Published in Spanish in Perfiles Liberales April 1999 (Mexico City)
For the greater part of the twentieth century liberal democracy waged an epic ideological struggle against fascism and communism. After more than seven decades, near the end of what Zbigniew Brzezinski called "mankind's most bloody and hateful century," liberal democracy emerged triumphant. Many Western commentators proclaimed the world historical significance of this great victory of liberal ideals. Francis Fukuyama declared that we had reached the "end of history." He predicted that the basic principles of liberal democracy would never again face serious opposition. Today, however, the liberal foundation of democracy is under an assault which, if successful, will transform democracy itself. An alternative world view, "cultural democracy," has emerged, challenging the basic principles of liberal democracy on practically every important issue.
Traditionally, liberal democracy has meant majority rule within the framework of limited government, individual rights, equality of individual citizenship, freedom of expression, and the existence of a private sphere in civil society free from political interference. Today important segments of the Western elite not only question the traditional principles of liberal democracy, they essentially advocate an alternative world view: cultural democracy.
At the heart of the liberal democratic world view is the concept of the individual citizen. Traditionally, the legal and moral authority of political liberalism is based on the rights and responsibilities of individual citizens, who are equal under the law and together form a self-governing free people. Hence, status under a liberal regime is based on achieved rather than ascribed characteristics such as race and gender. More than two decades ago, German sociologist Ralf Dahrendorf wrote that the hallmark of a modern liberal democratic society is the extent to which individually achieved status replaces the ascribed group status of traditional pre-modern times. Today, however, for "cultural democrats," what matters are not individual citizens, but distinct peoples, ethnic groups, and cultural blocs.
Liberal democrats have always emphasized free speech. However, as the more than three hundred speech codes on North American campuses indicate, cultural democrats do not accept this traditional liberal ideal of free expression. Instead, they work to restrict speech that, as they see it, "promotes" racism and sexism, or creates a "hostile environment" for "diversity." Central to the West's ideological war against communism was the defense of a private sphere free from political inference. Liberalism holds that private life is by nature non-political and that it should be free from ideological pressure. During the cold war defenders of the West would have considered the feminist proposition "the personal is political" to be inherently totalitarian. Today, however, cultural democrats insist that private actions and attitudes can reinforce the "ideological hegemony" of dominant institutions and that, therefore, the "personal" is an arena in the struggle for power among groups and a legitimate concern of political life.
The goal of liberal democracy is to sustain a free society. This purpose envisions a self-governing free people with a political system based on majority rule, individual rights, limited government, and a cultural system based on a vibrant civil society. For the most part, individuals in a liberal democracy are free to pursue their own interests, hold their own opinions, and within broad legal limits live their own lives. Liberal democracy does not want to possess the individual's soul or psyche. It is not a holistic system that explains all aspects of life, but its well being always depends upon the religious, moral, and ethical characteristics of its citizens.
On the other hand, the goal of cultural democracy is to create a "diverse society." In practical terms, "diversity" means proportional representation for groups based on race, ethnicity, gender, and, in some countries, language. Day in and day out, throughout the West government bureaucracies, universities, trade unions, businesses, even churches are under pressure to "solve the problem of underrepresentation" of minorities and women in various positions. These same institutions are also under constant pressure to explain why there are "inequalities" between white males and minorities and women in pay rates and educational achievement or, for that matter, in almost any aspect of life.
In contrast to the philosophy of liberal democracy that promotes equality of opportunity for individuals and not equality of condition on the basis of group membership, the ideology of cultural democracy defines justice as achieving a particular result: proportional representation of minorities and women in all sectors of society. To be sure, liberal democrats also oppose racism and sexism, but they define these terms differently and consequently propose different solutions to the problems resulting from bigotry. Traditionally liberal democrats reject racial and sexual prejudice that prevents individuals from achieving the same goals that other individuals are entitled to achieve.
Cultural democrats call for the "transformation" or "emancipation" of the human personality. As Gloria Steinem argues in her best-selling The Revolution from Within, human beings are"infinitely redeemable" and can be transformed into non-sexist, non-competitive persons through new and non-hierarchial forms of social organization. This "transformationist" perspective is repeated by Western elites. Thus, cultural democrats echo the age-old argument that individuals are infinitely malleable, that there is no such thing as a fixed "human nature."
This position strikes at the philosophical foundations of liberal-democratic thought and the concept of limited government. During the long ideological struggle against totalitarianism in this century, liberal democrats explicitly attacked the concept of the "new man" whether it was the USSR's "new Soviet man," the Nazis' Aryan superman, or Che Guevarra's vision of the "new socialist man." They argued that developing a "new man" was neither possible (because human beings are not infinitely malleable, although they are capable of improvement), nor desirable (because such attempts at social engineering inevitably weaken liberty). Indeed, at the heart of American liberal democratic thought as expressed in The Federalist Papers is the idea that human nature is neither perfect nor perfectible and, hence, checks and balances are needed for both the governors and the governed. As James Madison puts it in Federalist 51 "It may be a reflection on human nature that such devices [checks and balances] should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither internal nor external controls on government would be necessary."
