Why the Defenders of Liberal Democracy Need to Stand Up

If liberal norms and institutions are to prevail, they need to be defended from the left and the right.

By Ghia Nodia

August 2023

Almost everywhere, liberals—meaning those who follow the traditions of classical liberalism and the Enlightenment—are gloomy, and with reason. In one Western country after another, what used to be an effective and, broadly speaking, “liberal” consensus between center-left and center-right parties is under serious strain as forces of illiberal populism rise. Around the globe, liberal democracy is backsliding, with most of the damage being done to its liberal components such as the rule of law and the rights of individuals and minorities. Among the elites who set intellectual trends, meanwhile, being a liberal is no longer “cool.”

While sharing these concerns, we should recognize as well that liberalism still has many strengths, and should not fall into the trap of underestimating them. Liberals come under attack from antiliberals because they see liberals as the dominant class, the global aristocracy. In the 1990s, we had what one might call a “Fukuyamian moment,” when liberalism seemed to be enjoying nearly complete normative hegemony. This moment may be over, but liberalism is still dominant in many ways. Liberal principles continue to guide Western political systems: After Donald Trump was elected U.S. president in 2016, influential scholars began predicting the imminent deaths of leading democracies, but those dire predictions were not borne out.

The most discussed casualty of the present illiberal wave is Hungary. Twenty years ago, it was considered a consolidated (if young) democracy but is no longer. This should be a matter of concern, but the scope of failure—a single country of ten-million people—cannot be compared to what happened in Italy, Germany, or Spain in the 1920s and 1930s. Patrick Deneen, a leading U.S. conservative critic of liberalism, may aspire to “regime change”—meaning rejecting Lockean liberal norms on which the U.S. Constitution is largely based—but in speaking this way he is acknowledging that liberalism is a formidable opponent.

On the global geopolitical level, the liberal West is still more powerful and more capable of coordinated action than forces of the mostly antiliberal “Rest,” even though the gap in power and wealth has narrowed a lot since the 1990s.

In the face of liberalism’s sea of troubles, we classical liberals should remind ourselves of its continuing power as we seek to end them. Above all, we should be seeking to counter illiberal forces and ideas, and for this we must take responsibility. The diffidence, indecision, and confusion of liberals are as damaging as the activism and aggressions of antiliberals. In defending basic liberal norms and institutions, liberals should be much more brave, persistent, and wise than they have been of late.

One of the root problems may be that Western publics started to take the prevalence of liberal norms and institutions for granted. These publics need loud wake-up calls to understand that constant vigilance truly is the price of liberty, and that the liberal order requires effort and struggle, sometimes with the force of arms. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has become the most dramatic such call; the reaction to it from the Ukrainian people and Ukraine’s friends in the West gives ground for optimism. Repelling the invasion has galvanized potent forces around support for liberal values and institutions. But this is not enough.

Attacked from Left and Right

To illustrate why I think the response to Ukraine, heartening though it is, is not sufficient, I will share two observations. One is related to challenges to liberalism in the West, another to the status of the liberal order on the global level.

Although I said above that liberalism’s problems in the West today are far from being as dramatic as they were in the Europe of the interwar years, some comparisons are still warranted. Back then, there were fewer democracies, many of them still young and fragile. Some, such as those in Italy, Spain, and above all a Germany deeply embittered by its defeat in 1918, failed to withstand internal pressures and came to grief. With the geopolitical balance of power in favor of antiliberals, democracies in Czechoslovakia (1938–39) and France (1940) succumbed to outside military aggression. Eventually, the free world was saved by two things that happened between 1941 and 1945: 1) liberalism’s main enemies, the fascists and the communists, exhausted each other in the biggest land war history has ever seen; 2) the United States directly intervened militarily and changed the balance of power.

Now the free world is much more geopolitically powerful, and the existing liberal regimes have deeper roots. The most important similarity, though, is that liberals are under attack from both right and left, and do not know what to do.

The attack from the illiberal right is broadly called “nationalist populism.” The illiberal left’s attack one might call “neo-Marxist wokeism.” Calling the former “fascist” and the latter “communist” may be polemical exaggerations, but there are true similarities in both cases. Most importantly, now as then, liberal-minded people cannot agree on which of the two threats is worse.

Most people I know consider the national populists, or in the United States, the “Trumpists,” a bigger threat. They have a point: After Trump lost the 2020 presidential election, some of his supporters cried fraud but could not produce any evidence that would stand up in court, then stormed the U.S. Capitol. Assaulting the seat of government to interfere with the lawful certification of an election makes you a direct threat to democracy. But there are other liberals who think that the extreme wokeist left is even more dangerous. The wokeists have succeeded in enforcing a regime of intellectual censorship or self-censorship on the academy, a large part of the media, and even the corporate world, and have imitated Leninists and Maoists by declaring free speech and the presumption of innocence to be obsolete “right-wing” values.

I will refrain from trying to prove which of the two threats is greater because I really do not know. The lesson of history is that threats which are underestimated can sometimes prove more dire exactly because they were underestimated. The key is to recognize that the sustainability of the liberal order depends on the consensus of the center: The liberal left and the liberal right should agree that the unequivocal rejection of illiberal fringes is in their mutual interest. Rebuilding this kind of consensus is essential if liberal democracy is to survive and succeed.

