Note that I will use double-quotes throughout this essay to denote political ideologies of governance, such as “liberal”, “conservative”, “green”, “fascist”, “left”, “right”, etc. I am not using them to denote sarcasm or irony. I use Liberal and Illiberal to denote liberties (freedoms) of constituents of a government.

Preface: The word ‘liberal’

Americans are extremely familiar with the two major political parties: the Republican and Democratic Parties. The Republican Party members of Congress, Presidency, and Supreme Court Judiciaries have represented viewpoints in the contemporary era that typically align to the “right”: small businesses, individual freedoms, traditional social norms. On the other hand is the Democratic party, whose members generally represent viewpoints to the “left”: big businesses, regulation, progressive social norms. It is not always clear cut, as within these parties there are multiple degrees of dissent and my goal is not to go into these details. Instead, I want to emphasize that these differences result in a “liberal versus conservative” characteristic of policy. For example, a law that governs under what conditions an abortion is legal (if permitted at all) will be labeled as “liberal” or “conservative”. This is the language that most Americans are familiar with today.

However, members of government that are in both the Republican and Democratic Parties derive their powers from the Constitution of the United States of America in order to execute their duties. It is important to note that regardless whether a “liberal” or “conservative” policy is being enacted, both kinds of policies get equal treatment in order to have the law created, enforced, and judged. It is this equality between the parties and people of the USA, derived in the votes of the people, that create a Liberal Democracy. The Liberal here is derived from liberty, or the rights of the people to have the freedom of press, religion, assembly, and well-regulated militias. I use the capital “L” for this kind of Liberalism because it does not care if the law itself is “liberal” or “conservative”, just that neither get preferential treatment.

The Two Kinds Of Democracies

A Liberal Democracy is a democracy in which each citizen’s fundamental rights are respected, the rule of law applies to everybody equally, the powers of government are kept separated, and elections are fair. This ensures that each citizen’s ideas are able to be expressed; that their vote is counted equally among others; that their viewpoint has equal chance to be represented in government; and that the government remains slow but steady without a single point of failure that would allow undoing of this system. This lets different ideologies have a level playing field to try out their hand at governance without being the permanent one, forever.

On the contrary, an Illiberal Democracy is a democracy in which some citizens’ fundamental rights are restricted, there are laws that give preferential treatment to certain classes of people, power is concentrated in one or few key individuals, certain candidates are not permitted to run for election, certain people are not permitted to vote, or certain people have their votes count for less. This ensures that the dominant ideology stays in effect, forever. Such ideologies could be anything like “liberal”, “conservative”, “communist”, “socialist”, “fascist”, etc.

Liberal Democracies Permit Peaceful Ideological Transitions

The Liberal and Illiberal Democracies lie on a relative spectrum. There is not an absolute black-and-white categorization. For example, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is the official name of North Korea. Despite having “Democratic” in its name, it is run by a single ruler with a single party. The country’s citizens’ fundamental rights are restricted, there are laws that apply to its people but not their ruler, power is concentrated in one individual, no one else is permitted to run for election. This keeps the current authoritarian regime in power over the nation. To transition to a different ideology would require the use of violence as there is no mechanism for peaceful transfer of power.

On the other hand, the Liberal Democracy of the United States permitted the peaceful transfer of power between the ideologies of the “Federalists” (Hamilton) and “Democrat-Republicans” (Jefferson) during its formative years. Today, we would say the ideologies are the “Republican” (conservative) and “Democratic” (liberal) ones. This peaceful transition of power between ideologies was what blew everyone’s mind during the age of Enlightenment. This is the game that a Liberal Democracy provides: a fair playing field for ideologies to compete for governance.

Social Norms Guard Against The Allure of Illiberalism

Unfortunately, this presents a problem. What if the ideology that gets its fair chance at governing the Liberal Democracy is an ideology to undo the Liberal Democracy? This is where societal norms come into play to protect it. For certain societies, it is military coups, military action, or police violence that keeps the Liberal Democracy in place. For the USA, it has been less gruesome. While nothing within the Constitution permits its dissolution, nothing prevents its implementation from being corrupted so that the letter of the Constitution is followed but its sprit is not followed.

Some of the social norms of the USA include: citizens understanding that other Americans with opposing political ideologies are people and not enemies; the Justice Department not being politicized; the President putting their business in a blind trust during their rule; the President releasing their tax returns; government officials discouraging violence amongst the citizenry; political candidates not calling for the imprisonment of their political opponents; government officials not attacking the ethnicity of its citizenry; the President not using his power to promote his business; the President not assigning powerful government offices to his or her children; the President not actively trying to delegitimize the press; government officials not trying to politicize the military; government officials not trying to impeach judges who struck down gerrymandered districts.

If norms are violated, then the USA shifts from being a Liberal Democracy towards an Illiberal Democracy. This would simply mean that everyone in the country has a vote, but regardless of who a citizen voted for, one party or ideology (“conservative”, “liberal”, “libertarian”, “green”, …) will continue to be dominant in the Legislative, the Executive, and the Judicial branches. Is such a society free?

For it would be a society where Americans view other Americans with different political views as enemies; where the Justice Department rubber-stamps upholding laws with a particular ideology; where the President is free to use his or her position for personal wealth gain for themselves and their children; where the President can do so outside the public eye; where citizens killing each other over political views is supported by the government; where opposition candidates are not permitted to run or are thrown in prison; where the press is seen as untrustworthy; where only The Word of The President is the truth as all media are lies; where the military enforces and supports a particular single ideology; where government officials can continue gerrymandering districts to ensure their ideology continues to be dominant.

