So we all clearly notice the academic distinction between liberal democracies and illiberal democracies. Why do we care? Libyans or Egyptians or the American colonists did not die for the right to scribble on paper slips in an election between corrupt government A and corrupt government B. They also did not die to support a popular dictator who believed in national self-determination (think China or Cuba). They all died for a guarantee of their human rights — individual self-determination. A democracy is “functional” whether or not it is liberal — when it respects the principles of liberalism: individual rights of expression, tolerance and respect for political minorities. Illiberal democracies in the world, by definition, allow more democracy than civil liberties, and the number of such democracies is growing. Voting seems not to lead to freedoms and equal justice under the law. Illiberal democracies can very popularly persecute an election’s losers (socialists, capitalists, opposition parties) and very popularly persecute minorities (Jews, Christians, Blacks, gays, girls who go to school and barely-promiscuous Muslim women). The civil liberties of liberalism are the be-all-end-all goal of democracy; an election is merely the means to get there.
The inherent tension between democracy and liberalism is strong and will never go away. People with principles always want to use law as the vehicle to impose their principles on others. This is an important function of government and law. For the sake of the point, I’ll generalize that radical Muslims want all people to obey some form of Sharia Law, while radical Christians want all people to obey some form of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” In America, this is clearly the case. It explains most all the political tensions between “We the People” and among the States; somebody wants a college student to get arrested for smoking pot, and somebody wants a talking head to go to jail for hateful speech.
Moral diversity is what makes our Republic and liberal democracy strong: it forms the surest check and balance against the bigotry of the passionate. Yet, should all Americans feel the need to use law to tell others how to live their lives, moral diversity can doom Americans to hatred, and an impassioned moral majority will gladly take control and impose moral hegemony — ending tolerance and liberalism as we know it. Look at countries in history where Atheists, Muslims, Hindus and Christians launched political parties committed to exterminate the other after elections passed; liberalism died and chaos reigned.
So how can we protect individual freedom from democracy? Use the power of your vote to keep government amoral, and tell other voters to mind their own business. Western tradition’s greatest political philosophers said that liberalism is the key to co-existence, so the tolerance of co-existence must drive a liberal government.
Tolerance requires a lot from us. It isn’t only racial and religious; it isn’t all colors of the rainbow sharing seats in the Senate; that’s easy and doesn’t mean much. The true testament to our tolerance for moral diversity is whether we will defend the First Amendment for those who spout words we hate, the Second Amendment for those we don’t want empowered, the Fourth Amendment for homes and Facebook accounts we want searched and the Fifth Amendment for confessed criminals we want punished. Can we accept that the law should never ban mosques near Ground Zero? Can we accept that the law shouldn’t ban assault rifles? Can we accept that the law shouldn’t deny a woman privacy over her body and fetus? Can we support an amoral law valuing individual liberty, to prevent perpetual conflict over thousands of never-growing moral causes? We must be able to do all of this despite what we believe deep in our hearts about when a baby begins, which God is true, who can smoke or buy or drink or inject or own whatever.
Liberalism is expensive; books like “Liberalism Kills Kids” or “Death by Liberalism” outline the costs of amoral government. Religious leaders in Yemen and parties across the Muslim world vow to wage jihad against liberalism because it threatens their legal intolerance. Yet liberalism is the good fight. We cannot accept moral pluralism — stoning women, hanging Christians or executing landowners is not right because it does not tolerate the gender, racial or class differences coexisting under government. Looking at current anti-government movements sweeping Libya, Iran and even China, we must stand on the right side of history and wage war on any democracy without liberalism.