THE ASCENDANCE OF LIBERAL DEMOCRACY
In fact, Fukuyama’s model polity was the product of grand political forces and particular historical moments. Democracy itself, of course, is a very old political principle, one that is based on the deceptively simple idea of rule by the people (or dmos).
Its central claim is that individuals should not be powerless subjects, exposed to the whims of tyrants, but rather should have a say in creating the rules by which they are governed. In order to do so, they must also have the opportunity to participate actively in political life. Throughout human history, this democratic imperative has been interpreted in a number of ways and by a range of political institutions.
Others are forms of indirect democracy; for instance, our system of elected members of a parliament, who represent the views of the people within their constituencies and make the laws on their behalf. But whether direct or indirect, rule by the d?mos has not always been seen as the best or most successful form of government. In fact, at various points in its historical development, democracy has been written off by its critics. The Greek philosopher Plato decried democracy for encouraging mob rule, whereby the majority would impose its will, no matter how discriminatory or oppressive, on the minority. When the Athenians were crushed by the kings of Macedonia in the fourth century BC, democracy became a political system of ridicule rather than praise.
Although there are examples of attempts to provide for broader input into political decision-making – most notably the creation and expansion of “parliaments” in England from the thirteenth century onward – for centuries political power was concentrated in the hands of largely unaccountable rulers. In sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe, the period that saw the origins of our modern nation-state, the most persuasive political arguments did not herald “people power” but legitimated the supreme authority of the monarch, who was answerable solely to God.
After the Protestant Reformation, it was believed that only absolute sovereignty could counter the disorder and violence that plagued Europe and ensure the physical security of its populations. Democracy, by contrast, was seen as disorderly and dangerous. James Madison, a key architect of the U.S. Constitution, deliberately avoided the term, disparaging democracies as “spectacles of turbulence and contention” and as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths. It took roughly two centuries for democracy to reassert itself as an attractive and viable principle of political organization.
Two key moments in its re-emergence were the American War of Independence (1775-83) and the founding of the new American republic, and the French Revolution (1789-99), during which revolutionaries fought not only to restrain the absolute power of King Louis XVI but to bring to an end the whole system of privileges for the nobility that had supported the monarchy. According to the British political theorist John Dunn, it was during this revolutionary period that the word “democracy” which was originally used as a noun to describe a system of rule, expanded to become a noun denoting a certain type of person (a “democrat”); an adjective which expressed allegiance (“democratic”); and a verb (to “democratize”) which described the transformational process of adopting popular self-rule.
But it was not all smooth sailing: while the protagonists of the French Revolution agreed on what they wanted to destroy, they were less united on exactly what kind of society they wanted to build. Some, inspired by the eighteenth-century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, believed true democracy could be realized only if rulers directly enacted the people’s will – broadly understood as the will of the majority – and only if the rules of society applied equally to all.
Rousseau used these two democratic ideas, consent and equality, to challenge the claim that the divine right of kings justified the law-making power and authority of the sovereign. Instead, only free, equal, and reciprocal agreements among the people could form the basis of legitimate authority in a political community and provide the source of law.8 Legislative power thus belonged not to the ruler, but to the people and was thereafter known as popular sovereignty.
Moreover, the state was no longer seen as part of a natural or divine order but rather as a human artifact, instituted to further the collective interests of its citizens. The potential dangers of this approach were on full and gory display when Maximilien Robespierre became the leader of the revolution in France, staging show trials and sentencing thousands of citizens to death, in a period that became known as the Terror.
Would you like to read more about this topic? This book might interest you: Geopolitics.