The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Creeping Illiberal Democracy

January 18, 2012

 The Washington Post had a fine op-ed this weekend by law professor Jonathan Turley asking the provocative question, Is the U.S. still the “land of the free?”  He gave 10 compelling reasons that it is not.   

Turley’s op ed has the legal issues well-covered.  He also draws telling comparisons between U.S. laws and practices—and similar ones by countries that the State Dept annually condemns as human rights violators.  

True, in the U.S., most of the new policies don’t affect most of “us”—at least if we are not Muslim, politically militant, or poor.  On the other hand, the result of these new policies is that only the whim of our great leaders protects the rest of us from the same arbitrary and abusive practices now regularly rained down upon others.  Worse, with Barack Obama having promoted, implemented, and deepened many of these Bush-era policies, there is now little chance that a change of administration will lead to a change.  Sadly, the elevation of “security” over individual rights now enjoys broad bipartisan support.

These developments should be of concern to all citizens—though the fears of “terrorism” trumped up by our leaders have damped dissent.  From the standpoint of political science, they also raise interesting questions:  First, why is the U.S. human rights record so little studied by IR scholars?  I don’t have the statistics to prove this, but it would be useful to ask the question—and, more important, to remedy this situation, as John Tirman has started doing at least with regard to casualties of America’s wars..  

Second, these developments might breathe life into a line of research that, to my knowledge, has gotten too little attention:  the transition from liberal to “illiberal democracies.”  I have not followed this literature closely since Fareed Zakaria’s decade-old Foreign Affairs piece and more recent, if looser, book.  Zakaria focuses on new democracies that don’t provide their citizens with civil liberties protections.  

But there are also questions about how and when citizens in democratic countries forfeit long-held rights and legal protections.  The following questions are just some of the fascinating and important ones that might be asked:

What factors lead to the forfeiture of long-established rights?  Who leads the assault and why?

To what extent is this the result of consent by the citizenry?  What role have political leaders played in generating “consent?”  How have they done so—and why?

How, if at all, can we step back from illiberal to liberal democracy—in which individual rights are more securely protected against the power of the state?

It is perhaps trite to end with the words of concentration camp survivor Bishop Martin Niemiller, but they are worth remembering, considering—and acting upon:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.

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Bob is a political science professor at Duquesne University who studies global norms, advocacy campaigns, and related subjects.