I would argue it would be free only on paper. Unfortunately, that’s good enough for many people. One reason for people believing this is that Liberalism is on a spectrum. Concrete examples of Illiberal governments are North Korea and Turkmenistan, while examples of Liberal governments include Switzerland and the United States. Which country’s government is the most Liberal and which is the most Illiberal is hard to say, but they all fall in a spectrum. This blurry spectrum means that any move towards Illiberalism must be especially scrutinized since we have no way of knowing if where we wind up is slightly-Liberal or slightly-Illiberal. Those that believe that having liberty on paper is sufficient just divide the line in a different place than I. And it is where we place this dividing line between Liberal and Illiberal that causes much strife between the Liberal-“conservatives” and Liberal-“liberals” versus the Illiberal-“conservatives” and Illiberal-“liberals”.

The aforementioned social norms are those that, when upheld, are indicators that our Liberal Democracy is not regressing towards Illiberalism. Despite all the flaws in previous administrations, from Washington to Obama, they maintained or created these norms for our society at large to gauge our position on the Illiberalism spectrum. Some norms were broken by previous Presidents, such as FDR’s four terms instead of the polite two. So important were these norms that they enshrined this one into an Amendment in the Constitution. But the social norms I chose above were not arbitrary.

Depending on where you draw the line between Liberalism and Illiberalism, breaking the above social norms may cause concern. Every single one of the above social norms has been violated since the Trump administration has come into power. This fractured both “liberals” and “conservatives” into two, creating four groups of people within the United States of America: the Liberal “liberals”, the Liberal “conservatives”, the Illiberal “liberals”, and the Illiberal “conservatives”. For example, the Illiberal “liberals” are people who are overzealous in their attempts to censor Illiberal “conservative” ideas and wind up advocating censorship of Liberal “conservative” ideas. On the other hand, the Illiberal “conservatives” follow Trump’s Illiberal tendencies in order to implement “conservative” policies no matter the cost to the fabric of our Liberal Democracy. The Liberal “liberals” and Liberal “conservatives” are together quietly wondering, to put it politely, how in tarnation did we get here? and are frustratedly typing long essays on their personal websites. The Liberal “liberals” and Liberal “conservatives” see Trump as dangerous to the nation as a whole regardless of whose ideology he is trying to implement.

This leads to the final conclusion of Illiberalism: once entrenched, the dominant ideology does not have a peaceful way to transition to another ideology. The only way is through violence and bloodshed unless the ruler(s) freely give up their power and the transition turns out to be peaceful. There is also no guarantee that the ruling ideology remains stagnant for all time. What may be a favorite ideology in the Illiberal society may morph into one that is dependent on the whims of the rulers. Or while maybe an Illiberal government allows voting for the guaranteed-losing party, it risks branding such voters as non-believers.

Populism Is A Gateway To Illiberalism

Populism has a simple definition in Wikipedia: it is “a political philosophy supporting the rights and power of the people in their struggle against a privileged elite”. It at first seems appealing, but upon closer inspection there are two big problems. One is that anyone can be a Populist so long as they are not at the very top of the privileged elite. What this means is that wealthy, privileged elites can be Populists with the common folk as long as they are not the wealthiest and are not the most privileged of the elites. Secondly: it requires its followers to create arbitrary enemies. Either a fellow citizen is a common comrade or a bourgeois elite enemy. There is no room for nuance: the world is black and white. Populists together are the morally correct, and their privileged elite are the morally wrong.

What this results in is a group of Populists that are ready to believe – even if only subconsciously – that they are the One True Kind Of Citizen, while all the other citizens are branded as The Enemy. This group of Populists are easily controlled by their own elites that are not elite enough to be The Enemy. Going back to the definitions of Liberal and Illiberal, this sets up a power structure that is primed for Illiberalism: there are no checks and balances, there is no distribution of power, and citizens that are The Enemy are not viewed to have equal freedoms.

Illiberalism would normally be a bad outcome for those losing their freedoms. Populism makes it worse: each Populist has an incentive to remain the One True Kind Of Citizen, so they play the game of chicken with each other to go to more and more extreme lengths in order to not be cast as The Enemy. This results in an extreme amount of division, hatred, bigotry, and loss of liberty. Throw Illiberalism into this passionate hatred, and things get incredibly risky for a Liberal Democracy.


Should Americans be afraid? No. The preventative is simple:

  1. Be empathetic when disagreeing with others.
  2. Political differences are okay; all Americans want what is best for the USA.
  3. Listen.

The first rule helps guard against Populism. Viewing everyone as a human being struggling to get by in this world prevents clustering humans into good and bad guys. Like skin color does not define the limitations of a human being, neither do their political nor scientific views. Yes, it stinks when the personal political party of choice does not win an election, but time will go on. The country will just temporarily follow a different ideology. It is not a weakness to be empathetic and understanding. In fact, it is a weakness of mind and character to default to the tribal “they are different so I fear and hate them” mentality. It takes great personal strength to remain disciplined in mind and morality in order to treat another very different human with patience, humility, and empathy.

The second helps to be a Liberal “liberal” or a Liberal “conservative”. Educate fellow Illiberals about the role of social norms and their protection of all of our freedoms and rights from erosion. Point them to this essay if needed. Find other Liberal “liberals” and Liberal “conservatives”, and keep reminding each other that we still co-exist. Differences are okay.

The third helps to be an overall impactful human. Listen to a person’s complaints and ask why they feel that way. Listen some more. Ask them to elaborate. Look them in the eye. State your own views that are shared with them. State your views where they differ, but never offer judgement on that difference because differences are okay. That difference just exists. It co-exists, peacefully!

The only way to build a better world is to build understanding and bridge divisions. So keep listening.

Published: Mar 26, 2018 17:52:37 EDT
By: Cory Slep