Western politicians and major news media say that the liberal democratic order is under threat. But what do they mean by ‘liberal democracy’?
January 30, 2019
By Stephen Gowans
Early in a series of lectures delivered in 1965, the political scientist C.B Macpherson observed that, “Democracy used to be a bad word.”  Little did he know that in 2019 “used to be” would no longer fit, and that democracy, the concept, would become a foul thing in the pages of the United States’ newspaper of record, the New York Times, even if democracy, the word, would retain its favourable connotations.
In what is surely an extraordinary pair of articles, the first on 1 November (“The weaknesses in liberal democracy that may be pulling it apart”) and the second on 21 January (“When more democracy isn’t more democratic”), Max Fisher, whose job at the New York Times is to “explore the ideas and context behind major world events,” presents an essentially Marxist critique of liberal democracy, albeit in a non-Marxist idiom, and with the Marxist valorization turned on its head; rather than praising majority rule and the popular will as good things, Fisher presents them as evils.
Fisher argues that democracy comprises “two conflicting imperatives: majority rule and liberalism.” Majority rule serves the interests of the majority (as the majority understands it) and liberalism protects the interests of the establishment, which the establishment defines as universal and equal to the common good.
Voting creates the illusion of legitimacy—that the system is responsive to the popular will, when, in reality, it resists it—while liberalism checks the popular will so that establishment interests remain ascendant in the face of the latent threat of the majority to elite interests.
In “recent years a series of changes, including the rise of social media and online fund-raising, have severely weakened the establishments’ power,” Fisher observes, undermining its ability to hold the popular will in check. This is the danger inherent in democracy, or its promise, depending on whether you come down on the side of the establishment or the majority. In Fisher’s account, the only tolerable democracy is one that isn’t a democracy—that is, one in which liberalism, the instrument of the elite, is used to negate majority rule, the instrument of the many.
Fisher doesn’t present all of his argument in quite these terms, but that’s the gist of it. And where a Marxist would condemn the check on the popular will exerted by the establishment through its institutions and representatives, Fisher treats liberal democracy as a system working as it was designed to work, namely, against the majority, and not on its behalf.
Here’s a summary of his argument, in his own words.
Liberalism, the columnist writes, creates “institutions and representatives” which “balance majority opinion against considerations like universal rights and the common good.” In a democracy “the people’s will is carefully incorporated but rarely intended to dominate” (emphasis added.) This invites the questions: Who established the system’s aims? Why shouldn’t the popular will dominate? And how is the people’s will incorporated, if it is not allowed to dominate?
Lurking in Fisher’s account of liberal democracy is the idea that it is not the people who define the common good but “institutions and representatives.” At the same time, evident in his view, plainly exposed on its surface, is the notion that in a liberal democracy the people’s will is not decisive; it is, instead, the institutions and representatives of the establishment that dominate.
Empirically, this is the case. In their 2014 study of over 1,700 US policy issues, the political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page demonstrated that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests”—the establishment—“have substantial impacts on government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.” 
The reality is amply evident to the majority. Since 1958 the University of Michigan has conducted a public opinion survey every two years in which a broad range of Americans are asked this question: “Would you say that the government is pretty much run by a few big interests looking out for themselves or that it is run for the benefit of all the people?” In 2012, 79 percent said “a few big interests.” 
In Fisher’s view, this is hardly a reality that needs to be challenged and transformed, but accepted, even celebrated, as the best of worlds. The people do not know the common good; they’re incapable of understanding it. The common good must therefore be protected from the people’s whims and misapprehensions. It is incumbent on those of mature judgment to define the common good and protect universal rights from majoritarian impulses.
To make his point, Fisher cites Edmund Burke, a giant of 18th century reactionary thought, whose concern was for the universal rights and common good of the aristocracy. Burke was an adamantine opponent of democracy, and Fisher’s citing the conservative icon in this context has all the persuasiveness of invoking Hitler to make the case that checks on democracy are desirable. Burke and Hitler belong to a reactionary tradition which regards democracy as an abomination. Fisher appears to fit comfortably in this trend—and it is fitting and predictable and hardly surprising that a major columnist of a major newspaper owned by the establishment of the major world imperialist power holds these views.
