Dec 24, 2022 • 1HR 11M

Shadi Hamid on the Tensions Between Liberalism and Democracy

Yascha Mounk and Shadi Hamid discuss what to do when people freely vote for illiberal leaders and policies.

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Shadi Hamid is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a contributing writer at The Atlantic. His latest book is The Problem of Democracy: America, the Middle East, and the Rise and Fall of an Idea.

In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Shadi Hamid discuss what happens when liberalism and democracy clash; whether countries with freely elected but highly illiberal governments can remain democratic; and why every consistent democrat has to embrace at least a minimal form of liberalism.

The views expressed are those of the speakers, not those of Persuasion. The transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.


Yascha Mounk: We agree on something important, which is that the core of our political system, liberal democracy, really consists in two elements that don't always go together; that there is a democratic element of collective self-determination and a liberal element of individual rights and freedoms, and those two things can come apart. That, I think, is a premise that we agree on. 

You give a clear priority to one of those values. You think that in circumstances where we can’t have both, we should go with democracy over liberalism. What's the reason for that?

Shadi Hamid: When the two are in tension, as they increasingly are, you have to decide what you're going to prioritize. I have a darkened view of human nature, and I don't believe that good things go together (I don't believe that we can have too many good things simultaneously). So, we have to make some kind of decision: either we prioritize “small-l liberalism” over “small-d democracy,” or we do the reverse.

In my book, I focus on democratic dilemmas in the Middle East, which I think were quite stark, especially during the Arab Spring. That's where a lot of people got their first taste of the fact that liberalism and democracy don't go together, specifically because religiously-oriented parties, Islamist parties like the Muslim Brotherhood, came to power through free elections in Egypt. But that had been going on for a while in the Middle East—in the 1989 elections in Jordan, where the Muslim Brotherhood did extremely well; the 1991 elections in Algeria, where an Islamist party was on the verge of coming to power, but then the secular military launched a coup to prevent that; in 1995 in Turkey, where the Islamist party came to power (though there was a coup afterwards); in 2006, with Hamas coming to power through elections. 

In some ways, the Middle East was at the vanguard of the divergence between liberalism and democracy. And now it's become a more universal phenomenon. We see it in recent elections—Italy, Sweden, Brazil, India, Israel. Citizens really do have to make a choice, because it probably will affect their own country, if it hasn't already.

Mounk: Part of the concern, especially in the Middle East, is that historically, the US government has chosen liberalism over democracy. They would choose these military regimes that have a kind of secular basis, or dictators that promised at least to uphold some form of religious pluralism or limit the power of Islamist movements and parties. They said, “These are going to be more reliable partners to us geopolitically, and so we’re actually quite skeptical of democratic movements.” Is that fair?

Hamid: I think the US has a terrible record on this, especially in the Middle East. But the Middle East stands out as an exception, because if you look at the post-Cold War period, the US did get better at promoting democracy in other regions of the world. After supporting right-wing, anti-communist dictatorships in Latin America in the 1960s and 70s, we start to see pressure on these autocrats in the 80s. Then the US does facilitate proper democratic transitions in that region, but also in Asia, the Philippines, South Korea, and so forth. That's why, for me, the Middle East has always been a source of frustration. 

You pointed to the fact that US administrations have been skeptical towards, and even sometimes opposed to, democracy in the Middle East. Part of it has to do with a discomfort about the role of religion in public life, especially for secular elites. It's hard for them to feel comfortable with Islamist parties. They're just very foreign from a cultural and religious standpoint. But there is also an interesting way in which ideology and interests come together. These Islamist parties are also anti-Israel. They are against US hegemony in the region. So it's a mixture of these different factors. And I really go hard on the Obama administration in the book. I try to reconstruct the events leading up to the coup in Egypt in 2013. As it happens, liberal elites in Egypt were vociferous supporters of the coup. And then there was also a massacre after the coup, a month later, in which a thousand Muslim Brotherhood supporters were killed over the course of the day. 

Some of it is personal in a sense. I was born and raised in the US, but my parents immigrated from Egypt. My extended family is mostly still in Egypt, and most of them are what you would call Westernized, secular elites. And I saw how they supported the coup, and also the massacre, because they saw the rise of a religious party as a threat to their understanding of what Egypt was. They couldn't get past that existential tenor. They said, “Well, democracy is nice in theory. But if this is what it means, in practice”—i.e. if it means that there could be changes regarding gender, women's rights, minority rights—then they were very concerned. And so they made their choice.