But this is not what I see happening. Many reasonable people fail to clearly distance themselves from either of the two illiberal fringes. Presumably, they are afraid of losing allies in their fights with what they consider the main threat. This is extremely dangerous.

My second observation concerns the status of liberalism on the global level. We should recognize that while liberal values are universal in their substance, historically, both the liberal theory and the liberal order have originated in the West, and the real commitment to liberal norms still more often comes from there. Many of us would prefer it if the forces of liberalism and illiberalism were spread more evenly across the globe, but this is not the case.

Western liberals often find it awkward to mention the Western roots of universalist liberalism, much less to analyze the implications of this. But coming as I do from a place on the very periphery of Europe, I may allow myself to be more straightforward.

This effective as well as perceived linkage between the liberal order and the West is a huge problem because the West’s record of exerting imperial dominion over the Rest has left liberalism’s image tainted. Just stating yet again that liberal ideas are universal in their substance is not a sufficient rejoinder to this.

The perceived linkage between liberalism and Western domination is not historically groundless. Nineteenth-century Western imperialism did legitimize itself by claiming to have a mission civilisatrice, a self-imposed task to spread progressive liberal values and institutions, sometimes on the points of bayonets, to places that had not known them. The West was partly successful in that, but it is paying the price now.

The anticolonial movement that swept the globe in the years after World War II was largely based on the Western idea of self-determination, but the link—perceived or real—between liberal theory and Western imperialist practice paved the way for anticolonialism to manifest itself in antiliberal ways as well. Whatever the intentions of Edward Said (1935–2003), the Ivy League literary scholar who founded postcolonial theory, the proliferation of his theory as an ideology of anti-Westernism has a strong antiliberal tilt: One can hardly reject the modern West without rejecting Western liberalism.

Ukraine, Antiliberalism, and Anti-Westernism

The ongoing Russian war in Ukraine has underscored this problem. Whatever the true goals of Russian president Vladimir Putin might be, he presents his war as a struggle against the West, with Russia battling in the front rank of the global anticolonial fight to stop Western liberal domination. He may yet fail on the Ukrainian battlefield, but he has convinced much of the non-Western world that he is their champion in standing up to the domineering West. That may explain the troubling reality that the moral consensus in support of the Ukrainian case is, with notable exceptions, limited to the West.

The core of Putin’s argument is that the claim that the supremacy of liberal over illiberal values implies the supremacy of Western civilization over all others. This perception is not easy to overcome because there is a kernel of truth in it. The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor may be one of the first Western liberals to have addressed the dilemma, nearly thirty years ago. He did so while dealing with issues of multiculturalism in Western societies, but his logic could be extended to the relations between the liberal West and the not-so-liberal Rest.

It is obvious to liberals, as Taylor highlighted, that all individuals of whatever background deserve to be included in a universal baseline sense of equal recognition: According to essential liberal principles, all are equal before the law, the state must not privilege some classes of people over others, and so on. Yet because individuals tend to be attached to their particular identities (it is natural to love one’s own), a view has come to be widely shared that the multiplicity of cultures should be also celebrated and that one ought to respect the right of every individual or group to be committed to their cultural practices. In this sense, multiculturalism has become part and parcel of the liberal tradition, or as the sociologist Nathan Glazer once put it, “We are all multiculturalists now.”

Multiculturalism as practiced now, however, tends to extend this claim of equal worth to the substance of every culture, which may imply sacralizing every social practice if it is presented as part of the culture. Such sacralization leads to a clash with liberal principles, because cultures can include norms and practices that are extremely illiberal. Nevertheless, one is not allowed to highlight this, because being part of “culture”—or at least, of a minority culture—makes a practice immune from criticism. Ideologically rigid versions of multiculturalism (itself a Western ideology, let us note) have become endorsements of illiberal practices when exercised by minorities; any censure of such practices risks inviting attacks under banners of “cultural racism,” or, in other contexts, as expressions of postcolonial arrogance. Such sacralization of culture has become an issue on which the illiberal left and the illiberal right often converge.

What is the way out of this? Again, liberals should have the courage of their convictions and be resilient in the face of the ideological blackmail coming from identity politics. Racism, past or present, colonialist excesses, and slavery deserve condemnation without qualifications and excuses, but classical liberals should not shy away from celebrating their core values, as well as from recognizing the historic Western roots of these values without failing to stress their universalist nature. It should be made crystal clear that such celebration not only denigrates no one, but indeed honors and lifts up the true ground for recognizing the equal worth of any human anywhere. Imperial domination is an ancient and widespread phenomenon in human history, and without the spread of liberal norms worldwide, would nineteenth-century Western colonialism ever have been rejected in the first place?

Ghia Nodia is professor of political science at Ilia State University and director of the Caucasus Institute for Peace, Democracy, and Development in Tbilisi, Georgia. He is a member of the Editorial Board of the Journal of Democracy. This essay is based on June 2023 remarks he delivered at the Estoril Political Forum in Lisbon.

Copyright © 2023 National Endowment for Democracy

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