Xavier Landes: Liberal Democratic Vulnerability - Institutions and the ‘Something’ Else
In a new piece published in Satori, "Liberālās demokrātijas ievainojamība" (in English, The Vulnerability of Liberal Democracy), Associate Professor Xavier Landes raises the issue of the fragility of liberal democracy.
Professor Landes points at the fact that if institutional safeguards (mainly division of powers, rule of law) exist for shielding individual freedoms against authoritarianism and the most extreme versions of populism, at the end of the day democratic institutions cannot survive for long without an active support from their citizens.
"And there we have a paradox here, explains Landes, because liberal democracies as liberal, i.e. protecting individual rights and freedoms, cannot force people to actively back democracy. Instead, they have to rely on individuals’ voluntary commitment, which is based on civic or democratic virtues (e.g. the respect of pluralism, acceptance of the principle of fair elections and political alternance, the valorization of facts and truth, the exercise of critical thinking). And, as the storming of the US Capitol showed, if such virtues are not well rooted, violence and insurrection is not very far. In that context, humanities and social sciences have an essential, but too often neglected, role to play in promoting such democratic dispositions.To that respect, the commitment to critical thinking, humanities and social sciences of universities such as SSE Riga play a major public service."
Professor Landes concludes by stressing the importance for any society claiming to be democratic to invest in social sciences and humanities. Read the full text below.
Liberal Democratic Vulnerability - Institutions and the ‘Something’ Else
A stable and healthy liberal democracy is an odd combination of elements that are often difficult to precisely identify or comprehend. From an historical point of view, it is a singularity. Humans have spent far longer under undemocratic and illiberal regimes than liberal democratic ones. The current rise of populism with its parochial, nationalistic, 1930s flavour offers a stern reminder of such oddity.
Nothing new under the sun, liberal democracies are vulnerable, as the recent developments in the United States (Trump’s undermining of fair elections and mob storming the Capitol) have shown. However, more of a mystery is what supports liberal democratic resilience in front of populism and authoritarianism. On that front, the importance of the division of powers is often underestimated. But there is ‘something’ else, related to healthy debates, ‘something’ about the capacity of citizens to engage each other in a civil and constructive way. Something about citizens’ virtues. On this, universities, through humanities and social sciences, are crucial, which tends to be forgotten.
The Division of Powers Is Necessary…
For a liberal democracy to be stable, institutions are vital, especially the division of powers, as first formulated by Montesquieu in De l’esprit des lois (1748). It requires that the executive, legislative and judiciary branches are separated, i.e. not assumed by the same people or by individuals taking orders from other branches. A system of checks and balances, e.g. when legislative decisions are controlled for their constitutionality or legality by independent judges, is indispensable.
In short, stability necessitates a first group of women and men, who are legitimate (i.e. elected), to discuss and vote the laws (typically in the parliament). It also requires a second group to execute laws and make other decisions while drawing its legitimacy indirectly from popular will by being supported by elected representatives. This indirect legitimacy is key since citizens in liberal democracies usually do not vote for the government, only for MPs. Nonetheless, it is equally vital to keep the two groups separated: a first who negotiates and formulates laws, a second who executes and takes all sorts of decisions in vital domains (e.g. police, army, diplomacy). On this topic, we can see that having MPs acting on direct order, not challenging the prime minister or the president is an issue in itself, especially when the executive branch starts acting ‘wild’.
A third group is tasked with checking whether the previous acts respect principles embodied in the Constitution. This last group draws its legitimacy from legal expertise and genuine commitment to democratic and liberal principles, viz. by serving both the popular will and protecting individual/minority rights. Pragmatism is critical here. These public officials ought to avoid the partisanship often on display by the legislative and executive branches.