This is not to say that liberals everywhere are likely to support a military coup against a democratically elected government. But in the Middle East we have seen, by and large, liberals and secularists siding with authoritarian regimes, because they don't like the outcomes that democracy produces. That, to me, is the problem of democracy.

Mounk: I think where we agree is that all good things don't naturally go together—just because you have democracy, you're not going to have liberalism; just because you have liberalism, you're not going to have democracy. I think where we disagree is the assumption that you seem to have, that we can stably have one of those without the other. I'm a little bit skeptical that you can stably have democracy without liberalism. 

When you're looking at those governments you're talking about, whether it's Donald Trump in the United States, or you're talking about some of these Islamist movements in the Middle East, I agree that when they win elections fair and square we shouldn't have a coup against them. That seems pretty straightforward. But I guess I disagree that actually, over time, you're going to be able to sustain democratic regimes that are deeply illiberal, in which people continue to have the ability to vote them out of office; that it's actually all the more reason to fight very, very hard against any backsliding on either front, because democratic backsliding is going to lead to illiberalism, and liberal backsliding is going to lead to the end of democracy, eventually, because we need individual rights, a free press, independent institutions and all of those kinds of things to make sure, as I often put it, that a democratically elected government can also be removed from office by democratic means. 

Why should we think that these deeply illiberal governments are going to continue to be democratic in a meaningful sense?

Hamid: I'm glad you raise that objection. It is one that I hear quite a bit. Liberalism and democracy diverge in certain ways, but they also still overlap in important ways. Part of what I propose is what I call “democratic minimalism.” I tried to lay out in detail what that actually means in practice and in theory. As you alluded to, you need some degree of political liberalism to have free and fair electoral competition. People need to be able to gather in public squares to hold rallies. They need to be able to communicate with voters. They need to be able to criticize the ruling party. They have to be able to found new political parties. Without those things, a democratic result will not, in fact, be representative of the electorate, because the electorate wouldn't have had a chance to express and entertain different options and ideas. So at a very basic level, even with my minimalist conception of democracy, you still need some political liberalism.

However, on cultural, religious, and social liberalism—that is where I think we have to give elected governments more permission to run. And to be clear, I wouldn't want to live under an elected government that actually experimented with some of these post-liberal ideas. But that's not really for me to say, because if we're talking about religiously conservative societies, I'm not allowed to vote in those countries. I'm only allowed to vote in America. It's ultimately up to the electorate, and if you really don't like a particular outcome, then you do have the option of fighting another day, four or five years later, at the ballot box. That actually encourages you to make your case to the voters. That's what democracy ultimately does: at the end of the day, if you don't like something, you have to persuade voters that you are the better alternative. And I know a lot of people don't like doing that, because it requires talking to deplorables and to the pious, unwashed masses. That's where I think that liberal parties—which are increasingly dominated by upper-class, professional, elite types, who are very well educated, sometimes too well educated—don't necessarily like talking to the masses and persuading them to join their side. 

Here's an example of the distinction. If a government restricted protests of over a hundred people, that would be a violation of political liberalism, and it would affect the fairness of democratic competition. But if you think about an elected government that restricted the right to consume alcohol, that restricted abortions, that introduced laws on blasphemy as it relates to insulting prophets and divine texts, or an elected government that made it harder for women to initiate divorce proceedings—those might be objectionable and even morally abhorrent to us. But they don't violate a minimalist conception of democracy. 

Mounk: It is a notion of what some political theorists like John Rawls would call a “comprehensive liberalism,” where you're saying that, actually, to be a liberal is to be very individualist; to have the kinds of lives in which you don't structure your conception of the good around ties to your family or to a religious community; in which we're always self-inventing individualists. We don't want to exaggerate the extent to which that's the case. But that is the way that a lot of highly-educated, influential people live. Trying to impose that on the society as a whole is obviously wrong; it’s actually also, in a more important sense, illiberal, because it doesn't recognize the freedom of people to determine how they want to live their lives. I agree with you that there is a way in which elites can start talking about liberalism that bleeds into this kind of comprehensive liberalism. 