Fisher shares Burke’s solicitude for the universal rights and common good of the establishment, and contempt for the right to self-determination of the majority. “Leaders have always needed the support of both voters and establishments to win elections,” Fisher explains. “Voters wanted popular rule, establishments wanted checks and institutions; the two held each other in balance.” And that—the negation of the popular will by a minority—is a good thing, if we’re to believe the Burke-quoting Fisher.
But voters have grown “skeptical of the entire idea of accruing power to bureaucrats and elites” Fisher warns, and now want (gasp!) “to replace institutions with … direct rule by the people.” Direct rule by the people would be a tyranny, Fisher warns—of the majority over “the common good” and “universal rights.” He doesn’t spell out what rights are universal, but we can be pretty sure he means the right to live on rent, profits and interest, the right to resist the people’s will, and the right of establishment figures “of mature judgment” to define the common good. In other words, universal rights and the common good are none other than the rights and common good of the economic elite and organized business interests.
In the Fisherian view, democracy as it is practiced in the West, creates a tension between the tyranny of the majority (majority rule, or the dictatorship of the proletariat in the Marxist vernacular) and the tyranny of the establishment (liberalism, or the Marxists’ dictatorship of the bourgeoisie) in which the latter tyranny almost always—and should almost always—prevail over the former.
Majority rule “feels democratic to members of the majority,” Fisher observes, but when the tyranny of the establishment checks the majoritarian impulse of the masses, it “can feel tyrannical.” It is, but that’s how the system is supposed to work, he explains.
Sometimes the inherent tensions within the system threaten to be resolved in the majority’s favor, and Fisher fears that the balance is tipping threateningly close to majority rule. Fisher discerns a specter haunting the West—“the vision of democracy as rule by the people.” It “persists.”
Railing against the people’s revolt against “the entire idea of accruing power to bureaucrats and elites,” Fisher reminds us that democracies “are not designed for direct popular rule.” They are “designed to resist” it. Sure, the “checks imposed on popular will can feel like democracy failing,” he explains, but that “is actually the system working as intended.”
The French Marxist Henri Barbusse defined liberal democracy as a system with “a President instead of an Emperor, an armchair instead of a throne” —much the same as the elite tyranny which preceded it, if different on the surface. This is essentially Fisher’s view, but Barbusse rejected Fisher’s acceptance of elite tyranny as desirable.
Of course, what Fisher is really raising the alarm about is the growing refusal of the majority to allow liberal institutions and representatives to resist the popular will, reflected, for example, in the Brexit vote, or in the election of leaders of whom the establishment disapproves whose route to power has been through their promises to address the basic existential concerns of the majority: jobs, a liveable income, and economic security.
In the 1970s, the establishment’s Trilateral Commission defined the demand that government policy reflect the will of the majority as a “crisis of democracy”—a sickness originating in democratic “excess.” In the 1920s in Italy and in the 1930s in Germany, earlier crises of democracy were resolved by fascism, another instrument of the establishment.
Clearly, the New York Times, and the economic elite and organized business interests it represents, are not prepared to tolerate a democracy of the many, or simply, democracy as it has always been understood. A democracy of the few, one of which Burke would approve—namely, not a democracy at all but a tyranny of the economic elite, a plutocracy—is more in line with the newspaper’s, and the establishment’s, predilections.
All the same, that won’t stop the New York Times, the US government, and the Western intelligentsia, from appropriating the good name of democracy to beautify and disguise their preferred system of anti-democratic rule, all the while defaming the people as democracy’s enemies.
1. C.B. Macpherson, The Real World of Democracy, CBC Enterprises, 1990, (1).
2. Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” Perspectives on Politics, Fall 2014.
3. H. Bruce Franklin, Crash Course: From the Good War to the Forever War, Rutgers University Press, 2018, (72)
4. Henri Barbusse, Stalin: A New World Seen Through One Man, Read Books, 2011, (50).