Liberal Democracy

We tend to assume that liberalism and democracy are related - but what is the link between them? Which principles of liberalism laid down the foundations of an effective democratic system? Well, an analysis of liberal democracy holds the answer to these questions. Let's get started!

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Contents
Table of contents

    Liberal democracy: definition

    So, let's start with a definition of liberal democracy:

    Liberal democracy can be understood as a political system which is defined by democratic political participation and individual rights. In liberal democracies, the power of the state (government) is limited by an impartial justice system.

    Of course, this is politics, so, within that definition, we're left with lots more terms to define further. But fear not, as we'll address that in our next section on the characteristics of liberal democracies.

    For now, it's enough to say that liberal democracy is defined by a commitment to three core principles: democracy, individual rights, and the rule of law. These three ideas are inherently tied to the classical liberal movement, in which philosophers like John Locke and Adam Smith critiqued the monarchical systems that dominated European political life in the 18th century.

    Liberal democracy was presented as an alternative to the autocratic system of monarchical rule and the divine right of Kings. This meant that individuals dwelling within a state were no longer seen as subjects who were treated as servants of a monarch, but rather as citizens, who had inalienable rights and a stake in the good-governance of the country. The state government would - at least in part - be democratically elected and held accountable by a robust, independent legal system.

    The divine right of Kings is an archaic principle which holds that the power of the monarch to rule comes directly from God.

    Liberal democracy and the French Revolution

    The French Revolution of 1789 was the first example of a liberal democratic revolution on the European continent. The Revolution deposed the French monarchy and aimed to create a society based on the three principles of liberty, equality and brotherhood.

    liberal democracy protester + liberal democracy definition + studysmarterFig. 1 - A protestor during a pro-democracy protest in Washington, USA (2016)

    Characteristics of liberal democracy

    What, then, are the characteristics of liberal democracy? Well, there are three key aspects we need to look at:

    Free and fair elections

    The first integral characteristic of liberal democracy is the right to hold frequent, free and fair elections. These elections may be run according to various electoral systems, First-Fast-the-Post to Proportional Representation. Regardless of the system used, elections in liberal democracies must offer citizens an anonymous and secret ballot.

    Through these elections, citizens select representatives who will advocate for their interests in the political sphere. This representative structure means that liberal democracies are a type of indirect democracy, as opposed to direct democracy, in which citizens are consulted about every single aspect of governance.

    Not only must citizens be guaranteed freedom in the electoral process, but so too must the political parties aiming to represent them. In a liberal democracy, every citizen has the right to campaign for and support their chosen party. In turn, these political parties have the right to harness this support to compete in local and national elections to deliver policies that will improve society.

    Political participation

    Political participation is an integral characteristic of liberal democracy. For elections to function, it is vital that citizens feel empowered and engaged to participate. This means, for example, that minority groups in society must feel included in political discourse and have a sense that their voices will be heard and their rights respected.

    Political participation is not linked exclusively to elections, and it can in fact take on a variety of forms within a liberal democracy. Other forms of participation include taking part in a protest, writing to one's constituency MP or attending a public consultation organised by local authorities.

    Individual freedoms

    Through free elections and political participation, individual freedoms can be understood as the third essential characteristic of liberal democracy. In the UK, individual rights are enshrined by the Human Rights Act of 1998. Citizens in a liberal democracy must be guaranteed certain rights and freedoms, which correspond with the duties they have to state.

    To understand the relationship between rights and duties, we can take the example of the electoral process. In liberal democracies, citizens are guaranteed the freedom to participate in elections. With this freedom, however, comes the duty to participate in elections. Although not enshrined by law in the UK, the responsibility to participate in elections is often understood as a civic duty.

    In liberal democracies, a civic duty is a responsibility acquired by citizens due to their participation in society.

    Accountability

    The last key characteristic of liberal democracy which we will explore is accountability, particularly that of the government. In liberal democracies, the political structure is divided into three independent branches: executive (government), legislative (house of representatives), and judicial (the courts).

    Simply put, the purpose of this structure is to ensure that state power is divided between three independent branches and which can hold each other to account. Remember, liberal democracies emerged as a response to the tyranny of autocratic monarchies. In a monarchical system, there was no accountability. The monarch's power was absolute, and their word was final.

    Thus, in liberal democracies, power is not simply concentrated with the party in government. Instead, the legislative and judicial branches of government can hold the executive (the PM and cabinet) to account. Through the legislative body (eg, the UK Parliament), legislation proposed by the government is scrutinised and edited. The judiciary also has to power to limit the executive branch by creating laws which restrict the scope of its influence.

    liberal democracy covent garden election + characteristics of liberal democracy + studysmarterFig. 2 - Sketch of a parliamentary election in Convent Garden, London (1808)

    Types of liberal democracy

    Despite these uniform characteristics, there are many types of liberal democracy. To highlight some of the key distinctions between them, let's look at two examples of nation-states which are liberal democracies.

    The United Kingdom

    On balance, the UK can safely be considered a liberal democracy. However, in many ways, it has adopted a type of liberal democracy which is unique to history. Firstly, the UK has maintained a monarch as the head of state. Although it is a largely symbolic position, the monarch ultimately has to sign off on legislation and remains above the scrutiny of Parliament. The monarchy's existence is one reason the UK has never officially implemented a codified constitution.

