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The complicated relationship between liberalism and democracy

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    15th May, 2021
The complicated relationship between liberalism and democracy


  • Liberal democracy traces its origins - and its name - to the European18th century, also known as the Age of Enlightenment.
  • At the time, the vast majority of European states were monarchies, with political power held either by the monarch or the aristocracy.
  • The possibility of democracy had not been seriously considered by political theory since classical antiquity, and the widely held belief was that democracies would be inherently unstable and chaotic in their policies due to the changing whims of the people.
  • It was further believed that democracy was contrary to human nature, as human beings were seen to be inherently evil, violent and in need of a strong leader to restrain their destructive impulses.
  • Many European monarchs held that their power had been ordained by God, and that questioning their right to rule was tantamount to blasphemy.

However, the tension between progressive and conservative liberalism may become oppressive, defying the core tenets of liberalism.  Only the respect and trust in the results of the democratic process can save liberalism from itself and preserve the long-fought-for individual freedoms.

Understanding liberal democracy

  • The term liberalism means many things to many people and its understanding is contingent on time and context.
  • Liberalism can thus be termed an “essentially contested concept,” the meaning of which shifts and turns depending on individual persuasion.
  • When coupled with another “essentially contested concept” — democracy — we find ourselves in a semantic chaos, with few straws to clutch.
  • Indeed, the coupling of liberalism and democracy has far-reaching implications not just on how political institutions are designed, but also on interpersonal relations, authority patterns, work ethics, and the freedom of action and decision.
  • Liberalism predetermines our behaviour in the family and society, and also determines the behaviour of states within the international system.

Liberal democracy 

  • Liberal democracy is a form of government.
  • It is a representative democracy in which the ability of the elected representatives to exercise decision-making power is subject to the rule of law, and usually moderated by a constitution that emphasizes the protection of the rights and freedoms of individuals, and which places constraints on the leaders and on the extent to which the will of the majority can be exercised against the rights of minorities.

Why Liberalism is essential in democracy?

  • Liberalism is an essential quality in a democracy because it is meant to protect the excluded.
  • It is a humanitarian ethic that treats everyone equally, guaranteeing basic respect and dignity – without exception.
  • It carries an unsentimental insistence on rights.
  • It is the space between the two words in the phrase “liberal-democracy” that negotiates the paradoxical relationship between an equality grounded in a humanist ethic and a People’s will grounded in a democratic-majoritarian opinion.
  • Liberal democracy is an internally contradictory ideal in which the first part keeps a check on the other.

Origin of liberalism in India

  • India has had a strong modern liberal tradition since the 19th century that emphasised rights, the separation of powers, a free press and rule of law, among other features.
  • Figures like Dadabhai Naoroji and Rammohan Roy were liberal progressives who fought for constitutional restraints on the British East Indian Company, advocated for a republican spirit and local representation, and believed in the value of free press to discover abuses of authority and power.
  • But since the early 20th century, with the partition of Bengal that radicalised the Swadeshi Movement, a younger group upper-caste political actors emerged that were highly critical of this earlier strand of liberalism for being too western and not having an “indigenous” (swadeshi) conception of collective national identity.
  • They believed that the focus on constitutional models, structural checks and government mechanisms to be inadequate for a larger independence movement.
  • What was needed, they thought, was a glue that would bring a collective nationhood into being.

Is lack of structure in the ideology an opportunity for society?

  • The concepts of liberalism and liberal democracy have become too flexible and have been stretched to justify even contradictory policy choices that societies have simply become confused about.
  • The public discourse reflects this confusion; the current version of political “liberalism” is discarded.
  • Calls are on rise for the decoupling of liberalism and democracy to save “Western civilisation”.
  • Perhaps this lack of structure in the very sociopolitical ideology that undergirds systems in the transatlantic region is a testament to “liquid times” — an era lacking firm structures, which leads to fluid institutions and identities.
  • While some may view this “liquidity” as an opportunity to reformulate and reinvent humanity, others become lost within the lack of structure and anticipate social anomie and atrophy.

Why societies developed ‘liberalism’?

  • Ancient societies maintained two key characteristics —
    • Hierarchical communitarian life: one, they were often strictly hierarchical, with very little opportunities for vertical social mobility
    • Lack of individuality: two, they were communitarian/collectivist to the point that individual will barely existed, as it was subsumed and predetermined by the will of the community
      • The individual was thus tied to a particular social stratum within the set hierarchy and his or her life choices were contingent to the needs and wishes of the community.
    • Of course, such structures were determined by survivalist instincts as the more tightly knit and cooperative communities increased their chances of survival with regards to material subsistence and coping with external threats.
    • The hierarchical communitarian life, which was functional at first, eventually became a tool of repression.
    • It constrained the individual through various forms of enslavement and serfdom and defined what is “the public good.”
    • The arbitrary use of power by elites to coerce individuals into a system they designed and naturally sought to maintain lead to rebellions.
    • To rid themselves of this oppression, society had to “invent the individual.”

In Europe, it was mainly an impulse from Christianity — which acknowledged the physical side of the human body that was bound to Earth and the spiritual side that was emancipated from earthly confines — that helped form the initial prerogatives of human individuality, hence leading to ideas of equality of individuals.

