The Global Liberal Counter-Revolutions and What They Mean for Democracy


– By Taylor Horn

The field of political theory (my previous major) spends a great deal of time discussing the distinction between democracy and liberalism. When I was first introduced to this divide, it seemed a distinction without a difference; the phrase “liberal democracy” is so common that the two words have tended to lose meaning by themselves. This is in no small part because almost every enduring democracy has tended to conform to some standard of Western liberalism.

But perhaps a new era has come for this distinction. We are becoming more and more intertwined with democracies that violate certain standards of liberalism, whether it be Islamic-influenced law in Egypt, militarism in Gaza, or socialist economic policies in Southeast Asia. Democracies around the world have elected to mix different elements into their national character, rather than seeking to emulate the liberal, free market, Bill-of-Rights style liberalism of the American model.

However, just as soon as we have seen the rise of these democracies, we have seen counter-revolutions of liberalism. In 1992, an Islamic coalition democratically won huge majorities in all of Algeria’s government, only to be immediately deposed and forced into underground rebellion by Algeria’s elite-dominated, Western-educated, generally liberal military. What followed was a nineteen year state of emergency ending Algeria’s democratic governance. This is eerily similar to the same thing happening twenty years later in Egypt; an Islamic party wins the first democratic election in the country’s history, only to be deposed a year into their term by a similar military.

Go halfway around the world and we see a similar situation: Yingluck Shinawatra, the Prime Minister of Thailand, is under attack. Shinawatra and her brother Thaksin, a previous Prime Minister, have long lead their party to adopt widely-supported populist—often socialist—economic policies that favor the rural agricultural class over the urbanized, educated elite. Since her election in 2011, Thai elites have mounted furious opposition; recently this frustration moved into open street protests, calling for a military coup and revival of the monarchy.

In all cases, those regimes under attack have been criticized for not “acting democratic”. This was a refrain against Egypt’s Morsi that I personally grew furious hearing. A more accurate statement might be that these governments have not been “acting liberal.” The Western world was furious with these democracies because of their seeming complacency on a liberal rights agenda, and because of their complicated relationship with free markets (dominated and exploited by existing liberal powers).

This sort of outrage from the Western world reveals the extent to which liberalism is fundamentally an authoritarian pursuit. In some cases, the public may readily and freely agree to this kind of authoritarianism. Even in these cases, a certain standard of good and evil, right and wrong is being enforced. This enforcement may be overt or tacit; we take the American standard for granted because it has been tacitly integrated into the fabric of our lives.

Consequently, the United States has long sought allegiances with dictators worldwide, because they have the power to single handedly enforce these liberal ideas. Noriega, the Al-Sauds, and Saddam Hussein at one point, all made sure that the United States interests in a global free market were defended. Chiang Kai-Shek, Ngo Dinh Diem, and the Shah Reza Pahlavi defended against the spread of communism and socialism, as well as Islamic law. These leaders were seen as the only way to defend fundamental American values and interests around the world, and they did so through violent authoritarian means.

An unwillingness to yield completely to the opposing side is understandable. America has a deep opposition to any sort of socialism or command economy. Some human rights, it can be argued, are too important to leave up to democratic whims; they must be protected first. Therefore, we cannot allow even a democratically elected Egyptian government to not equalize the rights of women. I personally, would have very little tolerance for that kind of a status quo.

This kind of liberalism fundamentally relies on a greatly idealized world of little conflict, boundless lands, perfect information, and completely enlightened goals. Because it relies on so many ideal assumptions, liberal thought has very little faith in actually-existing, imperfect humanity. Ideal liberalism must be imposed, enshrined, and protected above individual interests.

Democratic values see it the opposite way, and place complete faith in humanity. If we truly believe in the spread of democracy, we must believe that a right so important will convince or defeat its opposition in the marketplace of ideas, as John Rawls argues in Public Reason Revisited. Democratic values have confidence in regular people to hear the voices of right or reason, if either definitively exist. If we want to change the direction of democratic consensus, we must change many minds, not simply the minds of those who command the troops, control the media, or write the history books. If we spent more time on this kind of convincing, I believe our foreign policy would meet with greater success.

Update: The military installed government of Egypt has drafted a new constitution and presented it to the President Adly Mansour since the time of initial writing. However, this development seems to still support the article’s main point; liberalism is often enshrined by force As Makram Mohamed Ahmed has observed, the new constitution may allow the Egyptians more freedom, but it also instills the power of the military rule in ways the previous constitution had eliminated.


Taylor Horn is a first-year MSPPM student concentrating on international and security policy. He is currently an analyst in a startup focused on water issues and infrastructure. Prior to this Taylor has worked in international mediation, on political campaigns, and in academic research. He received a bachelor’s degree from Bard College at Simon’s Rock double majoring in Political Science and Theater.