Sunday, June 1, 2014

Islamist 'majoritarianism': could dishonesty about Egypt do harm in Syria?

Shadi Hamid has explored the prospects of "illiberal democracy" in Temptations of Democracy, a masterful work of political science in which he assesses the agenda and fortunes of Islamists in the 'Arab Spring', especially in Egypt.  In a New York Times op-ed he identifies the challenge the events present to the West:

This poses a thorny question for Western observers: Do Arabs have the right to decide — through the democratic process — that they would rather not be liberal?

An important question but at the same time an odd one, because Western electorates have constantly decided - through the democratic process - that they would rather not be liberal as well.

Though there must have been times when the American electorate joyously endorsed liberal legislation, I can't think of a single instance.* The liberal tendencies of American politics were imposed on the people by the Bill  of Rights, not voted through their representatives.  The implementation of these rights generally involved the decisions of an unelected Supreme Court and a good deal of political horse-trading far removed from the electoral process.  Americans were virtually dragged kicking and screaming into liberal statutes on obscenity, the right to organize trade unions, the right of adults to their sexual preferences, and right to equal treatment for all races and sexes.  Never was their resistance termed undemocratic.

Defending the Bill of Rights has been the constant battle of one of the most unpopular organizations in the United States, the American Civil Liberties Union.  You might ask them how things have gone since 9-11.  Beyond this there are a constantly changing set of restrictions on private life that go beyond traditional criminal law, especially in the realm of pornography and sexual practices.    In Western Europe, illiberalism is much more prevalent, manifesting itself in strong restrictions on racist or holocaust denial utterances, religious dress and various forms of political advocacy.

Yet Hamid was quite right to ask his question, because alleged 'liberals' (especially in Egypt) have loosed a tide of obfuscation against the Islamist threat.  We hear the Islamists are undemocratic and that the liberals - who recently endorsed murderous, vicious repression - are the true defenders of democracy, even of 'freedom'.  However his is a work of political science, more concerned with political realities than with the distortion of that reality by ideologues.

What follows might serve as an appendix to his writings.  It sets out some very basic ideas about democracy and liberalism that used to be plain to everyone.  They have all but vanished due to wishful thinking, self-deception and outright dishonesty.  Restoring these ideas might make a dialogue between Islamists and their opponents a bit more feasible.  Perhaps more important, it could temper the obsession with Islamists in Syria, which has induced panic in Western policy makers.  This panic, through its tendency to choke off support for the Syrian revolution, is responsible for untold horror.

I'll look at three questions:  what is democracy, what is liberalism, and how does these relate to something dreamed up in recent years, 'majoritarianism'?  My spell-checker wonders was that means.


Democracy has been clearly defined for hundreds of years.  It is government according to the will of the people.  The will of the people is understood to be determined by voting.  It is what the majority decides.

Democracy, therefore, is a procedure for making decisions.  It is a form of politics.  There is nothing in democracy that guides those decisions towards wisdom or insanity, good or evil.  A terrible decision is every bit as democratic as a wonderful decision.

Pure democracies are of course rare but clear cases of democracy are not that rare.  Their purity isn't related to how respectful they are of individual rights.  It's a matter of how closely they adhere to the principle of majority rule.  There are many problems about this, most notably whether the people's will can really be expressed through its elected representatives.  Believers in democracy think it can.  These questions of purity have been of interest primarily to theorists.

Other questions have more practical importance.  It sometimes takes centuries for an electoral system to become democratic, and established democracies can corrupt themselves.  The corruption and the slow pace of democratization have to do with deviations from majority rule such as restricting the suffrage, or arranging electoral districts so that some voters have more say than others.  These practices are undemocratic.


Another undemocratic practice is the implementation of a liberal agenda.

Liberalism defends the individual against 'the state' by promoting rights, especially to freedom of speech, assembly, religion, and a private sphere in which you can do as you like, provided you don't harm others.  Its progenitor, John Stuart Mill, was quite aware that in a democracy, the promotion of these rights would thwart the will of the majority.  That was his intention.  Liberalism is not only undemocratic, it is anti-democratic.

In other words, it is very odd indeed to ask if Islamists have a right to create an illiberal democracy.  If they don't, they don't have the right to democracy at all, but only to a system in which popular will, majority rule, is less than sovereign.  Advocates of democracy might better ask whether there can be a right to liberal democracy.  Does the majority have the right to decide what people are permitted to believe, to wear, to say, to do, perhaps on pain of death?   If your standard is accordance with 'democratic values', they certainly do.  Liberalism with its civil liberties is an external *constraint* on democracy.  That is its anti-democratic nature.

It this seems shocking or perverse, it indicates 'democratic' has become an empty honorific.  The more genuinely democratic a government, the less reason there is to assume its decisions are good.  This is a problem for rights advocates, including liberals, who can't bring themselves to say that they reject the central, the only democratic 'value', belief in the supremacy of the majority.  They believe that in many important cases, the majority should not reign supreme.   Typically they refuse to say that, even to themselves.


From this dishonesty about the anti-democratic liberal agenda comes 'majoritarianism'.  It has two meanings.

The first is 'the ideology of a democracy I don't like'.  Liberals like liberalism, so if a majority were to enact anti-democratic liberal measures, that wouldn't be called impure democracy.  It would be celebrated as democracy in its purest, highest form, a far cry from anything as ignoble and vulgar as 'majoritarianism'.  But if an Islamist majority were to enact anti-liberal measures, that would be distasteful.  So as not to admit that such a government would be democratic, indeed far more democratic than a liberal government, it is called 'majoritarian'.  That means exactly and precisely the same thing as 'democratic', just as 'bitch' can mean exactly the same thing as 'woman'.  It is merely a pejorative that, unlike 'bitch', hides its pejorative function.

If this sense of 'majoritarian' is sleazy, its other sense is childishly absurd.  In Egypt, 'majoritarian' is often applied to democratically elected administrations that don't share power with the minority.   Please note this has absolutely nothing to do with the rights of *individuals* in the minority.  A majority might scrupulously defend all the civil rights of all those individuals.  It might never stray one micron from liberal principles.  No matter: it would still be 'majoritarian' in this second sense.  To avoid the label, it would have to give the minority *parties* a substantial say in government.

Never mind that it is common (though not universal) practice in Western democratic countries for an incoming administration to allocate to itself as many government positions as possible.   If it refrains from doing this it is praised as 'bipartisan'. It's praised because that's supererogatory:  it goes above and beyond the call of political duty.  No one calls a partisan administration 'majoritarian' or suggests that its practices are undemocratic.  But in Egypt, this silly suggestion passes for intelligence.  A Martian would find accusations of 'majoritarianism' as pathetically mortifying as the excesses of Sisi-worship that bring shame on Egypt.

No doubt the liberal secularists have legitimate concerns about Islamists, but being undemocratic isn't one of them.  So are liberals.  In Syria as in Egypt, it is wrong to demonize Islamists just because, like liberals, they 'don't believe in democracy'. Again, this applies equally well to liberals.

If a majority endorses an Islamist agenda, if it gives that agenda 'democratic legitimacy', then liberal opponents have a problem that isn't going to be addressed, much less solved, by talk about 'majoritarianism'.   Liberals concerned about Islamist rule will have to offer more than absurdities and special pleading.  With so bankrupt a response, the inevitable consequence is that liberals line up with violent repression of popular will.  In Syria, in Egypt, nonsense about who's democratic makes its own modest contribution to bloodshed.


*maybe ending Prohibition, if it's liberal to want a drink...