The Dear Abby of Liberal Democracy

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I received a few email messages—surprisingly few, actually—from people who asked to be taken off this list. I am eager to accommodate. Exceptionally eager. No means no—I get that. And now that I know you' don’t want to hear from me, I am even more keen to be rid of you than you are of me.

Especially if you took the time to write to me to ask—as opposed to deleting it and trusting Google’s sorting algorithms to send it to your junk folder next time, or pressing “unsubscribe.” That’s an emphatic rejection. It’s not coy. It’s not, “No, but maybe after a few drinks.”

If you’ve received this despite writing to me to ask to be taken off the list, something has gone terribly wrong. Doubtless, one of these three things:

1) Your email to me went to my spam folder.

2) I have more than one email address for you, but I don’t realize this.

3) I didn’t see your email because my in Box is so full of other people’s newsletters.

If so, I apologize.

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Just to be super-clear: Following this red arrow, scroll to the bottom of this email. You’ll see a button like the one at the end of the arrow:

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I suspect some people wrote to me, instead of just pushing “unsubscribe,” because that button is at the end of a long newsletter that they didn’t want to read in the first place. It’s also in a faint color background and easy to overlook. I presume this is because Substack thinks—probably correctly—that if people don’t see that button, they won’t unsubscribe. I guess they want me to have as many subscribers as possible because, in their surmise or experience, the ratio of subscribers to paying subscribers—the so-called conversion rate—is a constant. They’re neither concerned with the quality of newsletters nor with the quality of their subscribers; they just want to see high numbers.

But I only want high-quality subscribers. I want my readers’ affirmative, enthusiastic consent. I want to be the best newsletter you’ve ever had and leave you pleading for more. And if you don’t want to read this newsletter, believe me, I don’t want you reading it, either.

Consider yourself emphatically unsubscribed.


To everyone who didn’t push the button, thank you.

It’s just us, now. Consenting, willing adults. Let’s light a fire in the fireplace, uncork a bottle of the cabernet sauvignon, settle in on the sofa, and spend a long, cozy evening together doing what we do best—saving liberal democracy.


The Dear Abby of Liberal Democracy

I’m not sure whether this newsletter will ever make any money, and given that, I was wondering yesterday whether it was an unacceptable self-indulgence. I’d actually talked myself out of writing it. Dr. Johnson was right, I concluded. No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money. I should switch to genre fiction. There is no earthly point to writing about liberal democracy. I was shocked and saddened to realize I’d wasted my life, but there was also something liberating about it. I no longer had to bear the cognitive dissonance of telling myself that if only people read the Mueller Report, we wouldn’t be arguing about what it said.

Then I received this email, from a gentleman I’ll call the Democrat in Distress,

Dear  Claire Berlinski, my name is [Democrat in Distress] and I am from Czech Republic. I have accidentally found you on the internet and  I really admire your work. Unfortunately democracy is also under attack in our country and  from my point of view our pro western democratic politicians  are passive and do not inform about the situation properly. Please could you recommend me some source of information describing complexly what is going on with liberal democracy in the world, before your book will be published ? Thank you very much for your answer.

How can I possibly say, “The world doesn’t actually need me—I’m off to make money by writing genre fiction?” You’d have to have a heart of stone.


Dear Distressed,

If this were a play, the principle of Chekhov’s gun would now be in effect. There is a rifle on the wall. It must go off by the third act.

But this isn’t a play. You—ordinary men and women, not politicians or diplomats—control that rifle. If our generation succeeds in its task, yet-unborn historians of the 21st century will find themselves bored and frustrated by the anticlimax of our times. In moments of hope, I envision a footnote in an arcane doctoral dissertation: “The rifle just sat there. The people saw through these demagogues and they voted them out while they still could. It was just a weird passing phase.” 

We’re not helpless before these historic forces. Nothing in history is inevitable.

