Can Democracy Exist Without Liberalism?

When differences of opinion become existential, citizens—in the U.S. and around the world—must find a way to manage them.

Illustration of the U.S. flag inside a map of the Middle East
Getty; The Atlantic

Updated at 2:50 p.m. ET on October 19, 2022

I never expected to look back on the George W. Bush era as a time of relative innocence for the United States. My country changed much more quickly than I could have imagined. In the early days after 9/11, I was still in college. The nation, in a show of bipartisan unity, was on a war footing that produced some of our darkest moments, darker even than what the Donald Trump era would bring. Dissent was rare. To doubt the wisdom of the war in Afghanistan, the passage of the Patriot Act, or the invasion of Iraq was to find oneself in a lonely place.

Book jacket of The Problem of Democracy
This article is adapted from Hamid’s recent book.

As the Bush administration became obsessed with Iraq and preoccupied with transforming the Middle East, any unity of purpose quickly crumbled. But as dispiriting as that time was, our country’s divides weren’t yet existential. They largely revolved around the destructive policies of the Bush administration—policies that could be reversed. And many of them were. Election outcomes were respected. The president had a loyal opposition. Both parties were still broadly located within the classical liberal tradition, with its respect for individual freedoms and minority rights. For all his faults, Bush was a good man, albeit one who ended up supporting terrible things. We were all Americans, and we wanted the best for our country, even if we disagreed on how to bring that about.

Those years seem quaint in retrospect. A 2006 essay titled “Limits to Democracy,” written by the late conservative philosopher Roger Scruton, underscores how different that era was. President Bush had propelled the question of democracy to the center of public debate, but we were debating democracy in the Middle East, not our own. Were Arabs “ready” for self-government? Was Islam compatible with democracy?

Like most Western thinkers writing at the time, Scruton didn’t really seem to understand Islam. But his essay highlights the fundamental challenge of democratic politics: how, or whether, people can respect election outcomes not to their liking. He contrasts the United States with those pesky Muslim-majority countries that can never quite seem to get their act together. He writes,

The American norm … is wholly unlike that [of highly sectarian countries]. People vote Democrat and find themselves ruled by Republicans. And they accept this—unhappy, perhaps, but acknowledging a duty of obedience and a common loyalty that is far more important than any electoral differences of opinion.

Upon re-reading this passage not long ago, I chuckled at the irony. For Scruton, the ability to be unhappy but still obliging when one’s adversary wins an election is “the precondition of democracy as we know it.” In this sense, the other party, as lousy as it might be, is still merely an opponent rather than an enemy to be vanquished. But according to this metric, the United States no longer meets a key prerequisite of democracy.

The United States has certain advantages when it comes to containing the mutual antagonism of its two parties: strong institutions, democratic norms, and a long history of democratic practice. Well-established, consolidated democracies rarely break down. The United States has also enjoyed the benefits of a democratic culture. Americans believed in small-d democracy and were committed to it. This was who we were. Culture can be overwhelming in its power, both mystical and mystifying. Its judgments, the author Michael Brendan Dougherty has written, are “so familiar that [culture] exists like a voice in your head. And yet it is impossible to explain exactly how this happens.”

Despite their power, however, cultures can change as well as crumble. Today, Americans are doubting both their own democracy and the democratic idea itself. If a country can have a democratic culture in 2006 and then not have one in 2022, is it really a culture? Culture is sticky; it shouldn’t change so easily in just half a generation. I don’t believe that democracy is an aberration in human history, with an arc bending back toward authoritarianism. But I do think we will move toward a shared realization that existential politics is no longer, if it ever was, primarily a Middle Eastern problem. It is a democratic problem. It is the problem of democracy.

For those of us who care about the democratic idea, this is likely to be the political question for some time to come, and perhaps even for the rest of our lives. Not all problems have solutions, and to think that they should might be a bigger problem. There is a certain kind of wisdom in acknowledging the imperfection of otherwise great ideas, and democracy is a great idea.

This might seem like an odd time to sing the praises of democracy. As the Belgian historian David Van Reybrouck put it in his book Against Elections: “There is something strange going on with democracy. Everyone seems to want it but no one believes in it any longer.” Fears that its staying power is declining have intensified, including in the United States.

The two core components of liberal democracy—liberalism and democracy—have been diverging for some time. For most of the modern era, the two concepts went hand in hand, at least in the West. The liberal tradition, which emerged after Europe exhausted itself with wars of religion, is eloquently captured in documents such as the Bill of Rights. Meanwhile, democracy, while requiring some minimal protection of rights to allow for fair and meaningful competition, is more concerned with the preferences of majorities as expressed through regular elections. Democracies must be responsive to what voters actually vote for. This is what makes democracy great. It is also what makes democracy frightening. No one knows with certainty what will happen in an election before it happens.

In the suggestively titled The People vs. Democracy, the political scientist and Atlantic contributor Yascha Mounk captures one of the more intriguing aspects of the current moment:

On the one hand, the preferences of the people are increasingly illiberal: voters are growing impatient with independent institutions and less and less willing to tolerate the rights of ethnic and religious minorities. On the other hand, elites are taking hold of the political system and making it increasingly unresponsive: the powerful are less and less willing to cede to the views of the people.

The divergence of democracy from liberalism has become more obvious of late, and not only in the might-be democracies of the Middle East. In an ever-growing number of established democracies, such as Italy, Sweden, France, Poland, India, Israel, and Brazil, illiberal right-wing parties have made massive gains and even assumed power through democratic means. Their commitment to minority rights and equality before the law has been questionable and at times actively hostile.

