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What Is Illiberalism? Answering Joshua Muravchik

Freedom House, biased against conservatives, is no longer a reliable source of ratings for nations’ democratic policies

Senior Fellow and Director, Center for American Common Culture

p(firstLetter). Joshua Muravchik’s extensive attack on John O’Sullivan’s article “‘Democracy in Crisis’” raises critical issues in the current debate over the status of liberal democracy that are worth examining in detail. Quoting the annual Freedom House world report for 2018, Muravchik exclaimed that “democracy is,” indeed, “in crisis.” He declares: “This year for the first time, the number of countries registering losses in Freedom — a whopping 71 in all — is more than double the number in which freedom grew.”

For the most part, Muravchik’s argument is based on data supplied by Freedom House, a federally funded think tank founded in 1941. However, as Heritage’s Mike Gonzalez and I wrote in February, Freedom House has changed dramatically since its anti-Communist days during the Cold War and has become simply another progressive, anti-conservative (and overwhelmingly government-dependent) NGO.

Perhaps Muravchik is thinking of Freedom House circa 1989. In fact, Muravchik’s entire essay betrays a Rip Van Winkle mindset, as if the issues of the 1980s and 1990s were central to today’s debate. He believes John O’Sullivan’s article is “redolent of earlier attacks by self-described ‘paleoconservatives’ against neoconservatives.” He describes differences between a Jimmy Carter–oriented “human-rights community,” which focused on U.N. treaties and declarations, and a “democracy community,” which was “a touchtone of Ronald Reagan’s presidency.” He seems to believe that the ideological composition of Freedom House is virtually unchanged since the Cold War, a healthy mix of conservatives, centrists, and moderate liberals.

In our February essay, “Freedom House Turns Partisan,” Gonzalez and I examined Freedom House’s biased reports on conservative policy positions in five free nations. In the United States, the report repeated the talking points of the Democratic party; thus, conservatives and Republicans (pre-Trump, mind you) were “harm[ing] minority voters” with voter-ID laws and weakening unions through right-to-work laws. In Great Britain, Brexit has led to “anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment.”

In Israel, civil liberties “declined” because the conservative Likud government required NGOs to be transparent and disclose funding from foreign governments. In Denmark, a center-right coalition is “damag[ing] Denmark’s reputation for liberal values” because it insists that wealthier immigrants should not receive government welfare funds. In Poland, the conservative government is excoriated because it changed the judicial-election process by having elected representatives of the people nominate judges (as is the system in the U.S., Germany, and most democracies) instead of the old system in which sitting judges nominate the new judges (like having Ruth Bader Ginsburg choose her successor). In other words, in all the above cases, Freedom House is characterizing the enactment of routine democratic conservative polices as “losses for freedom.”

Freedom House became dependent on government funding

With the end of the Cold War, Freedom House’s mostly private funding dried up, and the organization came to depend on U.S. government support. The independent auditors’ report for the year ending June 30, 2016, revealed that about 86 percent of its funding came from the federal government. Thus the once-vibrant institution became, if not an actual GONGO (government-operated NGO), arguably a de facto one, an organization almost entirely dependent on government money.

At the same time, Freedom House has moved left. John J. Miller, writing in National Review in 2007, noted that shortly after 9/11, Freedom House’s president, Adrian Karatnycky, and its vice-president for research, Arch Puddington, wrote an article in Commentary(“The Human-Rights Lobby Meets Terrorism”) criticizing two left-wing human-rights NGOs (Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch) for appearing to be more censorious of the vigorous American response to Islamist terrorism during those first few months in Afghanistan than in “recognizing the character of the enemy against which the civilized world now finds itself arrayed.”

Freedom House’s board (whose then-chairman, Peter Ackerman, was the husband of a member of the board of Human Rights Watch) “ordered [Karatnycky and Puddington] not to criticize . . . fellow human rights activists.” Their article was “expunged” from the group’s website. Miller quotes a Freedom House employee as commenting, “They were gagged.” Eventually serious anti-totalitarians like former CIA chief James Woolsey and my colleague Nina Shea, who directs the Center for Religious Freedom (formerly at Freedom House, now at the Hudson Institute), left Freedom House. A former board member, Nina Rosenwald, told NR’s John Miller, “Freedom House has changed radically. Rather than a voice of freedom, it is little more than a Beltway bandit.”

Freedom House’s illiberalism

Ironically, Freedom House has embraced the illiberal and cultural-Marxist concept of “equality of outcomes” over the classical-liberal idea of equality of opportunity for individuals regardless race, ethnicity, or sex. The 2017 report on the U.K. complains that women are “underrepresented in top positions,” noting that there are only 191 women (or 29 percent of MPs) in the House of Commons. In other national reports, Freedom House uses information from the U.N. CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women) treaty monitoring group (the U.S. has refused to ratify this treaty) that explicitly accepts the concept of “de facto equality” or gender quotas over “legal equality under law.” Clearly, the concept of “underrepresentation,” or group proportionalism, the idea that a just society requires that gender, racial, and ethnic groups (that is to say, the groups that one is born into) must be proportionally represented in all sectors of society, is decidedly illiberal. This “de facto equality of outcomes” is also impossible to implement without coercive and massive government interference.