The first task: No despair. You may feel utterly overwhelmed by the weight of the illiberal forces lined up against you. The United States, Russia, the rest of the V4—you must feel you’re the only one holding out, and then only barely. And it must be so demoralizing to consider American politics these days: If even the United States can’t fight this off, what hope do you have? This, in turn, may cause you to think it best ignored. It is bigger than we are. There isn’t a thing we can do. Il faut cultiver notre jardin.

You will not be alone in feeling this way. But don’t succumb to this sentiment. This is a path to ruin. None of us can retreat, in the coming years—as we will surely be tempted—to the politics of internal exile.

We must all begin to see that these phenomena, in your country, in mine, and in every country similarly afflicted, are not independent—of course not. We can learn what will happen to us next by studying what’s happened in Turkey and Hungary. We can learn how to combat it—what works and what doesn’t work—by speaking to people in countries—the UK, France, Italy—that are fighting the same forces.

Liberal democrats throughout the West need to be in close contact with each other. We must learn from each others’ experiences, and we must meaningfully support each other. It’s especially important for ordinary American citizens to be in personal contact with citizens of what I call the laboratory countries, countries like yours—the countries where the New Caesars are experimenting with and perfecting their techniques. Citizens of these countries have a great deal more insight into what is now happening in America than we do.

You must persuade Americans to take an interest in liberal democracy overseas. You must tell them why it is relevant to them and what you need from them. Right now, they have no idea you exist, no less what effect American behavior is having on you and other liberal democracies around the world. You must tell us.

You have the European Union on your side. They’re inefficient, they’re slow, they’re bureaucratic, and they’re maddenly politically correct, but they are, basically, on the right side. Keep them as engaged as you can.

For more answers to your questions, keep reading.


Democracies in Distress: A support group

Has your democracy succumbed to the temptations of authoritarian populism? You’re not alone. Join us here every Friday for coffee, sympathy, a shoulder to lean on. Let’s compare notes, celebrate each others’ triumphs, and learn from each others’ setbacks. Send me your comments by e-mail and I’ll anonymize your names.

Special welcome to my Turkish friends.


The Paywall of Honor Returns

Attention, friends! The rest of this newsletter is behind the Paywall of Honor. It’s reserved for people who’ve made a contribution to my work (even once, in a small amount, is absolutely fine. Your conscience will tell you if it’s enough).

If you don’t feel like paying, that’s absolutely fine, this newsletter is free. But please do close the window and stop reading now.

You’re on the honor system. I trust you.

Paywall of Honor

How did we get here? Newspeak from the ground up

As a consequence of disparate and unrelated linguistic, social, and educational trends, Americans have in the past half-century become growingly careless with language and growingly inarticulate. The election of Donald Trump reflects this trend. Indeed, Americans have come to valorize sloppiness with language.

This has not been a benign transformation. Our diminished fluency and vocabulary deprive us of the ability to think meaningfully about politics.

Recall, this was precisely the point of Newspeak

The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought—that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc—should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meanings and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meanings whatever. To give a single example. The word free still existed in Newspeak, but it could only be used in such statements as ‘This dog is free from lice’ or ‘This field is free from weeds’. It could not be used in its old sense of ‘politically free’ or ‘intellectually free’ since political and intellectual freedom no longer existed even as concepts, and were therefore of necessity nameless. Quite apart from the suppression of definitely heretical words, reduction of vocabulary was regarded as an end in itself, and no word that could be dispensed with was allowed to survive. Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought, and this purpose was indirectly assisted by cutting the choice of words down to a minimum.

Newspeak was an artificial language, devised to meet the ideological needs of Ingsoc. Orwell created it having noted these linguistic trends in totalitarian regimes:

Even in the early decades of the twentieth century, telescoped words and phrases had been one of the characteristic features of political language; and it had been noticed that the tendency to use abbreviations of this kind was most marked in totalitarian countries and totalitarian organizations. Examples were such words as Nazi, Gestapo, Comintern, Inprecorr, Agitprop. In the beginning the practice had been adopted as it were instinctively, but in Newspeak it was used with a conscious purpose. It was perceived that in thus abbreviating a name one narrowed and subtly altered its meaning, by cutting out most of the associations that would otherwise cling to it. 