I nevertheless worry about two things. The first is that the basic rights to free worship, to free expression, to contest the ruling values of a society, go a little beyond democratic minimalism. Consider Coptic Christians in Egypt, 10% of the society, who suffer really terrible oppression from the society at large. Now, perhaps they can run political parties or assemble in the public square for political demonstrations, but when their ability to worship, their ability to be true to their conceptions of how they want to lead their life is massively threatened by a majoritarian, democratic government that says, “Hey, we have 90% of the population, so we can just tell you what to do. We can close down your churches, and we don't have to protect them when people try to burn them down”—that doesn't necessarily violate the kind of minimalist, democratic conception you have, but it does violate my values, and the rights of those people, in an extreme way.

If that's the nature of the illiberal democratic government we're talking about, then I refuse to choose between some kind of undemocratic liberal regime that doesn't allow for free elections but has respect towards that 10% of people, and a government that’s democratically legitimated, but that oppresses 10% of people in really terrible ways, perhaps up to and including real forms of violence. That just feels to me like a Sophie's Choice that I'm not willing to make. so. What would you say normatively in a circumstance like that? Are you clear that one of those governments is better than the other?

Hamid: I'm glad you put it in such stark fashion. First of all, I don't think it's likely that we’ll have those sort of ideal-type options. Obviously, this is a hypothetical, but I think, in practice, we wouldn't have a choice quite like that. But let's say we did. The democratic option would in some ways be preferable, because you could always undo the bad policies of, let's say, closing down a certain number of churches. I think it'd be very difficult to close down all churches, because there still is an Egyptian constitution. Let's keep in mind that when we're talking about majorities, they still are constrained by whatever constitution there is in their country. Unless we're talking about a place where the constitution isn't set in stone, or they're drafting something new. That would maybe be a little bit different. At least in that context, you would still have a constitutional framework that would introduce some guardrails against very extreme actions. And obviously, of course, you can amend constitutions, usually with a supermajority of some sort. But to be fair, you can do that even in America. Theoretically, you could find a way to ban Muslims from political office if you had a large enough number of votes to amend the Constitution. 

The benefit of the democratic option is that some people would see the dangers of closing down churches; they would see that their Christian colleagues, friends, or relatives are having a very hard time under this government; and they would be able to organize and oppose it. They would be able to make the case to the electorate in the subsequent election that this has gone too far, that there must be another way—this is the right to recourse. There is no right to recourse even under a benevolent dictatorship. There is no avenue for redress. For me, the avenue of redress is really at the heart of the democratic idea, and as long as that's there, you never completely lose hope. 

Mounk: I agree with that, which is why I'm not arguing that one is superior to the other. It's one of the reasons why I'm so worried about restrictions on free speech, both internationally and within Western liberal democracies: because you need freedom of speech in order to be able to contest the next election in a way that's fair, and when people think that losing access to the government might lose them access to the ability to make their case in the next election, you lose the pacifying power of the democratic mechanism. Elections come to be all-or-nothing in a way that's really worrying. 

I worry that, as political scientists like Donald Horowitz have pointed out, there are some societies that are just very divided along pretty stable ethnic or religious lines. And in those societies, if you happen to be in a clear minority, the ability to make an appeal to your fellow citizens is very limited. The right to contest, in an abstract way, when you're pretty sure it will fall on deaf ears, and when the daily circumstances of your life are really perilous and violate your moral interest in being able to worship as you please—are these things really compensated for?

Hamid: It becomes more complicated in certain kinds of ethnically and tribally divided societies. But I think it's also worth mentioning that even in “advanced,” properly liberal democracies, you see this dilemma in a very stark way: for example, in Switzerland, with the ban on minarets. You cannot have a minaret at a certain height. And that was passed by popular referendum. They chose illiberally, in a way that was clearly anti-Muslim. Or France’s 2004 law on conspicuous religious symbols, which I would argue specifically targeted Muslims, even though that's not exactly in the text of the legislation.

I'm someone who has been very critical of the French legislative measures that seem to single out Muslims. But at the same time, if I want to be faithful to my own principles, I have to say that this is what the majority of French people seem to prefer and want. That is the law of the land, and we have to respect it. We can argue against it, and Muslims in France do argue against it. I hope that one day, they'll be able to persuade their fellow French to think differently. 

