What is Liberal Democracy?

Athenian Demo
The term democracy comes from the Greek demokratia, literally meaning “rule by people”. The origins of democracy can be traced back to Ancient Anthens. Athenian Democracy was direct in its nature. It had two key features that defined its fundamental operation:
  1. Officials were randomly selected from amongst the citizens.
  2. A legislature that was made up of all citizens.

This meant that ‘rule by the people’ was quite literal. All eligible citizens (women were not included) could speak, debate and vote on the laws with governed them. This means that the democracy practiced in Ancient Anthens would be largely unrecognisable in western democracies today.

John Locke wrote ‘Two Treatises of Government’, which was his most famous work.

Liberalism is a political ideology which emerged at the end of the Age of Enlightenment. Liberalism sought to combat the entrenched conservatism in society that protected hereditary privileges of the few at the expense of the majority. Key proponents of Liberalism included John Locke and John Stuart Mill. To achieve their ideological goals, liberals supported democracy as the only legitimate system of government,as in a democracy, government comes from the consent of the governed.
Liberal Democracy is representative, rather than direct, in its nature. Representatives are chosen via elections to represent constituencies of citizens. This representation usually takes place under a ‘trustee model’. This means that constituents entrust their representatives to act on behalf of the constituency. As such, a representative will not always vote in the way that each individual in their constituency might want – but hopefully will act in a way that the majority, or plurality, of voters might hope. The Trustee Model was most famously summed up by Edmund Burke in 1774 when he spoke to his constituents in Bristol:
“[an MP] owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”
There are a number of other features associated with Liberal Democracy, which would not have been recognised in Athenian Democracy:
  • The exsistence of a constitution in some form.
  • The exsistence of political parties.
  • The expectation of the protection of Civil and Human Rights.
  • Universal or comprehensive suffrage.
  • Freedom of the Press and Freedom of Expression.
  • Limited Government.
Hitler and Hindenburg

Weimar Germany is the most famous failure of a liberal democracy.

Creating a Liberal Democracy from scratch is extremely difficult, and often relies on a political culture that is fertile to its growth. This is why Liberal Democracies often grew out of a period of political discontent, notably in the French or American revolutions. The problems in building a liberal democracy were evident in Germany between 1918-1933 with the establishment of the Weimar Republic. On paper, it was one of the most progressive liberal democracies in the world. It had a universal voting system (10 years before all women got the vote in Britain) a federal system and a codified bill of rights. However, it lacked fundamental checks and balances that are essential to a limited government. For example, the Chancellor (Prime Minister) relied on the confidence of the President, not the elected Parliament, for his position. The authoritarian political culture in Germany also led to remnants of the old regime being left in the constitution that would later undermine it, for example the ability of the President to declare emergency powers, something that was later essential in Hitler’s consolidation of power.
Liberal Democracy is still the dominant system of government across the world, however it has been argued that it under threat from populism across the globe, notably in America. Yet, the very nature of liberal democracy makes them well-equipped to deal with existential threats. Seperation of powers, checks and balances, freedom of the press all serve to ensure that limited government remains – whilst the ultimate safeguard of liberal democracy is the people themselves with the power of their vote.

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