“We are an illiberal democracy.”Viktor Orbán
“We are an illiberal democracy,” Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of Hungary proudly proclaimed. Other populist leaders with an authoritarian streak have also adopted the idea of democracy without liberal values – “thin democracy” – pruned back to procedures, first and foremost, the principle of majority rule. But there is no such thing as a democratic system or procedure not based on liberal values, notably freedom, equality, and human dignity.
It was no accident that after World War II, democracy and human rights grew hand in hand from the same dust and ashes. The lesson of the atrocities of that war, as presented in the preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is that human dignity is the supreme and most sacred value of human society.
The principle of human dignity (which wasn’t invented by former Supreme Court president Aharon Barak) demands recognition that all human beings are equal. There cannot be a doctrine that rejects equality while recognizing the inherent dignity of all members of the human family. Human dignity is intrinsically linked to every individual’s right to liberty, to the obligation – formulated by Immanuel Kant – to treat all women and men as an end and not as a means. Human dignity has another connotation and one that is more subjective as well: a person’s right not to be humiliated. Discrimination is ipso facto a form of humiliation and subverts the value of human dignity.
Democracy must recognize human dignity and have liberal values
Democracy, even in the narrow sense, demands the recognition of human dignity. In the words of Israeli human rights expert Prof. Ruth Gavison: “An individual whose dignity is safeguarded is a free individual; one who participates in the decisions that determine his or her fate and spheres of responsibility. This is the individual postulated by democratic theory. Hence it is no wonder that democratic societies are those with a deep and genuine commitment to human rights.”
“An individual whose dignity is safeguarded is a free individual; one who participates in the decisions that determine his or her fate and spheres of responsibility. This is the individual postulated by democratic theory. Hence it is no wonder that democratic societies are those with a deep and genuine commitment to human rights.”Prof. Ruth Gavison
The supremacy of the value of human dignity is not simply a feature of Western liberalism. Respect for human dignity has deep roots in philosophical and religious teachings. In Judaism, it stems from the view that all human beings are created in the image of the deity. This means that human dignity is the common denominator that transcends political camps, positions, and ideologies. A regime – no matter what its name – that does not define human dignity as its supreme value is not just undemocratic and illiberal, it is also inhuman.
Moreover, there is an internal contradiction in the thinking of those who embrace democracy without its principles. For the sake of argument, let us accept the idea that democracy prevails as long as there are free elections and the principle of majority rule is adhered to. This is the bare minimum even for those who would limit the definition of democracy to its very narrowest. But what is the source of the principle of majority rule, if not that every person has an equal vote? That being the case, we must recognize that all citizens are equal.
The aggregate value of the majority, based on counting votes and reaching a decision, has a narrow arithmetic basis and assumes that each and every vote has the same value. Hence, the notion of majority rule by definition posits equality; there cannot be democratic elections without this principle of one-person one-equal-vote. In addition, free elections can take place only on a foundation of respect for other basic rights, such as freedom of expression, freedom of association, and the right to vote and be elected. If some people are not permitted to express their opinion, to attempt to persuade others, to form groups, to run for office, and, of course, to vote, how can there be democratic elections?
That is, even if for the moment we put aside our profound and essential commitment as human beings to fundamental “liberal” principles, we cannot have a democracy without them. QED.
But supporters of liberal democracy bear some of the responsibility for the fact that these values – human and civil rights, protection of minorities – are perceived by the public and by some politicians as a heavy load to get off one’s back. Now is the time for soul searching: Can there be a liberal democracy where there is deep-seated inequality? Can we expect citizens to believe that the system rests on the principle of equality when they feel themselves worth so much less than others? Hi-tech workers, attorneys, physicians with private practices, professors in their ivory tower, and members of other professions: Do you really expect the general public that needs your services to believe in the values you preach to them – such as showing initiative, innovation, equality, progress, and compassion, when the bottom line on their pay slip cannot cover those services and they must do without them?
Where does this extreme polarization of values come from? Is it a law of nature that those with no financial worries are strong supporters of the rights of women and minorities and of universal values, while those who live from paycheck to paycheck (or worse) adhere to diametrically opposed values? Are these differences innate? Are there people who are born with authoritarian instincts? Xenophobia? Passionate advocates of limits on freedom and of discrimination against anyone who isn’t like them? And, vice versa, are some people born with tolerance for otherness? Appreciation of diversity? Compassion for the weak? That, too, does not seem likely.
The more likely explanation is that xenophobia, hatred of minorities, burrowed in a nationalist identity and conservative values, and flocking after those who promise power and “to set things right” derive from fear and a sense of threat. These feelings are not distributed evenly among the population. Those who find themselves closer to the brink will grasp at any rope offered them. At present, those who hold out the rope – even if they will ultimately wrap it around our neck – are the populists, who are conveying a sense of security and certainty, which while unfounded, is at least promised.
As Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart showed in their study of the sources of populism, when all eyes were focused on specific minorities and the liberal democratic world was intoxicated by post-materialist ideas such as women’s and LGBTQ rights and environmental politics, they were blind to other minorities, to the weak, to those left in the dust by liberal democracy. It didn’t have to be that way. The discourse of human rights is not a zero-sum game; it can be win-win. It does not have to be conducted over the heads of the powerless and invisible. It is relevant for all. The defense of women’s and LGBTQ rights and the campaign against the climate crisis do not necessarily harm other minorities. Still, we must not ignore that sometimes there are clashes, conflicts, and contradictions; and in such cases, it is precisely democratic politics based on the principles of persuasion, debate, compromise, and tolerance that offer us a way to deal with conflicts in creative ways; because politics is the art of the impossible.
Today, many supporters and devotees of liberal democracy are feeling the ground shake under their feet and are terrified of falling into the abyss that is opening up before them. This terror is only too real. History teaches us that democracy can be destroyed with unbearable ease. But now we also have an opportunity to go back to the roots of liberal democracy and invest in education for democratic citizenship to rebuild trust and convey the idea that democracy belongs to all of us, not only to the elite.
To our good fortune, history also teaches us that populism and authoritarianism promise much more than they deliver. Take a look at what Chavez and Maduro did to Venezuela, Bolsonaro to Brazil, and Trump to American democracy.
Let’s hope that Israel won’t have to reach that state of affairs before we wake up. ■
Dr. Dana Blander is a research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute.