Restricting Democracy in Order to Protect Other Liberal Values

Some argue that it would be hypocritical for the United States or other Western nations to support the recent military coup against radical Islamist Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi. After all, we supposedly champion democracy, and Morsi was democratically elected. Whether the US should endorse the post-coup government, oppose it, or take a wait-and-see attitude is a tough question. But it isn’t inherently hypocritical for liberal democrats to – in some cases – support the overthrow of an elected government.

That’s because democracy is not the only important liberal value, and not always the most important one. At the very least, the liberal tradition, broadly defined, also values individual freedom, equality for women, toleration of religious and ethnic minorities, economic progress, and the prevention of mass murder, slavery, and genocide. Most of the time, democracy promotes these other liberal values better than the available alternative regimes. But not always. Democracy and liberal values conflict in cases where public opinion is highly illiberal and cases where the democratic process brings to power parties that intend to shut down future political competition. Both problems are relevant to the present situation in Egypt and at least some other nations.

I. Illiberal Majority Opinion.

Democracy is a political system where the government is chosen by the majority of voters. But what if that majority favors oppressive, illiberal policies? What if they want to persecute religious minorities, force women to be second-class citizens, establish systems of forced labor, and so on? In that scenario, democracy can easily end up promoting repression.

This is far from a purely theoretical problem. Majority Egyptian opinion is in fact highly illiberal, with 84 percent supporting the death penalty for any Muslim who converts to another religion, 54 percent favoring legally mandated sex segregation in the workplace, and 58 percent saying that laws should “strictly follow the Quran” (compared to 28 percent who say it should merely “follow values and principles of Islam”). This problem is not, of course, unique to present-day Egypt. In post-World War II western Germany, the US, Britain, and France at first refused to establish an elected government, in part because surveys showed that majority German opinion was highly authoritarian well into the 1950s. When they did allow the establishment of a democratic government in 1949, they limited the range of parties who were allowed to compete, banning both the Nazis and other extreme nationalists (the West German government later banned the Communist Party for many years).

Unfortunately, cases like modern Egypt and post-World War II Germany are not rare exceptions. As I discuss in Democracy and Political Ignorance, widespread ignorance and irrational evaluation of the information voters do know are serious problems even in well-established liberal democracies such as the United States. They are likely to be even more severe in in societies where the distribution of opinion is skewed by a long history of authoritarianism and indoctrination. Public opinion in such countries is certainly not immutable. By the 1960s, German public opinion was far more liberal than it had been in 1945. But at least in the short to medium term, illiberal public opinion creates a serious conflict between democracy and other liberal values.

Given the highly oppressive agenda of parties like the Nazis, communists, and radical Islamists, restricting the democratic process in situations where they are likely to seize power is often a lesser evil compared to letting them get into office. Obviously, the available alternative rulers are often far from admirable themselves. But, as a general rule, corrupt generals or bureaucrats who seek power for reasons of narrow self-interest are less likely to commit massive atrocities than religious fanatics or totalitarian ideologues.

II. The “One Man, One Vote, One Time” Problem

Faced with cases where elections bring highly illiberal parties to power, defenders of the democratic process sometimes respond that the offending rulers can at least be voted out of office. For example, the USA Today suggests it would have been better if the Egyptian opposition and military had left Morsi in power and waited until the Muslim Brotherhood was “voted out in the next election.” That, of course, would be little consolation to the people who are murdered or oppressed in the meantime. Moreover, future elections are unlikely to help if the government’s repressive activities are actually popular with the electoral majority, which in a generally illiberal society they might be.

Even worse, this kind of argument implicitly assumes that illiberal forces who come to power by electoral means will respect the democratic process in the future. In reality, once in office many of them seek to subvert that process by persecuting their political opponents, rigging the electoral process, and other means. Morsi’s government had already begun to persecute opponents to a greater degree than even its authoritarian predecessor.

When illiberal parties come to power through the democratic process, the result is all too likely to be “one man, one vote, one time.” They climb the electoral ladder and then kick it out from under those who try to follow. Such an outcome is particularly likely in societies with little prior democratic tradition. Where this is a real problem, restricting democracy can not only help preserve other liberal values. It may also be essential to preserving democracy itself in the long term.

None of this proves either that the Egyptian coup was a positive development or that curbing the democratic process is necessarily the right course of action in other similar situations. Each such case has its own difficult tradeoffs. Even where restrictions are justified, it may be better to ban specific illiberal parties from competing (as in West Germany after 1949) than to abjure democracy entirely. My point is that liberals should not categorically reject the possibility that sometimes we may need to limit democracy in order to preserve other values.

UPDATE: Harvard law professor Noah Feldman, a leading academic expert on the Arab world, laments the coup in Egypt because “In a functioning democracy, there is an orderly constitutional process for protesting and removing a leader. When someone is elected for a term of years, he should serve them out unless he resigns or is impeached.” Perhaps so. But Feldman ignores the sorts of concerns I outline above. He also ignores the ways in which Morsi himself had undermined the democratic process by using the powers of government to persecute his political opponents. If the opposition had not acted now, there is no guarantee that Morsi and the radical Islamists would ever have allowed genuinely free elections to occur on schedule.