of “postmodern leftist,” in Holmes’ unpacking, is “radical egalitarianism” along with “sexual and identity politics and radical multiculturalism.”
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This is certainly a serviceable definition. One could—and Holmes does from time to time—annex other pieces of the left’s core agenda. Let’s not forget sustainability and radical environmentalism, or the apocalyptic element in the left’s agenda; or transnationalism (turning us all into “citizens of the world”); or radical feminism’s war on marriage and the family; or the numerous importations from Marxism. How much of the “postmodern leftism” is the legacy of Barack Obama, and how much was Barack Obama just the cork floating on the wave of postmodern leftism? Holmes starts with the easier clarification that the two go together. Postmodern leftism is “the predominant worldview of Barack Obama’s Democratic Party.” That seems to me an objective truth of the sort postmodern eels squirm away from. Holmes sets himself the task of holding on tight.
Two Closings: Bloom and Holmes
The Closing of the Liberal Mind echoes Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, but while Bloom put his primary emphasis on the university as the door-closer, Holmes sees a whole army of door-slammers at work as much in the media and politics as on campus. But as this is Minding the Campus, I will attend to just the academic portion of his argument.
Holmes’ point of departure is the 18th century Enlightenment, which he divides into the “moderate” Enlightenment (Locke, Montesquieu, Adam Smith, the American Revolution) and the “radical” Enlightenment (Spinoza, Bayle, Diderot, Rousseau, the Reign of Terror, socialism, communism, and postmodern ideas of egalitarianism.) This is an important distinction that is familiar to readers of intellectual history but Holmes presents it lucidly for readers who aren’t. The line from Spinoza’s 17th century materialism to today’s academic ascendency of leftist utopians passes through the New Left of the 1960s.
A large part of the story Holmes tells is how the New Left revived the radical egalitarianism of the radical Enlightenment and gave it a new home on the college campus, where it shortly found its postmodernist component in the likes of French theorists such as Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault. It also found its anti-liberal lodestars in Frankfurt School Marxists such as Marcuse and Adorno. The cast of relevant characters is large, but Holmes is excellent in pinning them to their places in the story of how old-style American liberalism, with its emphasis on liberty and individual rights, transformed to the new-style postmodern leftism, with its emphasis on conformity, control, and group identity.
As an analyst of the contemporary university, Holmes’ great strength is, perhaps paradoxically, his decision not to lean too heavily on campus developments themselves. For example, his explanation of the rise of multiculturalism puts as much emphasis on the residue of the “legal realist” movement of the 1920s, which attacked the ideal of legal neutrality and the notion of “general principles,” in favor of a view of law as essentially arbitrary.
As Holmes sees it, legal realism was the nihilistic blade that cleared the ground for feminists and other radical identity theorists to turn the law into a tool of their political agenda. Without the radical multiculturalist legal theorists who moved into this vacuum, “there would be no talk of ‘hate speech’ or ‘hate crimes’” and “no expansive judicial interpretations of Title IX to force universities to act like courts in rape cases.”
The drift from liberalism towards illiberalism, Holmes says, is partially explained by the emergence of a new ruling class distinguished by “cultural habits.” He refers to David Brooks’ term for Baby Boomers who grow rich but persist in thinking of themselves as cultural outsiders, “bourgeois bohemians,” and he updates Brooks with Charles Murray’s characterization of the “cognitive elite” who dominate the professions.
These folks “think alike” and “live in the same kind of places, eat and dress alike, watch the same movies, read the same blogs and news sites, and listen to the same radio programs (All Things Considered, not The Rush Limbaugh Show.)” And they attend America’s elite universities. “The result is a high correlation between elite education and wealth. Murray observes that 31 percent of Wesleyan University graduates, for example, live in what he calls ‘Superzips’—the wealthiest zip codes in America based on median family income and education—and 65 percent live in zip codes at the 80th percentile or higher.”
This aristocracy plainly sees itself as superior to everyone else and Holmes says it is “ruthless” in maintaining its position. But members of this elite also “fashion themselves as hip advocates of equality.” The paradox has grown old. Tom Wolfe’s depiction in Radical Chic of Leonard Bernstein’s posturing to a leader of the Black Panthers as angry about his own wealth and privilege goes back to 1970. I pick up today’s New York Times to read in the letters a declaration from someone who says, “I, too, am a white male and work every day to overcome how I was raised, to recognize that I am not entitled to superior rights because I was born a white male of European heritage.” The moral vanity of people who say this sort of thing is the real enunciation of their elite standing. Instilling that vanity is the principal work of elite colleges, which teach this exquisite form of self-regard far more effectively than they teach the heritage of Western civilization or the substance of any particular subject.
The subtitle of Holmes’ book is “How Groupthink and Intolerance Define the Left.” Because the motherlode of groupthink and intolerance is the contemporary American university, Holmes has bright and shining examples by the truckload of such academic devilment. Many of these are familiar, e.g. the Rolling Stone University of Virginia rape hoax and Marquette University’s effort to unseat tenured professor John McAdams. But even the familiar stories of academic groupthink and intolerance gain from Holmes’ careful contextualization.
The Closing of the Liberal Mind is a synthesis that comes along at the just the right political moment. As we ponder the shift in American culture that has made avowed socialist Bernie Sanders the most popular presidential candidate among college students and that has kept Hillary Clinton afloat on a platform of feminist exceptionalism, we are in need of some sober thinking about the decline of the old liberal tradition. Postmodern leftism is a threat not just to higher education but to our Constitutional republic. It may not be the only threat, but it is one that deserves focused, historically informed, and intellectually precise attention. Holmes has reached into the basket of eels and given us that.