    Ultimately, the UK today is a parliamentary democracy which maintains a level of accountability and individual freedom typical of liberal democracies. This is exemplified by the existence of parliamentary select committees, which hold the executive to account by scrutinising new legislation.

    Furthermore, the UK has a long history of stable transitions of power, in which political parties respect election results. This is cemented by the existence of an independent body, the Electoral Committee, which oversees the election process and ensures it is free from corruption.

    Lastly, citizens in the UK elect a party, rather than an individual, during national parliamentary elections. The result is that the Prime Minister, who party members elect, is held accountable by their party and is therefore not allowed to concentrate power in their own hands. Thus, the UK's parliamentary system is an effective type of liberal democratic legislature.

    Liberal democracy UK Parliament + types of liberal democracy + studysmarterFig. 3 - The UK Houses of Parliament, also referred to as Westminster, on the banks of the River Thames in London

    The United States of America

    One of the most obvious features of American liberal democracy is the existence of the US constitution, which was written in 1787, laying out the inalienable rights each citizen enjoys. Therefore, the US is a prime example of a democracy which operates with a codified constitution. Not only does this document enshrine individual rights, but it also provides a clear outline of the powers enjoyed by the state.

    To ensure that the state cannot unlawfully extend its powers, the US has an extensive legal system scrutinising every aspect of government policy. The US is organised as a federal state, which means that the federal, or national, judiciary deals with issues relating to the constitution. The federal court is divided into three tiers, the Supreme Court being the highest.

    The Supreme Court is an excellent example of a judicial system within a liberal democracy, as it holds the government to account by scrutinising proposed federal legislation against the parameters set within the constitution. The Supreme Court can overturn legislation if it is interpreted as going against individual and political rights enshrined in the US Constitution. If an area of the constitution conflicts with contemporary public interest, they also have the power to amend it.

    Advantages of liberal democracy

    So, what are some of the advantages of liberal democracy that emerge from the abstract characteristics and promises we have discussed?

    Inclusion

    The first advantage of liberal democracy is that it strives for inclusion and participation, encouraging every citizen to express their opinions. The outcome is a society that debates policies in light of their impact on individuals is that citizens will recognise their place within society. If this is achieved, liberal democracies can promote a tolerant and inclusive society that empowers individuals to express themselves.

    Stability

    Another advantage of liberal democracy is the promise of stability, both in a political and economic sense. On a political and societal level, liberal democracies encourage a smooth transition of power following election results. As long as elections remain free from corruption, parties have a reason to respect their legitimacy.

    Furthermore, political stability creates conditions in which economic prosperity can flourish. If citizens feel secure and free from internal conflict and corruption, they are, in turn, free to pursue their own economic aims and interests. These conditions allow the economy to develop and flourish.

    Avoids a monopoly of power

    Through those structures which hold the state responsible for its actions, liberal democracies enable decentralisation of power. In political terms, this concentration of power is known as a monopoly, exemplified by the monarchical systems prevalent in Europe before the 18th century. Liberal democracies have systems of accountability built-in, preventing monopolies of power.

    Critique of liberal democracy

    Liberal democracies, however, have by no means been universally accepted. Perhaps the most dramatic critique of liberal democracy was put forward by the German National Socialist (Nazi) party. One of the most prominent supporters of Nazism was the political thinker Carl Schmitt, who criticised liberal democracies as failing to grasp the true nature of society. For Schmitt, the abstract ideals which laid the foundations for liberal democracy, those of individual rights and participation, were far removed from the natural impulses of citizens.

    Schmitt and his National Socialist contemporaries saw the development of liberal democracies as signalling the decay of morality, leading to a society based on pure hedonism. By rejecting liberal ideals, the Nazis moved toward a society based on ethnic ties and nationalist identity. This ultimately led, however, to a regime that carried out genocidal atrocities during the Holocaust.

    Liberal democracy - Key takeaways

    • Liberal democracy can be understood as a political system which is defined by democratic political participation and individual rights.
    • Liberal democracy is defined by free and fair elections, individual rights and accountability.
    • Two examples of states with a liberal democratic political system are the United Kingdom and the United States of America.
    • Three advantages of liberal democracy are inclusion, stability, and the avoidance of power monopolies.
    • The most vocal critique of liberal democracy in the 20th century came from those involved in the Nazi movement, including Carl Schmitt.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Liberal Democracy

    What is a liberal democracy?

    Liberal democracy can be understood as a political system which is defined by democratic political participation and individual rights. In liberal democracies, the power of the state (government) is limited by an impartial justice system which develops laws.

    Why is liberal democracy important?

    Liberal democracies are important as they look to enshrine individual rights and create institutions which are accountable for their actions

    Is liberal democracy the best form of government?

    Over the course of the twentieth century, liberal democracy has become widely accepted as the most desirable and effective form of government.

    What is the difference between liberal democracy and democracy? 

    Democracy can be seen as a facet of liberal democracy; however, liberal democracies are strictly representative, rather than direct, democracies. 

    What are the main principles of liberalism? 

    The main principles of liberalism include individualism, economic freedom, and tolerance.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    The UK has a codified constitution. True or false?

    Four characteristics of liberal democracies are...

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