The ascendance of liberal democracy during the Cold War and its seeming triumph after the fall of communism made it easy to forget that liberalism and democracy are founded on different conceptions of human needs and wants. Whether the United States should emphasize liberal values—individual autonomy, gender equality, minority-rights protections, and sexual freedom—or electoral democracy hinges on perceptions of what is universal across time and place and what is not.

Before liberalism and democracy began to diverge in the West, they were diverging elsewhere. Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East as well as Southeast Asia have been laboratories of illiberalism. They were ahead of their time, offering a dark preview of a world in which culture, identity, and religion (“who we are”) replaced economic concerns (“what works”) as the fulcrum of political conflict. This is what made the trajectory of the Arab Spring so frustrating for many American observers. This was a world where the most important wars were culture wars. President Trump and his former advisers may not have realized it, but when they complained about the “deep state,” they were importing a concept born in the Middle East.

Unfortunately, I represent the side that lost a great debate over whether democracy in the Middle East was possible and desirable. Periodic conflagrations aside, Americans have lost interest in the region. So, too, have American politicians. President Barack Obama was perhaps the perfect encapsulation of a particular kind of evolution. Briefly, he allowed himself the possibility that the Arab Spring held the promise of better things. But as the Arab Spring turned dark, so, too, did Obama.

The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg reported in 2016 that Obama was known to privately joke, “All I need in the Middle East is a few smart autocrats.” Obama wondered out loud why people in the Middle East couldn’t just “be like the Scandinavians.” He fretted that a growing number of Indonesian women were donning headscarves. In his interviews with Goldberg, he put the blame on Muslims for not being sufficiently peaceful. Muslims, he said, need to “undergo a vigorous discussion within their community about how Islam works as part of a peaceful, modern society.” He spoke of a “reformation that would help people adapt their religious doctrines to modernity.” In one State of the Union address, he said discord in the Middle East was “rooted in conflicts that date back millennia.”

Taken together, these statements betray a particular kind of fatalism toward a people, a culture, and a religion. Too many Muslims, it seemed, were intent on defying history’s arc. Like Roger Scruton before him, Obama found himself irritated by a region and its stubborn resistance to change. Fatalism and resignation are understandable. But a justified modesty about democracy’s prospects does not require giving up on the democratic idea.

If liberalism and democracy were intertwined at home, Americans might fairly assume that they would go together abroad. If liberal values derived from the dignity of the human person, then they had universal applicability. This universalism—transcending culture and geography—made the liberal idea both inspiring and consistent with America’s self-conception. As Theodore Roosevelt once put it: “Our chief usefulness to humanity rests on combining power with high purpose.” That purpose had more to do with Enlightenment liberalism and liberty than with popular democracy. The Founders certainly had their reservations about the latter. As John Adams described it: “There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” Democracies, James Madison declared, are “as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”

More than a century later, Franklin D. Roosevelt didn’t wax poetic about the four prerequisites of democracy; he spoke instead of the “four freedoms.” For John F. Kennedy, the “magic power” on our side was “the desire of every person to be free.” Democracy was part of the equation, to be sure, but it wasn’t the primary thrust. And without liberalism tempering it, democracy could be a problem—and one best avoided in underdeveloped foreign societies and cultures.

I am a liberal myself, albeit the kind who is critical of what liberalism has recently become. I would not be comfortable living under a democratically elected Islamist government—or, for that matter, a democratically elected Catholic integralist government. But I am also aware that my own liberalism is contingent—a product of being born in the United States at a certain moment in history. If my parents hadn’t decided to immigrate and if I had had my formative cultural and political experiences in a religiously conservative society, I would have been shaped by those experiences instead.

As a value system as well as a set of premises about the primacy of reason over revelation, liberalism speaks to the most basic questions of who we are and who we are meant to be. In this sense, it can’t but clash with Islam—a religion that, in its various iterations, has jealously guarded its jurisdiction over such ultimate questions for the better part of 14 centuries. Liberalism also requires liberals, and they simply aren’t numerous enough in the Middle East. That may yet change, but as the allure of classical liberal ideas wanes in the very places where liberalism was born, I struggle to imagine a scenario in which a majority of Egyptians, Jordanians, or Algerians decide to become Western-style liberals, after having not been for so long.

Assessing the appeal of liberal ideas, or the lack thereof, is crucial. Even in the world’s most advanced democracies, post-liberal movements are gaining strength. If democracy is part of a package that includes within it unrelated premises about the nature of progress and the human person, then it is less likely to be accepted in societies where those premises are not shared. And, as it turns out, the world has more of these societies than we might like to admit.

Democracy as a system and a set of procedures—as a way of regulating politics without predetermining its outcomes—allows voters to decide their own course and determine what values are most important to them. Democracy allows for peaceful transfer of power, even—or particularly—in ideologically polarized contexts. As a set of mechanisms for conflict regulation, it contributes to long-term, if not short-term, stability. Democracy also offers predictability, because the losers of elections have the chance to fight another day. I call this approach “democratic minimalism” because it accepts democracy for what it is rather than what it might, or might not, become.

To try to compel people to become liberals is the mark of hubris—bound to be either ineffective, unrealistic, or both. After all, a liberalism not freely chosen is self-negating. Democratic minimalism, by contrast, is more modest, while still retaining the mark of ambition. In politics, one has friends and enemies. The challenge—not just in the Middle East but in the United States and seemingly everywhere else—is accepting this natural state of enmity and transforming it into something more manageable. That might not sound like a lot to aspire to, but it may be enough.


This article is adapted from Hamid’s recent book, The Problem of Democracy: America, the Middle East, and the Rise and Fall of an Idea.


This article previously misstated the historian David Van Reybrouck's nationality.