As authoritarian, repressive and nationalistic political leaders and parties proliferate and the Western democracies waver in the face of the globalization and climate change, it’s reasonable to ask if liberal democracy can survive. Indeed, globalization and its discontents – diminished prospects, resentment, and blame casting – have become a potent political force undermining mutual tolerance, optimism and willingness to compromise without which democracy falters. The non-democratic regimes – China, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, North Korea – see blood in the water and seek to hasten the decline. Others – Hungary, Poland, Turkey – sense the winds and seek to entrench themselves in power through superficially democratic means.
Liberal democracy: an open society with constitutional government based on popular consent, allocation of political power through multi-party elections, separation of powers, rule of law, market economy with private property, and equal protection of human rights, civil rights, civil liberties and political freedom for all regardless of belief, self-identity, race, religion, gender or ethnicity.
Liberal democracy and evolution: Darwinian evolution works through adaption of species to their environment through natural selection, that is, through random mutations, some of which allow individual organisms to reproduce more successfully than others. In this way, a species may evolve over time into something new. Some fail to survive because of environmental changes too rapid to allow time for successful mutations to arise – the Cretaceous impact that wiped out the dinosaurs – or because they become too tied to an environment which then disappears – as happening to lemur species in Madagascar as rain forests fall victim to man.
Although we are social creatures, human nature is highly individualistic. We strive as individuals to survive and thrive in our environment. A liberal democratic society can be thought of as a species that permits the fullest range of random “mutations” as unique individuals are allowed to live and innovate as their individual nature and capabilities allow. Such a society is more likely to successfully meet the challenges of its environment and thrive than one which seeks to limit or control individual variability. Liberal democracy confers evolutionary advantage.
Globalization is an ideology: For decades, liberal democracy has been in the hands of capitalist, rent-seeking elites pushing their self-serving ideology of supra-national, borderless free trade. In the U.S., this has been at the expense of the working class and increased inequality. Those left behind by globalization make up the natural breeding ground of support for the populist, nativist politics used by rightist parties seeking to entrench themselves in power through subverting democratic practices.
But there is nothing sacrosanct about globalization. There is no reason why a polity could not decide to place limits on international capitalism within its borders. It might well value policies in support of domestic labor and domestic production even if it led to higher prices. These could be offset through creation of better paid union jobs, addressing economic inequality with higher minimum wages and perhaps guaranteed minimum incomes, higher taxes on the wealthy and big corporations and rebuilding industry and extending infrastructure green.
Building it back better: Liberal democracy’s evolutionary advantage lies in openness to random change, i.e. economic, technological, cultural and social innovation. To reach its potential, innovation needs enabling infrastructure and a population with full access to public primary and secondary education and opportunities for university and technical and vocational training. It requires mass communication and transport systems available everywhere and at every level. In the U.S., government played a large role here through providing postal services, building roads and supporting rail systems. These could be brought into the 21st Century by bringing free broadband Internet to every home, small business, library and school. Efficient mass transport networks in cities and through small towns and rural areas would allow decentralization of economic activity without requiring more cars. The Postal Service – with its presence everywhere – provides outlets for delivering not only mail and goods at reasonable cost but also direct government services for individuals and businesses. Government spending to connect and empower small businesses and green industry and innovators would be productive even if it increased debt.
Liberal democracy has considerable advantages over control systems. If the human species – facing our self-created singularity – has a future, it will be in the hands of something like liberal democracy. Survival demands the fullest range of mutation and adaption of which humans are capable. This can be a future in which the United States plays a leading role. Our democracy can fail only at our hands.