Maynard: Liberal democracy versus transnational progressivism

In my previous commentary, I discussed Russia’s ongoing propaganda campaign to undermine democracy with the possible end goal being a Russian-style authoritarianism dominating the globe. What remains to be discussed is the fact that there is an ideological civil war within the West and there are two opposing visions of freedom competing to define our notion of democracy.

Before we get to this conflict, let’s see what the Pacific Council on International Policy recommends we do to respond to the Russian campaign:

“To counter Russia’s manipulation, the United States and its allies need, at minimum, to project a forceful unified vision of the appeal of liberal democracy and its values.” Here is what they see as at stake: “If the United States doesn’t respond quickly and definitively to the ominous threat, history books will mark this era as the pivotal moment when world power shifted from liberal democracy to authoritarian dictatorship.”

The problem is that not all those who cherish freedom agree on how to define “liberal democracy.” John Fonte of the Hudson Institute spells out this problem clearly in an article entitled “Liberal Democracy vs. Transnational Progressivism: The Future of the Ideological Civil War Within the West.” In this article he reports on the proceedings of a UN World Conference:

In the two weeks before September 11, from August 31 to September 7, 2001, the UN World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance was held in Durban, South Africa. The American NGOs listed above attended the conference with financial support from the Ford, Rockefeller, MacArthur, and Charles Stewart Mott Foundations. At the conference the NGOs worked with delegates from African states that supported “reparations” from Western nations as compensation for the transatlantic slave trade of the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. American NGOs provided research assistance and helped develop reparations resolutions that condemned only the West, without mentioning the larger traffic in African slaves that were sent to the Islamic lands of the Middle East. In addition, the NGOs endorsed a series of demands, including:

  • U.S. acknowledgment of “the breadth and pervasiveness of institutional racism” that “permeates every institution at every level.”
  • A declaration that “racial bias corrupts every stage of the [U.S.] criminal justice process, from suspicion to investigation, arrest, prosecution, trial, and sentencing.”
  • Support and expansion of federal and state hate crimes legislation.
  • Condemnation of opposition to affirmative action measures.
  • U.S. recognition of an adequate standard of living as a “right, not privilege.”
  • A statement deploring “denial of economic rights” in the United States.
  • Promotion of multilingualism instead of “discriminatory” English-language acquisition emphasis in U.S. schools.
  • Denunciation of free market capitalism as a fundamentally flawed system.”

Here is how he sees the difference between traditional liberal democracy, as exemplified by America’s founding, and what he calls “Transnational Progressivism:”

The NGOs at the Durban conference exemplify a new challenge to liberal democracy and its traditional home, the liberal democratic nation-state. These have always been self-governing representative systems comprised of individual citizens who enjoy freedom and equality under law and together form a people within a democratic nation-state. Thus, liberal democracy means individual rights, democratic representation (with some form of majority rule) and national citizenship. Yet, as the vignettes of the Durban conference (and myriad other conflicts of the past four decades) demonstrate, all of these principles, along with the very idea of the liberal democratic nation-state, are contested today in the West, suggesting that we have not reached the “end of history” in the ideological sense delineated by Francis Fukuyama in his groundbreaking 1989 essay.

He wrote this article back in 2002, and here is the struggle he saw coming:

Thus, it is entirely possible that modernitythirty or forty years hencewill witness not the final triumph of liberal democracy, but a new challenge to it in the form of a new transnational hybrid regime that is post-liberal democratic, and in the context of the American republic, post-Constitutional and post-American. I will call this alternative ideology “transnational progressivism.” This ideology constitutes a universal and modern worldview that challenges in theory and practice both the liberal democratic nation-state in general and the American regime in particular. The aftermath of September 11 provides the possibility of a resurgence by the forces of traditional nation-centered liberal democracy. But before addressing this possibility, it is necessary to examine in detail the theory and practice of “transnational progressivism.”

Basically, he defines it as a collectivist, top down system of rule by self-appointed elites. The populist ire that Russia is taking advantage of is a reaction to the extreme hubris of our new would be masters and their complete disdain for individual, local and national sovereignty. In a book entitled “The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium,” author Martin Guri lays out the nature of this reaction:

Riding a tsunami of information, the public has trampled on the temples of authority in every domain of human activity, everywhere. The Revolt of the Public tells the story of how ordinary people, gifted amateurs networked in communities of interest, have swarmed over the hierarchies of accredited professionals, questioned their methods, and shouted their failures from the digital rooftops. In science, business, media – and, pre-eminently, in politics and government – established elites have lost the power to command attention and set the agenda.

The consequences have been revolutionary. Insurgencies enabled by digital devices and a vast information sphere have mobilized millions, toppling dictators in Egypt and Tunisia, crushing the ruling Socialist Party in Spain, inspiring “Tea Parties” and “Occupations” in the United States. Trust in political authority stands at an all-time low around the world. The Revolt of the Public analyzes the composition of the public, the nature of authority and legitimacy, and the part played by the perturbing agent: information. A major theme of the book is whether democratic institutions can survive the assaults of a public that at times appears to be at war with any form of organization, if not with history itself.

The question we must ask ourselves is whether a revolt of the public against authority can be turned into a positive striving for liberty. Without a positive agenda to inspire real hope, history has shown that demagogues will steer public anger at the elites into a movement that ends up in authoritarianism. Next, we will take a look at how whether there is real cause for hope.

Robert Maynard writes a column for True North Reports. He lives in Williston, Vermont.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Ragesoss