The shrinking of our vocabularies has happened in an entirely different fashion and for unrelated reasons. It has not been imposed upon us. We’ve freely and willingly contracted our own verbal skills, our own reading skills, our own sense of nuance in our language and its many literary and rhetorical tones and modes. People who care about speaking and writing precisely—people who use the full range of the English language’s rich vocabulary, people who understand language as a subtle and nuanced tool—have become despised by both the right and the left as elitists.

This is perhaps an outgrowth of our commitment to egalitarianism, in that we are hostile to aristocracy in any form. Our educated elites were once a form of aristocracy. Perhaps they suffered so intensely from the shame of being aristocrats in an egalitarian country that they adopted not only the concerns of the popular classes, but their manner of speech. In any event, they are no longer educated.

Whatever the causes of the diminution of the American vocabulary, it has had political effects. The effects are those Newspeak was designed to have. We lack the words we need to speak precisely

and accurately about our own system of governance.


You're not cheating, are you?

Thus we have come casually to use the word “democracy” as a synonym for “liberal democracy,” even though they are not the same.

Democracy is a system of governance in which power is vested in and exercised by the people through elections, either directly, or in a system of representation. Liberal democracy is something much more complex. Americans might be less confused if in place of the phrase “liberal democracy,” we used the phrase, “liberty and democracy.” This would suggest how easily they may be divided. “Liberty”—also known as freedom—is not secured by democracy. It’s entirely possible to have one without the other, and it is growingly common.

Hence the rise of illiberal democracy—which does not mean “conservative democracy,” but “democracy without freedom.”

Liberal democracy is a system for preserving liberty despite democracy, for democracy is a system of governance that tends—as many from Plato to Shawn Rosenberg have noted—to be tyrannical.

These features distinguish liberal regimes from others:

  • Constitutional governance;

  • Competitive elections between at least two viable and distinct political parties;

  • Severe limitations on the power of the state;

  • Separation of powers such that no branch of the government has monopoly power;

  • Rule of law;

  • An impartial and independent judiciary;

  • Secure property rights;

  • Free markets;

  • Freedom of speech and the press;

  • Religious tolerance;

  • Equality, particularly of opportunity, among citizens, including women and members of minority groups;

  • Free movement of people;

  • A state monopoly on the legitimate use of force;

  • Respect among the democratically-elected majority for the political opposition;

  • A broad and flourishing civil society;

  • Widespread understanding that the rights of the individual take precedence over the well-being of the collective.

Why should we prefer to live in a liberal democracy? There are two broad arguments. The first is that liberal democracy is inherently better, morally, than other systems: It respects God-given, or natural, human rights. The second is that it is more effective. It gets better results.

Adrian Vermeule, no friend of liberal democracy (he’s a Catholic integralist), has written, in Liberalism and the Invisible Hand, a fairly sophisticated criticism of the idea that the institutions of liberalism—“the marketplace of ideas,” for example—may be systematically defended as the best of all theoretical alternatives. He believes many liberals, in doing so, have gone way past any reasonable claim to this effect and have lapsed into fideism.

He is right to point out that many liberal democrats have made sloppy arguments in defense of their system of governance. But he’s wrong to suggest that any alternative in human history has ever provided a better form of governance. Whether by means of an invisible hand, providence, or coincidence, it is a blunt historic fact that liberal democracies have proven far more adroit than rival regime types at solving universal human problems. Citizens of liberal democracies enjoy astonishing levels of wealth, better health, longer life expectancy, vastly greater public hygiene and safety, and historically unequalled lives of ease and comfort. Liberal democracies are more technologically innovative. Their environments are cleaner. They are more peaceful.

