The Debate

The Solution to Illiberal Democracy in the Age of Trump: Liberal Autocracy

Recent events should make Western governments reexamine exactly what they are advocating for.

The Solution to Illiberal Democracy in the Age of Trump: Liberal Autocracy
Credit: Flickr/Gage Skidmore

The election of Donald J. Trump to the office of the president in the United States is no isolated event — rather, it is the latest triumph of the global trend toward what political scientist Fareed Zakaria likes to characterize as “illiberal democracy.”

All too often political figures and the general population treat liberalism and democracy — the source of the common compound term “liberal democracy” — as the same thing, part and parcel of the same package. But these are two vastly different ideas. Liberalism, in the classical sense, is an ideology advocating the rule of law, private property, free markets, and guarantees of freedom of religion and of the press. Liberalism is an end in and of itself. Democracy is a tool, a means to an end, and can lead to any variety of policies, results, or governments, many of which are distinctly illiberal.

Therefore, it is not at all surprising that democratic elections throughout the world are now giving rise to illiberal democracies, in places as far flung as Turkey, Hungary, and the Philippines. Illiberalism and nationalism are often the natural consequence of globalization, demagoguery, and the natural tendency of people toward tribalism or groupism. Greek and Roman writers, and the American Founding Fathers who read them, all knew and believed that eventually democracy would disintegrate into mob rule and give rise to strongmen.

But if autocracy is the global trend, should this not be channeled toward more benign ends? There is a huge difference between the authoritarianism of a Napoleon, who spread a universal set of laws and values to all the peoples of his empire, and the lawless fascism of 20th century Europe. And if people have a natural tendency to tribalism, the historical counterweight to that has been autocracy; multiethnic, multiconfessional states are a norm throughout history and the rise of homogeneous, ethnic nationalism is a relatively new phenomenon.

Democracy is valuable only insofar as it brings the social and economic policies that benefit individuals and the common well-being. Liberalism — the rule of law, economic freedoms, and personal freedoms — can often be better protected by autocratic governments that keep the worst consequences of mobs and demagogues in check. With basic rights secured, autocratic systems can move ahead with effective governance; such systems allow them to respond thoroughly with policies to check some of the trends that lead to illiberalism, such as economic degeneration, in a way that would be difficult to manage in a democratic system: for example, look at the recent major economic restructuring in Saudi Arabia.

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This concept, liberal autocracy, is relatively widespread, and was even more so in the 19th century. What keeps it from becoming illiberal is the continued pressure exerted by the various component groups of society for fairness (to take an old example, the demands of the English nobles for their rights led to the Magna Carta in 1215) and the specter of illiberalism if it fails. Citing Hong Kong as an example in recent times, Fareed Zakaria has noted that until recently, Hong Kong “never held a meaningful election, but its government epitomized constitutional liberalism, protecting its citizens’ basic rights, and administering a fair court system and bureaucracy.”

There is no doubt that in some societies characterized by social conservatism and religiosity, like Egypt, minorities and liberals are better off than they would probably be if their country were a democracy. This is undoubtedly true of most countries in Asia or the Middle East. The Chinese government, despite all its faults, holds extreme nationalism at bay. The Arab monarchies promote a level of security and economic and social liberalism that would be impossible in democratic and divided societies (note Iraq).

Given these global trends, the governments in the West as well as civic groups throughout the world should reexamine if they really want to advocate for democracy, or liberalism. Perhaps the liberal autocracy being pioneered in some countries is the real alternative to Western-style democracy, because there is no guarantee that democracy will be liberal or illiberal. In this way, an open, cosmopolitan world can be maintained, but with various national policies that are effective and beneficial to their people.