Indeed, the respect of constitutional and legal principles should not depend on one’s partisan views. This does not mean that such respect is not open to interpretations, which is the job of the judges. But such an interpretation should be of good faith. The reason is that law is the last safeguard when everything else fails, i.e. when the other powers start lacking decency. Partisanship was at stake with Brett Kavanaugh and even more with Amy Coney. If we leave aside the accusations of sexual misconduct towards Kavanaugh, which should have been enough alone for disqualifying him, Kavanaugh and Barrett controversial positions, especially on abortion and women’s rights, endangers the pragmatism citizens could expect from the US Supreme Court.
Ultimately, democracy requires reliable and publicly available information about the performance of elected officials, members of the government and judges. This is what is called the ‘fourth estate’. Competent, honest and independent journalists are key for public accountability. Journalists could be seen as the canaries of the democracy. As the birds in the coal mines, they are the first to be able to detect misconduct and abuses of power. Media independence from private interests is therefore vital. Without it, there is no more alert system. Again, the constant undermining of medias by Trump, its administration and many elected Republicans doesn’t look good.
One may argue that media, as a matter of fact, are not independent because they are always owned by someone. Therefore, each media has an editorial line, a political leaning, and so on. Moreover, it could be claimed that such orientation stems from the freedoms of enterprise and press, the whole point of liberal democracy being to have media owned by different people or entities that challenge each other, nurture healthy contradictions, express various views, and so forth.
It is true that media need to have shareholders as well as an editorial line. However, it does not follow that journalists should bow to shareholders’ desiderata, that they should uncritically convey owners’ ideas or that the latter are entitled to interfere in the editorial line (as Robert Maxwell used to do with The Daily Mirror in the 1980s).
The deontological rules about proper journalism, intellectual honesty, moral integrity, freedom of expression still apply, no matter who owns a journal, TV or radio station, Internet news portal. Journalists need to be able to protect the anonymity of their sources, to be protected from the pressure or threats coming from elected representatives, partisans, private interest, and so forth. The key point is pluralism. A diversity of views grounded in ethical journalism is necessary for liberal democracy.
… But Not Sufficient
Nonetheless, the division of power is not enough. For a crooked leader whose interest is to escape public accountability or to establish authoritarianism, there are many ways of perturbing the checks and balances.
One may restrict the competences of courts or put judges on a short leash. The path has been followed in Hungary by Orban, Poland by the PiS and Turkey by Erdoğan. One may strip national assemblies from most of their prerogatives and set up a strong presidential regime, e.g. Maduro in Venezuela. Another technique is to have media gagged, especially by placing private interests (corporate or political) in control of too inquisitive outlets.
The point is that institutions are tremendously important, but they are not omnipotent. They have a limited ability to fulfil their role. They are not bullet-proof vests against populism or authoritarianism. The protection they offer can worn out. Left on their own, they can quickly decay and become sterile or, worse, they can contribute to the dismay of liberal democracy. It is where the magic happens or not: citizens’ support to the separation of powers. To that respect, the line is thin between a thriving liberal democracy and one that founders.
Stability takes ‘something’ more than well-designed institutions, it takes committed citizens. But, not every kind of participation is desirable. Think about many Trump or Bolsonaro cheerleaders. Think about the storming of the Capitol building. Moreover, liberal democracies live on the edge: they need active commitment, but they can’t require it. Active citizenship can’t be mandatory or liberal democracy ceases to be. If citizens are forced to participate, then liberal democracy decays into something else. In a nutshell, that is Isaiah Berlin’s warning about the abuse of positive liberty. This is the liberal democratic paradox or dilemma.
The Dilemma of Active and ‘Virtuous’ Citizens
So, if a liberal democracy cannot force its citizens to support its institutions, what is left? Is liberal democracy bound to remain a passive bystander, simply observing the electoral dramaturgy: populist parties making their way to governments, undermining the separation of powers and shutting up journalists?
Acknowledging the existence of the dilemma does not mean capitulating. It suggests that individuals with specific virtues could help sustain liberal democracies. Furthermore, it hints that universities, especially humanities and social sciences, can nurture such individuals. Virtues are not to be understood here as some extraordinary moral traits, but particular attitudes.
