Can a democracy really be illiberal? Must human rights come second? That is what some leaders within the European Union are saying, but their statements are full of contradictions, says guest columnist Alexander Görlach.
All extremists on today’s political spectrum — from US President Donald Trump to Austrian Interior Minister Herbert Kickl — share the belief that politics means survival of the fittest. Their objectives come first; everything else comes second. This mindset is not a mistake. It’s by design. It’s about presenting their own goals as the will of the people. To them, a republic means making the desires of the majority into law. The people are the majority, so they set the laws.
Of course, the people cannot achieve that alone. That is why they elect “true” representatives to govern for them. And anyone who disturbs the symbiotic relationship between elected representatives and the electorate is a “foreign agent” who doesn’t belong. Leaders who favor this style of politics, who can be celebrated as “strongmen,” despise democracy. They say that their form of republic is illiberal, not liberal. Austria’s Kickl shares this destructive attitude.
In the minds of people such as Kickl, the word “liberal” is intended to ostracize the form of democracy that has established itself around the world over the past 70 years. But their vision is not simply a democracy that is a little bit different than the standard version. A democracy is either liberal or it isn’t. There is no illiberal democracy. Today’s democracy is about the rule of law, not survival of the fittest. All democracies today recognize human rights and understand that they are inherent in all state actions. Indeed, they precede state actions. Human rights are codified in constitutions. They are guaranteed by nation states to their citizens.
What would an illiberal version of this model even look like? Human rights only for Austrians who buy organic food? Restricted religious freedom for Muslims? Designated neighborhoods for the LGBT community? The idea that culture is homogeneous and that heterogeneity is a form of degeneration is just populist rhetoric. The man most admired by these populists is Russian President Vladimir Putin, a leader who doesn’t concern himself with human rights, who runs a government that persecutes journalists, dissidents and the LGBTQ community. What is to say the same thing couldn’t happen in Austria? The governments of Hungary and Poland also appear to be fond of Putin’s leadership style.
Little ‘strength’ in strongmen
There are many reasons why people fall for so-called strongmen. First and foremost, however, it must be noted that these men are not strong at all: An objective look at Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and increasingly Chinese President Xi Jinping shows that through their worldviews they have massively harmed their countries’ currencies and thrown their nations into turmoil.
Democracy, on the other hand, has brought prosperity and security to those who lived in it for 70 years. This succeeded because the rule of law was valid, not the rule of the strongest. Membership in a democracy doesn’t depend on the color of your skin or what religion you practice. Constitutions that can guarantee that, give reason for optimism going forward. The Kickls of the world, meanwhile, want to return to a world of division, where the law of the jungle reigns supreme. Let them return to their caves alone!
Alexander Görlach is a senior research associate at the Institute on Religion and International Studies at the University of Cambridge, UK as well as senior fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs and honorary professor for ethics and theology at the University of Lüneburg, Germany. He has also held a number of scholarly and advisory positions at Harvard University. He holds PhDs in comparative religion and linguistics and is a guest columnist for several publications including Deutsche Welle, the New York Times, Swiss daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung and business magazine Wirtschaftswoche.