Authoritarian Democracy and Militant Democracy

Gerard Delanty

One of the fundamental problems of liberal democracy is that it can do nothing to stop people from becoming illiberal and in certain circumstances it can further illiberalism. Liberal democracy, as left-wing critics often complained, has been a means by which democracy is confined to safe issues that do not call into questions major inequalities in society. Recent developments indicate that it is also unable to stop the rising tide of authoritarianism. Authoritarianism was once seen as the opposite to democracy. Since the collapse of the USSR, liberal democracy appeared to on the rise. However, in many parts of the world today democracy has taken a pronounced authoritarian form. Democracy has often been a vehicle by which authoritarianism entrenches itself in the political process. The most obvious examples of authoritarian democracy are Russia under Putin and Turkey under Erdogan. Both rulers are popular and acquired their power through the democratic process.

In many ways China, despite the absence of liberal democracy, is more democratic than Russia, which may be more an example of authoritarian democracy than Turkey. Nonetheless Putin and Erdogan enjoy democratic legitimacy in ways that the rulers of China do not. There can be no doubt that democracy is a powerful current in the world. The disturbing reality today is that democracy might be in the service of despots. This is a trend that is not comparable to the example of Hitler who acquired power through the electoral process, since once they acquired it, the Nazis immediately abolished democracy. In this case the defense of democracy did not need to reflect too much on itself since it was confronted with its opposite. But when democracy engenders authoritarianism and sustains it, the challenge of defending democracy is different. This is where militant democracy is required.

Militant democracy is the radical defense of democracy against those who use it to further illiberalism. Coined in 1937 by Karl Lowenstein in the context of the rise of fascism, it was given a basis in the post-war German constitution. In recent years the notion has enjoyed a revival as means of combating extremists who use the democratic process to further their aims which are always detrimental to democracy. It is relevant in situations where basic liberal principles such as freedom of speech are subverted to justify hate speech. Militant democracy would thus demand hate speech legislation. Militant democracy generally seeks to defend democracy from those who misuse the formal commitment to equality.

The political situation in Europe and North America is changing and the question can be asked if recent developments are indicative of the disturbing rise of authoritarianism and the need for something like militant democracy. The unimaginable spectre of a Trump victory in the election next month in the USA, the terrifying prospect of Brexit in the UK, and the rise of menacing populist xenophophic parties in Europe are all examples of the transformation of liberal democracy into authoritarian democracy. Even if Trump is not elected, the fact of his rise to power is a reminder of how one of the world largest democracies made possible a development that seriously underlines the principles of modern democracy. Similarly in the UK, since the resignation of David Cameron following the disastrous Referendum of the 23 June 2016 and the appointment of Theresa May as Prime Minister, the country has a hard-line and extremely right-wing government that is intent on the side-lining of parliament in the pursuit of Brexit. Although Trump has styled his possible win as ‘Brexit plus’, the implications for the UK are graver since they amount to a so-called Great Repeal Act that will sweep away decades of progressive legislation. The USA can at least look forward to a presidential change in four years.

Trump in the USA and the May government in the UK are disturbing examples of authoritarian democracy and the pathological effects of the mass media on politics. The politics of Theresa May’s premiership are an assault on democracy in that the government can through an ancient law, the Royal Prerogative, by-pass parliament in enacting new and draconian laws that will take away the rights that people have acquired. It is an attack on democracy in pursuing a momentous project that has a minority support while claiming that it represents the will of the people. But it is the will of the people as interpreted by the government.

Authoritarian democracy is a development of populist politics. Authoritarian democracy draws on populist politics, both of the right and of the left. Both are in clear evidence in the UK and in the USA today. Dissatisfaction with the mainstream fuels public anger which is challenged into radical positions that often are obsessed with migrants and security. The European trend until now is one that sees the growth of anti-migration populist parties which are also are Euro-skeptical. As such, they combine right-wing cultural authoritarianism with left-wing despair of social democracy to promote prosperity for all. Until now, with the exception of Hungary, most of these movements are marginal, but are having a transformative impact on the mainstream as the main centre and right parties take on their policies. The UK is an alarming example of how far this can go. Despite the considerable disquiet of most parliamentarians in the major parties, there is more or less universal acquiescence with the betrayal of democracy and the shallow adherence to a phoney democracy whereby the illusion is preserved that the government has a democratic mandate when it has nothing of the sort since it invented spurious rules.

The present situation calls for militant democracy. This will need to be more than what it is normally called on to do, namely to curb extremists from abusing the democratic process. The problem with authoritarian democracy is that the extremists occupy the executive which consequently will not bend to calls from elsewhere, whether within the legislative or in the wider public sphere. A major challenge then for the present day is to preserve democracy against democracy. This will need to go beyond traditional radical democracy which operates outside the political system, but it will need a much stronger militant democracy that can reply on the mainstream political centre. The forthcoming judgement of the High Court in London if it finds in favour of the People’s Challenge against the government on Article 50 will be an interesting example of militant democracy since, if it is upheld in the event of an appeal to the Supreme Court, it will force real democracy on the government. In that event, it remains to be seen how far authoritarian democracy has gone in eroding the integrity of parliament.

24th October, 2016



Professor of Sociology and Social & Political Thought, University of Sussex, Brighton, UK
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