A look at liberal democracy’s complex historical evolution shows that elite fantasies of liberalism without democracy are ill-founded. Authoritarian legacies and democratic deficits lie at the core of trends that threaten liberal rights.
Analogies with interwar Europe are often misdirected. In the 1920s and 1930s, regime breakdowns occurred in struggling new democracies, but established democratic systems exhibited remarkable endurance.
Political elites once held referendums to fend off challenges to European integration. More recently, Euroskeptic parties have employed referendums to batter down the walls of elite consensus. But the spread of referendums threatens to undermine the legitimacy of representative democracy.
Once Europe’s most painful “problem” area, the Balkans have managed to make strides toward stability, democracy, and integration into the West over the last fifteen or so years. But Moscow is becoming increasingly active in the region, and the durability of these gains should not be taken for granted.
The referendum campaign and its aftermath have exposed fault lines between the “two Britains” that have been long in the making and that pose stark questions about national values and identity.
What some had thought would be the “end of history” has instead turned out to be the “new world disorder.” Democratic liberalism may have no new ideological rival, but older identities are powerfully reasserting themselves.
Liberal democracy in Europe today is under siege from a variety of political forces, but it is critical to recognize the distinctions among them.
In power since 2002, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seemed as if it might be losing its hold when Turkish voters went to the polls in June 2015. Yet that “hung election” gave way to another contest in November, and the AKP came roaring back.
A few years ago, Europe’s most important intergovernmental human-rights institution, the Council of Europe, crossed over to the dark side. Like Dorian Gray, the dandy in Oscar Wilde’s story of moral decay, it sold its soul. And as with Dorian Gray, who retained his good looks, the inner decay of the Council of Europe remains hidden from view.