Minority rights have become the Achilles heel of liberal democracy

Topics democracy

Many find fault with liberal democracy because it exacerbates inequality, particularly when wedded to unbridled capitalism. But inequality has been rampant in authoritarian countries as well, with or without capitalism. Many non-capitalist countries in actual history have been friendly neither to liberty nor equality, never mind the soaring rhetoric, whereas some liberal democracies have provided their alert citizenry with the means of taming the harshness of capitalism, showing the possibility of liberty and equality working together at least up to some distance.

Others find fault with liberal democracy because its emphasis on individual freedom may loosen community bonding and rootedness, but “liberty” and “fraternity” need not work at cross-purposes, and one should keep in mind that communitarian excesses without liberalism can hurt interests of minority and dissident or non-conformist groups and individual autonomy. For a discussion of these issues see my piece, Can the Local Community Save Liberal Democracy?. Yet why is liberal democracy so fragile? All around us demagogues rule even in traditional bastions of democracy; and majoritarianism so easily hollows out democracies and keeps only the shell (and even sometimes triumphantly gets that shell described by the oxymoronic term “illiberal democracy”).

In my article, Coping with Resurgent Nationalism, I have suggested that if the constitution in some democratic countries incorporates liberal inclusive values and is reasonably difficult to change, it can provide the basis of some form of civic nationalism (or what Jürgen Habermas called “constitutional patriotism”) that may resist the marauding forces of majoritarianism or exclusivist ethnic nationalism. But the ethnic nationalist leaders are so adept at whipping up our primordial or visceral evolutionary defensive-aggressive urge to fight against so-called “enemy” groups, that such resistance is currently crumbling in many countries — for example, conspicuously in India under the onslaught of Hindu nationalism, even after several decades of reasonably successful civic nationalism based on values of pluralism enshrined in the constitution and undergirded by centuries of folk-syncretic tradition of tolerance and pluralism of faith among the common people.

In an insightful article economists Sharun Mukand and Dani Rodrik detect the fundamental problem in something lacking in the origin of the democratic political settlement. One popular version of this settlement in European history has been that democracy came about as a compromise between the economic elite (interested in securing their property rights) afraid of mass upheavals and the organised working classes and peasants, clamoring for political rights. This led to extension of franchise and political representation, and rights to express, assemble, and organise, which ultimately led to welfare states of varying strengths. The workers in their turn accepted some limits in their demands so that capitalist property rights and opportunities are essentially preserved. In this democratic settlement the economic elite had the strength of their wealth and the workers the strength of numbers. But the groups that lost out in this bargaining process (or never had a chance) are those who have neither wealth nor numbers — the various minority groups in society (defined by ethnicity, religion, ideology, language, gender identity or sexual preference). Way back in 1787 James Madison in the Federalist Papers rightly put the issue of minority rights at the centre of democratic concern in a new republic. Today it has become the Achilles heel of liberal democracy.

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Mukand and Rodrik distinguish between political rights and civil rights, the latter largely relating to protection of those minority groups (including protection of the rule of law, habeas corpus, equal access to public services, etc.). They point out that in the aforementioned bargaining equilibrium between the economic elite and the majority of workers, those civil rights may go by default, and there may not be a strong enough group to fight for them or make any credible threats to the other groups. Some exceptions may take place where the ethnic minority is part of the economic elite (as in the case of the Chinese businessmen in parts of south-east Asia, or some Jewish Americans important in the business and media elite of their country — but even in these cases hate-crimes and discrimination against such minority groups have not been uncommon).

The distinction between political and civil rights is related to the distinction between participatory and procedural aspects of democracy that I have emphasised in all my recent writings on populism. Majoritarian populists either of the right or the left variety usually ride roughshod over the procedural aspects (like the “due process” that the minorities are entitled to under rule of law). The question is, how does one preserve and sustain these procedural aspects?

An alternate way of looking at the origin of democracy—still keeping to an essentially interest-based (rather than idea-based) explanation—may provide a bit more hope for the political logic behind the sustenance of civil rights or procedural aspects of liberal democracy. This alternative ascribes the rise of democracy to competition within the elite, rather than the threat of mass uprisings faced by the elite as a whole. In my 1984 book, The Political Economy of Development in India, I ascribed the survival of democracy in India, against a formidable set of odds, not so much to the strength of liberal values in the belief system of the Indian population, as to how in a country of immense diversity, even the elite is so fragmented (with no element individually sufficiently strong to hijack the system by itself) that they agree on some minimum democratic rules in their transactional negotiations, to keep their rivals at the bargaining table under some limits of moderation. Of course, when the diversity or the lack of trust is extreme the process may unravel, and the rival groups turn to civil war, as has often happened in Africa.
(The second part will appear tomorrow)
The article was first published on 3 Quarks Daily. The writer is professor of Graduate School at University of California

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