Thomas Sowell suggests that modern political conflict is based on two competing visions of human nature that were articulated during the Enlightenment. The first, a "constrained vision" posits that man is not perfectible, hence society should consider the various moral and mental limitations of human beings while, at the same time, developing institutions that help improve the human condition. This view is expressed in the philosophies of Adam Smith, John Locke, William Blackstone, and the authors of The Federalist Papers.
The rival position, the "unconstrained vision" insists that human beings are extremely malleable, that their potential for moral change is essentially unlimited, and that society will be transformed by naturally virtuous human beings once they are freed from old ideas and institutions. This view is expressed in the writings of William Godwin and philosophes such as D'Holbach and, particularly, Condorcet. If the philosophical forbears of contemporary liberal democracy are those 18th century thinkers like Madison who would have rejected the concept of a "new man," then the philosophical forbears of contemporary cultural democracy are thinkers like Condorcet who would have agreed that "the self is socially constructed".
Just as liberal democracy and cultural democracy envision different ends for society, they also require different means to achieve those ends. Clearly, cultural democrats will not be able to create a "diverse society" by simply expanding the traditional practices of liberal democracy. On the contrary, traditional liberal practices must be abandoned to achieve their goals. These goals--group proportionality in institutions and attitudinal changes in the individual psyche (the elimination of racism and sexism in word and thought in public and private life)-- require the active intervention of a powerful state bureaucracy.
Rhetoric impugning the legitimacy of liberal democracy is now commonplace. When elites routinely speak about "the patriarchy," and "institutional" racism and sexism, and declare that minorities and women in Western democracies constitute "the oppressed," they are stripping the liberal democratic regime of its legitimacy. If the liberal regimes in Britain and America are "patriarchies" that "oppress" people, they are by definition illegitimate. People are, of course, sometimes unfairly discriminated against in liberal democracies, but this does not constitute systemic "oppression." "Discrimination" implies that there are remedies available under the rule of law; a "patriarchy" that "oppresses" people suggests that the system itself is illegitimate. The former is the rhetoric of reform, the later is the language of de-legitimization that justifies the deconstruction of the old liberal order and the creation of a new regime.
Cultural democrats endorse "democratic values" that are essentially incompatible with the liberal democratic norms of majority rule, limited government, and individual rights. Thus, multicultural educators insist that it is "undemocratic" for the majority (Western) culture to "impose its (individualist liberal) values" on non-Western immigrants. Instead, "democratic values" require an emphasis on the culture group instead of the individual citizen.
Cultural democrats appear to support "inclusion" and to favor the underdog; more importantly, they seem to be winning and thus represent "the future." This appearance of impending victory is perhaps their greatest strength. They are also able to effectively intimidate their liberal opponents by branding them as "racists" and "sexists", in the manner that unscrupulous Western demagogues once unfairly condemned their political opponents as "reds," or ambitious Medieval inquisitors denounced their rivals as "heretics."
Of course, the majority of professionals in government and civil society are not ideological cultural democrats. However, like most people, they are concerned with their own lives and unlikely to become involved in seemingly abstract fights over principles. While they are often resentful of group preferences, they nonetheless understand power. They know that resisting the "diversity" movement can have unpleasant consequences for one's career. It is easier to go along. Indeed, an alert professional's previously intuitive understanding of the realities of the work place has been institutionalized in recent years as career advancement is increasingly tied to how well a professional "manages diversity."
If long-term trends continue and serious opposition to group rights and "diversity" fails, it is likely that liberal democracy will steadily evolve into a new form of regime. This transformation is already well under way, and is likely to proceed gradually, almost imperceptibly, sector by sector in much the same way as the evolution from the old aristocratic order to constitutional liberalism in Europe. Some elements of the old liberal democratic regime would persist just as elements of the aristocracy persisted under the liberal regime during the 19th and 20th centuries. Future historians will not be able to identify the precise point at which the West became "post-liberal democratic" any more than contemporary historians are able to tell us when Europe became "post-Christian." Indeed, people might still call the system "liberal democracy" although its basic principles will have been hollowed out and "reinvented" much as we sometimes refer to Western Europe as "Christian," even though most Europeans are not believing (let alone practicing) Christians in any real sense.
The current "cultural wars" are not, as Fukuyama and many others suggest, merely arguments over how best to implement liberal democracy. They are fundamental disagreements about the meaning of democracy itself. Make no mistake: we are in the midst of a great ideological conflict between two incompatible world views over the nature of human beings and the good society. This conflict has its philosophical roots in a split in Enlightenment thought between those theorists who believe that human beings are infinitely malleable and those who do not. Although liberal democracy was severely challenged during the course of the 20th century by fascism and communism, as we enter the 21st century the internal challenge from cultural democracy may prove to be liberal democracy's greatest test.