If it is true that liberal democracies, too, give rise to poverty, disease, hazards, discomforts, economic stagnation, indignities, and environmental destruction, it is also true that no other modern human society, to date, has a better record in any of these aspects; all have been quite a bit worse, and some have been infinitely worse. The monstrous evil of the tyrannies of the early 20th century suggest that anyone with a scheme to replace liberal democracy with another system of governance should be met with utmost skepticism. This includes Catholic integralists, however clever they are. The words “It can’t be worse” are for children.


You're on the Honor System!

Leave aside, for now, an important question: Did liberal democracy cause the long period of peace, prosperity, and good governance in the West with which we associate it? Is it possible it was just a coincidence? Might certain aspects of liberal democracy, in particular, be more important to those outcomes than others? Obviously, these are questions we might debate, and many do. But bracket that question for now and take the answer as given: Yes, liberal democracy caused that.

The West has been so successful that around the world, legitimacy in governance has become tied to democracy—to the holding of elections. Even the most worthless of dictators hold sham elections to keep up appearances. That’s entirely because liberal democracies have become so attractive—and powerful—that “holding elections” has become a near-universal aspiration.

But it is far less widely understood, and in many places not understood at all, that liberalism, not elections, is much more likely to be the key to the great successes of liberal democracy.


Americans, particularly, tend gravely to fail to appreciate how recent an innovation liberal democracy really is, how rare it is, how unlikely it is, how counterintuitive its claims are to ordinary people, and as a result, how fragile it is.

And despite the evidence that this was clearly in the minds of the American founders, and described in all of our founding documents, many Americans fail to understand that liberty is often in tension with democracy. Our careless use of language has served further to separate us from our history and this reality.

In another symptom of the shrinking of our political vocabulary, we have come to use the word liberal as a synonym for left-wing. It is futile to object to the natural evolution of language, but it isn’t futile to object to its diminishment. The shrinking of our political vocabulary means we no longer possess a shared, active vocabulary to describe the ideas upon which our country was founded. In giving up the word liberal, we’ve also divided ourselves from the rest of the Anglophone world, which means we can no longer have a fluent conversation about how we govern ourselves with the countries that share our political inheritance.

By carelessly using the word liberal to mean leftist, and democracy to mean good, we’ve willingly diminished our capacity for political thought and insight into what precisely is now at stake. We’re left without the words—and thus without the ideas—we need to describe the critical political transformations that characterize our era.


Paywall of Honor

Making the world safe for democracy

Using “democracy” as a shorthand for “liberal democracy” has been a disaster. The serious ramifications of allowing our vocabulary—and with it our political imagination—to shrink are especially clear when we consider our foreign policy. Our linguistic sloppiness had real consequences, caused real deaths. Americans had managed to convince themselves that elections were tools by which a liberal democracy might be created.

If people were allowed to choose their leaders in free and fair elections, we believed, they would naturally choose liberal democrats and the institutions liberal democracy requires would then create themselves.

This was not true.

Bush calls for new democracy, respect in Middle East policy

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Bush called Thursday for democratic reforms in the Middle East, saying that “freedom can be the future of every nation.”

Bush said the stakes were particularly high in Iraq, where a U.S.-led coalition toppled Saddam Hussein’s rule. “The failure of Iraqi democracy would embolden terrorists around the world,” the president said.

He said the United States and other nations shared blame for the lack of democratic freedoms in the Middle East.

“Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe because in the long run stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty,” Bush said.

The president spoke to the National Endowment for Democracy, a group that champions democratic gains around the world, on the same day that he was signing an $87.5 billion package approved by Congress for military and reconstruction operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Bush said the Middle East was at a turning point and that “the global wave of democracy has barely reached the Arab states.” Many countries in the region are mired in poverty and women lack rights and children are denied proper schooling.

