Analysis 2018: a year to recover liberal democracy


Eduardo Fernández Luiña, FAES International Department

Liberal democracy has been one of the greatest achievements of the XX Century. Those countries that put it into practice during the second wave of democratization improved its citizens rights and liberties building more open, plural and with more critical capacity national realities. All of that resulted in more pacific social environments, with more capacity to dialogue and deliberation and, of course, with better conditions to prosper.

Researches conducted by Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk[1] have shown a clear deficit of legitimacy in the current democratic systems of North America and Europe. The mentioned professors identify three phenomenon which clearly contribute to the decline of liberal democracies as we knew them. On the one side, it is observed an alarming rise of the support to authoritarian regimes. Secondly, a great number of individuals do not see the democratic systems as something positive and desirable. Finally, and in relation to all the aforementioned reasons, citizens do not consider essential to live in a system defined as democratic.

In order to carry out their work, researchers have used information from the well-known World Values Survey[2] in which Foa has been a senior researcher. The reality shown by that information is problematic, since the youngest cohorts are the ones more skeptical with the democratic process.

The issue, as it can be supposed, is very important and has generated a great number of answers. The last one, at the beginning of this month. The well-known US political scientist from Harvard University, professor Steven Levitsky, has published together with Daniel Ziblatt the book  How Democracies Die[3], another work explaining the crisis experienced by a great number of democratic-liberal political systems nowadays.

These days, representative democracies face many challenges. The main one: to recover citizen’s hope. And maybe in order to do so it is useful to return to the essence of liberal democracy as it was developed during the second half of the XX century. Currently, there is a lot of talk regarding democracy but not much regarding classic liberalism or the rule of law. We need to be aware that the mentioned political form, the liberal democracy, the real, the only possible according to the great Italian political scientist and winner of FAES Award of Liberty, Giovanni Sartori[4], was a result of the more or less virtuous merging of democratic and classic liberal elements[5].

Progressively, some of these features have been eroded suffering a wear which affected profoundly the legitimacy of democracy. Liberal democracy needs to protect its identity values such as the rule of law. A democratic liberal system cannot function without the rule of law and the division of powers. At the same time, the liberal identity of democracy cannot be found in a situation of permanent risk… When talking about a liberal identity, we refer to the compromise the state needs to maintain when protecting the structure of individual rights and liberties. Civil liberties (expression, movement, association, conscience, work, etc.) need to be protected; but also questions such as private property, which are at risk nowadays in a great number of countries. Last but not least, it seems very relevant to guarantee democratic rights ensuring the universal right to vote and to stand for election without limitations.

Many of these elements are in question in a great number of countries. In addition to this, questions such as the fall of the Berlin Wall, the economic failure of some national realities, the unstoppable development of the welfare state and globalization—with troubled social processes such as the migratory one—have contributed to worsen the mentioned crisis of legitimacy.

Maybe the first of our obligations is to create awareness about the problem and maintain ourselves in continuous vigilance. Democratic systems suffer, above all in Europe and North America, a crisis of legitimacy. The former, added to the advance of populism, which is a result of the mentioned crisis and a virus  ab initio of democracy, provoke that liberal democracy runs the risk of disappearing and slowly turning into another thing; in an illiberal democracy as Fareed Zakaria [6] indicated, in a populist regime or in a competitive-authoritarianism[7] –using professor Steven Levitsky term–.

With the aim of correcting this situation, it seems necessary to return to the essence of liberal democracy. For that it is necessary to protect the compromise that this political form has kept during the second half of the XX century with the defense of the structure of individual rights and liberties and the classic liberal values. Hopefully 2018 will be a useful year for recovering the hope and so it is possible to support with more dedication the political model which helped so much to build the path towards a more pacific and free society.


[1] The articles were published in Journal of Democracy. See FOA, Roberto Stefan and Mounk, Yascha (2016). “The danger of deconsolidation. The democratic disconnect”. In Journal of Democracy, July, Vol. 27, núm. 3. Pp. 5 - 17 and FOA, Roberto Stefa and Mounk, Yascha (2017). “The signs of deconsolidation”. En Journal of Democracy, January, vol. 28, nº. 1. Pp. 5 - 15.

[2] For more information see The figures used by the authors are covered by the years 1995-2015.

[3] Levitsky, Steven and Ziblatt, Daniel (2018). How democracies die. New York. The Crown Publishing Group.

[4] For more information see

[5] For more information see Sartori, Giovanni (2007). ¿Qué es la democracia? Madrid. Taurus

[6] See the work of the journalist Zakaria, Fareed (2003). El futuro de la libertad. Madrid. Taurus.

[7] Levitsky, Steven (2011). Competitive authoritarianism: Hybrid regimes after the Cold War. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press.

Translated by María Maseda Varela

#Populism #Political Science #Liberalismo