In every way, liberal democracy is superior. Here’s why | Bruce Ledewitz

The lead article in the latest edition of Harper’s Magazine is a four-part discussion on the topic “Is Liberalism Worth Saving?”

The forum features a wide range of opinions from America’s elite: Patrick Deneen, a right-wing post-liberal critic; Francis Fukuyama, a mainstream left-liberal who once called our system the end of history; Deirdre Nansen McCloskey, libertarian and distinguished scholar at the Cato Institute; and Cornel West, a civil rights activist, sounding a lot like a Christian reformer.

I hope readers will take a look at this far-reaching and civil exchange. I gave it to my law students.

Nevertheless, given our recent successes and the experiences of our opponents, the question: is liberalism worth saving? – looks ridiculous.

Americans love to voice their dissatisfaction with our system of government — let’s call it liberal democracy. But in reality, America has done very well.

We should start with democracy itself. In 2020, much has been said about the superiority of China’s one-party rule in handling COVID-19.

Conversely, in America, a politically divided government would have fractured an effective response to the virus.

In fact, former President Donald Trump led an incredibly successful government-pharmaceutical partnership called Operation Warp Speed, which quickly developed reliable vaccines against the disease. It is not known how many lives around the world have been saved thanks to this successful initiative.

At the same time, popular discontent over the economic shutdown has forced reluctant blue states to reopen faster than public health experts would like. Whatever one thinks of this change in policy, this public reaction has benefited the American economy.

By contrast, in China, one-party rule has allowed Xi Jinping to impose his disastrous zero COVID policy for too long and settle for less effective vaccines produced in China. The result was that economic performance and public health suffered.

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The same pattern has been reproduced in the issues of war and peace. Yes, America stumbled into foreign wars after the September 11, 2001 attacks. But public weariness eventually forced an American retreat.

The hasty and incompetent exit from Afghanistan should not obscure the fact that Trump and President Joe Biden came to the same conclusion: the American effort in Afghanistan had to end. That’s what the public wanted.

Again, however, no one wanted war in Ukraine except Russian strongman Vladimir Putin. And it seems that no one else in Russia can put an end to this disastrous policy. The stoicism of the Russian people should not be confused with support or enthusiasm for war. If Russia were truly a democracy, the war would probably never have started and would certainly be over by now.

Of course, one-party rule is a relatively easy target compared to democracy.

What about the liberalism of our system? How does this compare?

Liberal democracy is generally understood as a representative system with a largely private economy, an independent judiciary, guarantees of freedom of speech and of the press, and a large measure of individual liberty.

Economically, America compares favorably to the rest of the world. The US economy is extremely dynamic and productive. While a way must be found to better distribute the fruits of the economy, the average wage has steadily risen under both parties and American innovation continues to dominate the world.

Liberal democracy has also meant an increase in individual freedom, especially in matters of race, gender, and sexual identity. These trends have caused a public backlash, and not just among conservatives.

But contrast American freedom with regimes that attempt to impose national and cultural unity, such as Hungary and Turkey. I suspect most Americans would greatly prefer our cacophony, despite its flaws.

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What nation in the world has been more ready to confront its racial and gender history than the United States?

The advantage of liberal democracy is also found in the question of religion in public life. Americans are fighting for that too, but our Constitution would not allow the elevation of one religious tradition above the rights of all others.

The opposite can be observed in a theocratic state like Iran.

But even the robust democracies of India and Israel now favor a single religion. Israel only passed a basic nationality law recently, in 2018, in an apparent attempt to reinforce the country’s exclusively Jewish nature, despite the presence of significant religious minorities.

The law states in part: “The right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.” Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India, is trying through various means to transform India from a religiously pluralistic state into a Hindu nation.

It is difficult to take equal citizenship seriously in a one-religion state.

None of this diminishes the very serious problems facing the American political system. Many of these problems, and indeed failures, are highlighted in the Harper’s Magazine discussion.

Our racial calculation is not comprehensive and has not included America’s abuses of Indigenous peoples. Nor have we accepted our incredible level of violence. Or, for that matter, our unsustainable national debt.

However, in evaluating our system of government, we must be realistic. We should not compare our system to a perfect system. Instead, we should look around at how other countries are governed and ask ourselves if there are aspects of those approaches that we should take.

We also have to ask ourselves more generally if there is another system that, on balance, we would prefer. In making this judgment, we must not be blinded by our problems to the point of overlooking the many benefits of our liberal democracy.

Does our liberal system need to be improved? Of course.

Is it worth saving? Obviously.


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