Had we not used the word “democracy” as a shorthand for two very different concepts—liberty and democracy; and had we appreciated that often the two were in serious tension, we would have been less surprised by what happened when we insisted that elections be held. We would not have put so much emphasis, in our analysis and in our behavior, on holding elections and so little on liberal institutions and culture.

Bush Defends His Goal of Spreading Democracy to the Mideast

By STEVEN R. WEISMAN JAN. 27, 2006

WASHINGTON, Jan. 26 - The sweeping victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections threw President Bush and his aides on the defensive on Thursday, complicating the administration's policy of trying to promote democracy as an antidote to the spread of terrorism.

Reacting uneasily to the Hamas triumph, Mr. Bush said the results spoke to the failures of President Mahmoud Abbas and the "old guard" of his Fatah faction to root out corruption and mismanagement, not to any flaws in the administration's policy of advocating democracy.

"There was a peaceful process as people went to the polls, and that's positive," Mr. Bush said. "But what's also positive is that it's a wake-up call to the leadership. Obviously people were not happy with the status quo. The people are demanding honest government. The people want services."

But without criticizing the Palestinian people for choosing leaders who advocate the destruction of Israel, a tenet at the very core of Hamas's creed, he said that the United States would never tolerate such a policy. In the same fashion, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice noted that Palestinians want a negotiated peace settlement with Israel, according to opinion polls, but she repeated that this goal remained possible only if Hamas renounced its violent ways.

Mr. Bush joined a chorus of world leaders -- including the so-called quartet of principal parties in the moribund peace process -- in calling on Hamas to renounce terrorism, disarm its militias and recognize the legitimacy of Israel now that it has won the elections. But his tone was less confrontational than invitational -- in effect, inviting Hamas to embrace reconciliation.

For now, Mr. Bush called on President Abbas to stay in office and steer the Palestinian government on a moderate course.

The Hamas victory was the fifth case recently of militants' winning significant gains through elections. They included the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hezbollah in Lebanon, a radical president in Iran, and Shiites backed by militias in Iraq. [My emphasis]

As these elections unfolded, there has been increasing criticism in some quarters -- notably among the self-described "realists" in foreign policy, many of them veterans of past Republican administrations -- that President Bush has naively pushed for democracy in countries without the civil society components to support it.

In 1917, Woodrow Wilson announced, “The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty.” Only the first sentence was remembered. This, I think, was roughly the route by which Americans became profoundly confused about these concepts.

Professor Charles Ellwood quickly replied, in The Scientific Monthly, that “it is doubtful if even [Wilson], with all his social and political acumen, understood all that was involved in that proposition.”

Note his casual assumption of the ideas that riled Rosenberg’s colleagues, to wit, that there are “masses,” and the masses don’t understand the first thing about democracy.

The views he next expresses are interesting, because they’re clearly those Rosenberg had in mind when he criticized theorists of democracy for believing than citizens were rational, and if they were not, could be taught to be rational:

His idea of “how modern democracy works” is probably what Rosenberg had in mind when he said, “Oh no, it doesn’t work that way.”

In Ellwood’s view, the liberal appurtenances serve democracy by making citizens more rational, and less prejudiced and emotional. (Note too that he appeals to “psychology” to justify his view of man as a rational animal.)

Rosenberg says: To the contrary, citizens are irrational, prejudiced, and emotional, and this can’t be changed.

I’m with Aristotle, the Founding Fathers, and Rosenberg. If democrats ask, “What do the people want?,” liberal democrats ask, “How can we ensure they never get it?” “The people” are reliably selfish, stupid, censorious, authoritarian, and prone to persecutory manias. If they had their way they’d have banned vaping already.

We have elections because they are one—of many—critical safeguards against tyranny. They’re also a critical mechanism to ensure the peaceful transfer of legitimate power.

But government by election, absent the other safeguards, is apt to be arbitrary, capricious, and tyrannical.

We’ll return to this in the next episode.