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The Double Threat to Liberal Democracy

Illiberal democracy – or populism – is not the only political menace confronting Western countries. Liberal democracy is also being undermined by a tendency to emphasize “liberal” at the expense of “democracy.”

CAMBRIDGE – The crisis of liberal democracy is roundly decried today. Donald Trump’s presidency, the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, and the electoral rise of other populists in Europe have underscored the threat posed by “illiberal democracy” – a kind of authoritarian politics featuring popular elections but little respect for the rule of law or the rights of minorities.

But fewer analysts have noted that illiberal democracy – or populism – is not the only political threat. Liberal democracy is also being undermined by a tendency to emphasize “liberal” at the expense of “democracy.” In this kind of politics, rulers are insulated from democratic accountability by a panoply of restraints that limit the range of policies they can deliver. Bureaucratic bodies, autonomous regulators, and independent courts set policies, or they are imposed from outside by the rules of the global economy.

In his new and important book The People vs. Democracy, the political theorist Yascha Mounk calls this type of regime– in apt symmetry with illiberal democracy – “undemocratic liberalism”. He notes that our political regimes have long stopped functioning like liberal democracies and increasingly look like undemocratic liberalism.

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