Liberal democracies need citizens that are positively inclined toward
being properly informed, i.e. they value truth and facts,
receiving critical information, i.e. they value actively searching for truth and questioning stereotypes, misrepresentations, etc.
getting involved into contradictory debates with citizens not sharing their views, i.e. they value pluralism and the free exchange of tolerable ideas (e.g. Holocaust denial is not tolerable),
engaging each other in good faith (so being ready to amend one’s position if it turns out to be false or wrong) and in a civil manner, i.e. they recognize that arguing, in liberal democracies, imposes to do it with respect for our ‘opponents’.
Finally, they also require citizens who grasp that these four virtues (among others) cannot flourish without democratic and liberal institutions, i.e. citizens realize that democratic virtues and institutions are mutually supportive. One cannot survive without the other.
The Hidden Contribution of Humanities
From their onset, universities have been supposed to cater for such virtues, in particular humanities. Not that sciences, engineering, medicine and other domains do not train students to be critical, but it is not their raison d’être. Humanities (philosophy, ethics, literature, languages, theater, arts, etc.) are literally the study of human achievements and societies guided by critical thinking. Direct heirs of the Renaissance, drawing their inspiration from the antiquity (old Greek and Roman thinkers, among others), humanities have driven, while being shaped in return, by the Enlightenment. They formulate the idea that studying what makes humans what they are enhance not only the students, but also the society. They brought forth social sciences (sociology, politics, psychology, law, economics, etc.), which took a more scientific turn with quantitative methods.
However, is it true that humanities and social sciences favourably contribute to societies and, more precisely, liberal democracies? Arguing a positive effect is one thing, but how can we be sure of its magnitude?
The impact of philosophy, psychology, literature or arts on the quality of the public debates cannot be strictly quantified with numbers and formulas. Nonetheless, there are strong indications of an impact. Humanities cultivate critical thinking, mind openness and mutual/self-understanding. They mirror human diversity and complexity. They breed new ideas. But they are no magic wands. Abhorrent individuals have studied humanities, with little positive effect.
Two points need to be asserted. First, it is difficult not to see a link between the quality of the public debates and humanities. Further, humanities are just about that: proper knowledge, rational argumentation, moral principles and virtues.
Moreover, a society that praises and financially supports, at a decent level, humanities and social sciences establishes high standards. It creates a public commitment that ‘those things matter here’. It expresses a concern for providing citizens with the tools for being self-governing. But it also raises up the expectations and criteria for judging the public life and institutions. In short, it affirms that ‘if we invest so much in arts, psychology, history, sociology, philosophy, literature, we must live up to our own standards’. It is a moral imperative.
A commitment to humanities and social sciences creates public accountability (i.e. citizens’ scrutiny into public affairs) while, at the same time, humanities nurture the conditions for an effective accountability (i.e. by training citizens to be critical). Challenges such as climate change, pollution (plastic, chemical), low trust in institutions, fake news, populism call for not less than that: stable liberal democratic institutions and virtuous citizens. In that context, strong humanities and social science research are not superfluous, they constitute our collective response to contemporary challenges.
 Liberal democracy refers to political regimes which combine democratic and liberal features. Democratic regimes are founded on popular will expressed through open debates, fair elections and public accountability of representatives and state officials. Liberal regimes are rooted on individual rights and freedoms. Through the protection of individuals in general and minorities in particular, political liberalism (not to be conflated with economic liberalism) is a safeguard against the dark side of democracy that is to enforce the desiderata of a majority against minorities’ rights. This point is important since democratic regimes could be illiberal.
 The point cannot be emphasized enough: liberal democracy requires citizens concerned by institutions’ power and prerogatives qua democratic and liberal institutions, so citizens concerned by the independence of medias and judges, the representativity of MPs or the accountability of the members of the government. But it also requires citizens to be committed to a balance between these institutions.