In defence of liberal democracy

By Matt Beebee

Whether it is right or wrong to do so, political thinkers from Machiavelli to the present have often put forward an idea of the ‘proficient elite’ and the ‘inept many’. For what might seem like obvious reasons, anyone who holds such views would be seen as an enemy of democracy. This is not strictly true. Liberal democracy has asserted itself as the dominant strain of democratic theory and governmental practice around the world but, by its very nature, only a small number of people will actually play a role in governing a society under such a system – the so called ‘political class’.

Despite only an elite minority gaining a role in government it matters how this elite secures and retains office from the many, for the many. Liberal democratic elites do so through the employment of pollsters and advertising campaigns and while politicians do their best to confuse the electorate, they intended to gain votes and secure political office through persuasion and open debate, as opposed to the coercive use of secret police, corrupted courts or politicized armies favoured by totalitarian elites. Democratic elites allow themselves to be thrown out by the electorate at regular elections, they are held to account by the electorate and do not intend to hold power for life as a totalitarian dictatorship does.

More importantly, liberal democracy encompasses competition between candidates, usually from a party that represents a particular ideological tradition. This competition produces better government than non-competitive elite rule or the noble encompassing intentions of direct democracy. Liberal democracy means that we are inevitably ruled by a group of elites but the competitive aspect of liberal democratic voting ensures that incompetent elites are replaced by more competent elites. Although, as in the US and to a degree in the UK, voters may only choose between two competitors, the open competition within a framework of free elections does produce efficient government – the incumbent elites wish to perform well to boost their competitiveness in relation to their opponents.

However, just who can become a member of the political class is a contentious and controversial issue. Despite western liberal democracies – most specifically in mainland Europe – having fiercely competitive elections, the system of recruitment to the political class is often seen as restrictive. Take the UK for example: a large proportion of the UK cabinet is made up of privately schooled, university educated, middle-class men. All three of the main party leaders were educated at Oxbridge; both David Cameron and Ed Miliband read PPE at Oxford – the so called ‘Prime Minister maker’ of degrees. For liberal democracy this raises the question ‘just how representative is the political class?’ Despite its competitive electoral process, this process is often seen by the electorate as competition between likeminded individuals vying for power who are often pejoratively viewed as ‘professional politicians’ doing nothing but go straight into the battlefield of party politics.

Yet we should not be so quick to judge ‘professional politicians’ with cynicism for a numbers of reasons. First, there are many worse political systems than liberal democracy. Second, doctors, just like politicians, are often not very like the majority of people they care for in terms of lifestyle and education yet we still value them as integral members of society. Thirdly, if politicians do a poor job of promoting the interests of the people they represent on a local and national level they can be voted out at regular intervals. Fourthly, political failure is often more than sheer incompetence; politicians face conflicting pressures and are presented with tasks that are often difficult to perform without something going wrong along the lines. Without meaning to sound patronising, could the role of a professional politician be improved if ordinary citizens were given more political activity in some Athenian-style democratic system?

Liberal democracy brings with it one fundamental advantage and that is its ‘liberal’ aspect of private freedom; liberal democracy crucially sees a difference between the state and society meaning that individuals can prosper unimpeded and pursue one’s own economic, occupational, educational, social and religious choices without hindrance. Indeed, most of us see these liberties as far more important than our political liberty to the right to vote as these are liberties that affect us on a day-to-day basis. This is one of the reasons why half of us do not exercise the right to vote in important national elections; we know whatever the outcome of the election we will retain our private freedom. While this may be true to a degree, it is a rather sad situation that the most redeeming feature of liberal democracy, its protection of private liberties, is all too often taken for granted while the political system that supports these liberties is neglected. More to the point, this is only half the reason why we no longer vote.

The other half is apathy and our perceived lack of political accountability that stems from the previously noted problem of representation. Most of the apathetic attitude towards politics is due to the feeling that voting in elections is our only role within the democratic system; however, every citizen also upholds the democratic right to follow and question government action. This can easily be done by remaining active; contacting or meeting the local politician, being on the floor of a political TV show or even joining a political party. We fail to keep an effective check on our politicians, often cynically dismissing liberal democracy as impossible to hold accountable and therefore there is no point in even voting to begin with. This is a view that should be avoided at all cost. Both the electorate themselves and the political class must do more to increase the experience and the competence of matters of political engagement and politics more generally.

As imperfect as liberal democracy is, it is, ultimately, indispensable with the rule of law within a civil society. However rule of law is not the means to creating a civil society, quite the contrary. Rule of law is the by-product of a society based on liberal principles: absent of snobbery, social integration for women and immigrants and the diminishing of economic and social inequalities at large. Without these facets, the rule of law is a meaningless concept and so is liberal democracy. It is these liberal principles that give liberal democracy its democratic nature as previously accepted grounds for claiming political power have been removed by-and-large (as well as power in the private sphere). It is not foolish to argue that the core values that underpin liberal democracy are its social, not its political, aspects. For this, we should be thankful; as problematic as it is, there are much worse and challenging political systems than liberal democracy and the decent government it encompasses.

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