Thinking about the Swiss minaret ban, what can I say about that? That's pretty scary. Imagine something comparable in the US now. I think that in the case of countries that are not advanced democracies, obviously there's a real tension here and the stakes are higher; it's not just, “Oh, you can't have a minaret.” But in that case, I think my answer is not going to be satisfying to many people. You have to let the democratic process play out. I can't guarantee substantively good outcomes before the process is in motion. We can hope for things. We can push for things. 

But ultimately, let’s think about our own country—until the 1960s, according to certain political science definitions, was the US an actual democracy? Did it actually have universal suffrage? If America was as restrictive as that as recently as the 1960s, then there is going to be some of that push-and-pull in a country like Egypt.

The other option is just to stick with what we know: these more culturally secular or liberal autocracies that actually provide protections on certain women's rights and minority rights, even though they're bad on everything else. But then you never start the process of moving towards democracy. And then you'll say that Arabs are never ready because they haven't become liberal. So, I also worry about the sequentialism. If you prioritize liberalism, I find that in effect, folks end up pushing democracy further out into the future. 


Read: “The Irony at the End of History” by Shadi Hamid


Mounk: What's an example of an illiberal democracy that has actually sustained itself in a meaningful way over time, and in which the violations of individual rights were not so blatant that we would have real trouble tolerating it? Where did that actually lead to an imperfect democracy, or even a society that eventually gave more rights to the minorities within that society?

Hamid: I do think there is one that's quite impressive and successful, although people might take issue with me highlighting this country: Israel. Israel is the most successful illiberal democracy, probably, in the modern period.

By successful I mean that it has survived, and it has been successful, obviously, in terms of economic outcomes, and people continue to have the right to vote. You haven't seen an erosion, which I think is a very legitimate concern, whereby over time illiberal governments start to encroach on contestation. Luckily, Israel's democracy remains as vibrant and vigorous as it has been in recent decades. Of course, we're talking within the borders of Israel proper. I'm not talking about the West Bank, because Palestinians in the West Bank don't have the right to vote in Israeli elections. They're not Israeli citizens, and that's a different conversation. 

But in the case of Israel, Arabs are, I’m comfortable saying, second-class citizens. I'm very much opposed to that. I find that morally abhorrent, and I've been very critical of Israel on precisely those grounds. Their sense of their own citizenship is limited. The national anthem is specifically Jewish. On a symbolic level, you have issues like that. Arabs don't serve in the military—again, for obvious and understandable reasons. It would put them in a pretty difficult position. 

Jewish citizens of Israel are able to receive a number of benefits and preferences. For example, if you marry an Arab who is not an Israeli citizen, that person may have a lot of difficulty becoming Israeli. In a way, that wouldn't be the case for a Jewish person in Israel who's marrying an American Jew. There are just two levels of citizenship. At the same time, Arabs do have the right to vote, they do have significant representation in the Israeli parliament. And that is good. And they actually do have the right to recourse: they can vote on the local level, they can vote on the national level, they can impress upon their local representatives to provide more resources to disadvantaged Arab communities. They always have the option to exercise disagreement, anger, and frustration through democratic contestation. 

Indonesia is another case. On the local level, you have Sharia ordinances that have been implemented in more religiously conservative regions. It's religiously and culturally illiberal, and it is also a vibrant democracy—not a perfect one. There are many flaws, and some of them may be heading in the wrong direction. India is also an interesting case. I don't know enough about it to rule definitively on how bad or how good it is. Obviously, I'm very concerned about the disenfranchisement of the Muslim minority. We'll have to see how that goes. But for the time being, India has not become an authoritarian state. Is it successful? Well, if you care about Muslim minority rights as I do, I hesitate to call India a success. It's not for me to say whether it's a model or not, but you can remain a democracy even if you feature high levels of illiberalism. But let's also remember that it's a continuum. Countries go back and forth along the spectrum. France is not completely liberal. As I mentioned earlier, France does feature some illiberal components because of its state ideology, which is an aggressive form of secularism.