Assessing the role of individual in a liberal society

  • In a liberal society, the individual maintains a set of “natural rights,” which are primarily political and civil, and these protect him or her from the arbitrary use of power.
  • Such rights give individuals tools to protect themselves not only from state power infringing upon their liberty, but also to guard themselves from majoritarian society.
  • The raison d’etatis the protection of an individual’s rights, so if most of society decides to indiscriminately strip an individual of his or her property, life or liberty, the state shall maintain the means to stop such impulses.
  • Liberalism thus forms a “protective bubble” around every individual —
    • it should protect the rich from the poor, who might want to accrue their wealth
    • but it should also guard the poor from the rich, who might want to displace them due to aesthetic reasons
    • both the rich and the poor should be equally guarded against the excessive power of the state

Liberalism thus placed the individual at the centre of all human activity and emancipated him or her from coercive hierarchies and communities prevalent in human history. 

Extreme form of liberalism

  • The more extreme forms of liberalism suggested that individuals are sole proprietors of their bodies, carrying the responsibility for their decisions and as such owe nothing to society/community.
  • They are atomistic beings making self-interested decisions on their own behalf and since every individual is unique, there can be no agreement on what is the public good.
  • If there cannot be agreement on the public good, then there does not exist an authority that can legitimately impose the definition of the “good life” upon anyone.
  • In this sense, the state needs to be neutral towards defining the public good.

Liberalism + Democracy = Perfect Pair

  • Initially, the purpose of liberalism was to support the liberation of the oppressed individual. Moreover, it formed a perfect pair with democracy.
  • Political thinkers from Plato to James Madison saw democracy as “ochlocracy” or mob rule.
  • If everyone was given a political say, then society would devolve into anarchy or dictatorship as the masses would be easily swayed by demagogues.
  • In a strictly procedural democracy, the power of the majority would trample any minority.
  • However, when the components of “natural rights” and liberalism are conflated with democracy, then the power of any majority is put in check.
  • So, while democracy without liberalism may turn into a “dictatorship” of the majority, liberalism without democracy can deviate into a “dictatorship” of propertied elites.

Where liberalism and democracy stand today?

  • Though all societies in the transatlantic region accept the notions of liberalism and its individualism, not all members of these societies are “individualists” but are to some extent “communitarians” or “collectivists.”
  • Studies show that indeed the Western societies are composed of citizens harbouring some form of “collectivist cultures” that “interpret self as an extension of their in-group,” place “higher value on vertical relationships” and accept “many individual obligations to their ingroup” in return for “high levels of social support and resources”.
  • Today, liberalism has simply gone too far and too fast in deconstructing or fuzzing vertical relationships (hierarchies) and decoupling individuals from their communities.
  • With the loss of community and the atomisation of individual behaviour comes a loss of shared identity and thereby the uprooting of the individual.
  • Hence the increased demand for nationalism and protectionism on one side of the political spectrum and an increased demand for politics that reaffirms and dignifies a variety of identities on the other.
  • As liberalism set out to emancipate the individual from pre-existing oppressive structures, it continues in this undertaking till today.
    • Women and ethnic, racial and sexual minorities are perceived to be constrained by hierarchies and communities beyond their control and thus deserving to be relieved (as demonstrated by the Black Lives Matter and MeToo Movements).
  • The collectivist counterargument claims that the instrumental differentiation of identities only further decomposes the community.

Struggle of the individualist and collectivist cultures

  • The struggle of the individualist and collectivist cultures is manifested also in the economic sphere.
  • Over the years, liberalism has adopted another dimension that operates in parallel with the advocacy for individual freedom.
  • The liberal thought has come to support that if society works best when individuals are fully emancipated from structural constraints that hinder their potential, then the same should apply to markets.
  • This economic dimension of liberalism wishes to shield markets from arbitrary state and majoritarian power, just like its social-liberal counterpart wishes to shield the individual.
  • Both strands of liberalism, however, coexist in difficulty.
  • Social liberals claim that when markets are emancipated and unregulated, the individual loses a portion of his or her democratic freedoms — particularly the “natural” political and civil rights as corporate interests enmesh with political campaigns.
    • social liberals assert that only an active and redistributive state can ensure that no one is trapped within pre-existing structures and everyone can fully realise their potential
    • economic liberals counter that an activist state inherently limits the individual freedoms that form the core of liberalism (by limiting, for example, economic freedom by paying excessive taxes and redistributing them to others)

As is clear, both arguments are grounded in the classical liberal position, yet they are irreconcilable.


If the bounds of the sociopolitical ideology undergirding our systems have been extended to the point that the ideology has become unworkable, democracy must step in as the arbiter that helps to amalgamate and distil opposing positions. That is why the two are paired.

The tension between progressive and conservative liberalism may become oppressive, defying the core tenets of liberalism. Only the respect and trust in the results of the democratic process can save liberalism from itself and preserve the long-fought-for individual freedoms. After all, the main virtue and bottom-line of liberal democracy is that it permits citizens to change their rulers peacefully.