Post-democracy and post-liberalism

Muravchik takes umbrage at O’Sullivan’s use of my concept of “post-democracy,” which I originally formulated in essays in 2002 (“Liberal Democracy vs. Transnational Progressivism,” Orbis) and 2004 (“Democracy’s Trojan Horse,” The National Interest). I wrote that the 21st century “could well turn out to be” a “post-democratic” century “in which liberal democracy . . . is slowly, almost imperceptibly, replaced by a new form of global governance.”

Liberal democracy is made up of two constituent parts: liberalism and democracy. Liberalism, traditionally, means support for limited government, individual rights, private property, and freedom of speech and association. Democracy denotes “government by consent of the governed” or some form of majority rule. The liberal democratic nation-state combines these two elements: A distinct “people” govern themselves, but this popular government is limited by individual rights.

These core concepts of traditional liberalism and majoritarian nation-state democracy have been seriously challenged for more than two decades by forces supporting global governance. These forces include what I call “transnational progressives” and “transnational pragmatists,” such as the leadership of the European Union and the U.N.; international bureaucrats, judges, lawyers, academics, politicians, and officials who work at places such as the International Criminal Court, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization; corporate executives working for global businesses (what my Hudson colleague Walter Russell Mead calls the Davoisie); and the myriad so-called human-rights and environmental NGOs and legal organizations (e.g. the American Bar Association) that advocate a “global rule of law” superior to the constitution of any democratic nation-state. These forces continuously tell us that “global problems require global solutions” and that, thus, national sovereignty (including the sovereignty of democratic states) is becoming increasingly obsolete.

Transnational progressives, including those “’68ers” in leadership positions in the European Union (along with many transnational pragmatists on the “center-right”), are post-liberal as well as post-democratic. Instead of individual rights, they advocate group rights based on race, ethnicity, and gender. Certainly, the European promotion of “gender parity” (preferential quotas for women) is antithetical to traditional liberalism. So are the EU’s and member states’ multiple laws restricting free speech by so-called “hate speech” legislation.

The Prague Appeal, which Muravchik is defending, states that “liberal democracy is under threat from without from despotic regimes in Russia, China and other countries” and from “within” as “illiberalism is on the rise” in “backsliding democracies” including Hungary, the Philippines, and Venezuela. The signers of the Prague Appeal are right to raise the alarm about China and Russia (they could have specifically noted Iran and North Korea as threats as well, but those nations go unmentioned in the document), and I imagine that John O’Sullivan agrees that the West faces an authoritarian challenge from “without” from China and Russia.

The challenge “within” democracy from “illiberalism,” however, depends upon what one means by illiberalism, and what one means by democracy. For example, if more than 50 percent of a nation’s laws (say Great Britain) are initiated by non-citizens in an unelected foreign bureaucracy (e.g., the European Commission), is it not accurate to speak of a clear (not “perceived”) democracy deficit? Freedom House methodology poses the question: “Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?” But Freedom House never applies this question to EU member states, whose laws are too often initiated by the unelected transnational European Commission rather than by elected national representatives.

Why aren’t the signatories of the Prague Appeal and Freedom House concerned about the longstanding and well-known “democracy deficit” in the European Union? One of the signers of the Prague Appeal, Marc Plattner (a former vice president of the United States’ National Endowment for Democracy), wrote in Democracy Without Borders? that the EU is suffering from a “democracy deficit” and decision-making in the EU is “unaccountable” and “remote from its citizens.”

All the issues discussed above add complexity to the simplistic (and distorted) narrative of a growing “illiberalism” throughout the West in places such as Hungary, Poland, Austria, Italy (the recent elections), Britain (with Brexit), and America (with the election of Donald Trump), while at the same time this false narrative ignores post-democratic and post-liberal tendencies within the EU, some Western nations, and the global-governance movement writ large.

What we are witnessing, for the most part (there are always excesses in any political movement), is not some anti-democratic, illiberal populism, but the reassertion across the West of democratic sovereignty. From the Visegrad nations of Central Europe to the Anglosphere periphery, on both sides of the Atlantic, different peoples are demanding a return to the overarching principle of government by consent of the governed.

Within the EU itself we are seeing a new emphasis on the old Charles de Gaulle (and Margaret Thatcher) vision a Europe of nation-states rather than an integrated federal union. The new leader of the French Republican (neo-Gaullist) party, Laurent Wauquiez, has made this point explicitly in challenging his chief rival, the transnationalist President Emmanuel Macron.

Muravchik and his friends are stuck in the old Fukuyama “end of history” paradigm, which never envisioned, and could not imagine or comprehend, a post-democratic, post-liberal, transnationalist challenge to the democratic nation-state from within Western civilization itself. Yet this conflict between traditional supporters of democratic self-government and the inherently anti-conservative transnational post-democrats will be central in the struggle over the future of liberal democracy in the decades to come.