Mounk: How do your reflections about the conflict between democracy and liberalism, and the way in which someone like Donald Trump threatens elements of our liberal system—I would say he also threatens our democratic system—inform your reflections on the United States?

Hamid: I do feel a sense of relief that those four years were not as bad as my worst fears. Let's not forget that Donald Trump entertained, in the kind of casual way that he does, putting most American Muslims on a registry. But when we actually look at what he did, I was able, to some degree, to think: “OK, democracy is working. Different parts of the country are pushing back. The Democratic Party is pushing back. They're defending Muslims.” 

Post-2016, the Democratic Party pushed back hard, and that was great, and our democracy survived. People criticized me for not anticipating the insurrection on January 6. I'm okay with saying that I did not predict that. I did not think that was going to happen, and that was frightening to me. It showed that the Republican Party was worse than I expected when it came to democracy. But I don't think it is appropriate to demonize Republicans writ large. We have a two-party system. If one party doesn't do well, or is messing things up, and people want to choose the other option, that's their right, without saying that anyone who votes for the GOP in 2022 is a fascist, or is helping democracy die.

This is why this sort of apocalyptic rhetoric that has become the norm is dangerous. It delegitimizes normal democratic contestation. The Democratic Party is basically saying to people, “Even if you don't like our policies on inflation, on public education, on wokeness, on gender identity,”—which is obviously bothering a lot of people of color, especially Arabs, Muslims, Hispanics, and so forth—“you still have to vote for us, because democracy is on the ballot, and there is only one choice: us.” To me, that is contrary to the democratic spirit. That's part of the argument that I've been making. When I came back to the US in 2014 from the Middle East, I saw echoes of how people talked about Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in how people talked about Trump and the deplorables. You have liberal and secular elites who are better educated. They think they know what’s best for everyone. They see a democratic result they don't like—in this case, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt—and they say, “If democracy is good, it should lead to good outcomes. But this is not a good outcome.” I saw something similar post-2016, and I think there was an effort to delegitimize Trump almost from the get-go. 

Mounk: Let me ask you a final question. How optimistic should we be about democracy? If we accept your minimalist conditions, should that make us more optimistic about democracy flourishing in the Middle East, about democracy surviving in the United States? What do you think the state of democracy in the world will be in 25 or 50 years?

Hamid: Well, first of all, it makes democracy easier to promote. Because we say, “We're not asking you to change culturally or religiously, we're talking about procedural mechanisms that serve the purpose of regulating conflict, because ultimately, what diverse, divided societies need throughout the world is a regular system for managing conflict. And electoral competition is the best way to do that.” That's something that any people, any culture, is capable of embracing. Now, the practice is obviously difficult. But I think that's an easier thing to explain and justify. 

But people start backfilling a lot of liberal progressive ideas, and that happens a lot when we talk to folks abroad. We start to include things about gender equality. How are you focusing on gender equality when you haven't even established a basic working democratic system? At least get things in order, then you can start to make the case for cultural change, or whatever it might be. 

Even people who disagree with the specifics of my argument, I would like to think they'd be open to the idea that America shouldn't lose faith in itself. We are still a democracy, however flawed, and we do have some moral superiority. I do believe we are better than authoritarian countries and authoritarian societies. And it does hurt me to see so many of my fellow liberals basically saying, “Well, we shouldn't be talking about democracy or promoting it abroad until we get our own house in order.” Come on, this is absurd. First of all, it could take a long time for us to get our house in order. And you know what? We might not get our house in order. 

We have to also acknowledge that democracy is not a panacea. This argument is my way of lowering people's expectations, because part of the problem is that we've projected such a burden on the democratic idea, and it's a burden that it can no longer carry. Democracy doesn't give us all these other things that we like. Biden says, “Democracy should lead to consensus. Democracy should be a path towards unity. Democracy should ‘work.’ It should deliver results.” Actually, democracies don't always deliver good results economically, for example, but we've given people the impression that democracy will lead to those outcomes. So of course they're disappointed. Let's lower our sights. Democracy actually is not about all those other things—it can be, and often, it does actually produce better economic outcomes. But those outcomes are never foreordained, and that's a hard pill for people to swallow. We think politics is where we solve everything. It's not.


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Podcast production by John T. Williams and Brendan Ruberry. Podcast cover image by Joe O’Shea.

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