Navigating the Shifting Tides: The Unsettled Landscape of Liberal Democracy


Not too long ago, discussions revolved around the ‘End of History,’ ‘End of ideology,’ and even the ‘End of Art.’ The prevailing narrative was that, with the Cold War victory, liberal democracy had become the default ideology, rendering further ideological evolution obsolete. However, the once seemingly invincible pillars of liberal democracy are now teetering in various parts of the world, confronting challenges that threaten their very existence. Liberalism and liberal democracy are not only shaky in many parts of the world, but are facing a collapse of narrative that has sustained its relentless march to the dominant wisdom of the modern times.

The Assault from Within

The assault is paradoxical – liberal democracy is being assailed by its own tools. Free speech, a cornerstone of democratic principles, is being weaponized by hate mongers. The electoral universality of adult franchise, a symbol of democratic equality, is elevating populist regimes. Political correctness, initially a corrective force, is now not only limiting but also providing ammunition against free speech. Information flow, intended to remedy information asymmetry, is inadvertently reinforcing a Post-Truth Society. Free enterprise, the bedrock of individualism and prosperity, has paradoxically contributed to creating an unequal society, depriving a significant portion of humanity of even a modicum of dignified life. Open covenants, openly arrived at, once central to democratic transparency, have devolved into a sure-shot recipe catering to myopic interests, short-circuiting deliberative decision-making processes. Democracy not only faces an autoimmune onslaught but also witnesses the collapse of the world that enabled its rise.

The Roots of Liberalism and the Rise of Rationality

The roots of liberal democracy trace back to the enlightenment era, where reason eclipsed emotions and traditions, reshaping the entire value system of societies. In the older scheme, human was not the center of the universe, but in a way contained the universe in himself. He might not be prosperous, but felt safe in a belief and superstitions which had obtained cultural heft and resonance for his material and spiritual existence.  For much of the history of humanity, that divinity-driven humanity was the norm and a presence of a God- like authority was not limited to places of worship, but provided fission and energy to the entire existence.

The traditional world of rituals and religion became, inevitably, corrupted and the sensibilities that gave meaning to life of the teeming masses became a source of corruption and unbearable exploitation. Individual rights and the desire to break free from the exploitative tradition became attractive in the face of corruption and exploitation. This demanded sacrifice. The traditional world of divine symbols and seamless connect with God and delegation of many life dimensions to the king and God was sacrificed on the altar of individual destiny and intellect. This did not happen in one day, but the world that gave meaning to the earlier life, simply melted away. However, the memory of security of that period remained. Humans, who were once part of a world where every aspect of life had a divine sanction, found themselves propelled into an era where individual rationality held supremacy. This transition, while giving birth to the rational post-enlightened individual, was marked by the painful disengagement from a deeply rooted spiritual world. Yet, the memory of the security of that period lingered, manifesting as a filtered experience of nostalgia, conveniently omitting the corruption and exploitation that often accompanied the traditional divine world.

The Ephemeral Stability of the Rational World

The new world of intellect was no less prone to corruption and other maladies. First doubt was about the self- the individual itself. Who was this ‘individual’ for whose right and needs an entire nurturing world was sacrificed. Humans muddled through the redefinition process and created immense prosperity, gave dignity and viable chances to a huge number of people. And finally, it appears, after the massive jolt of the World Wars, people started forgetting the pain of losing their God and age of rationality became a norm.

As happens in every cycle, the new cycle too started accumulating contradictions. Individual rationality of liberal democracy had emerged as traditions started to distort the sense of self instead of situating it in the nurturing flow of endless beginnings and consciousness. Any weakening of the new system was sufficient to push out the spectre of the ‘remembered/imagined’ golden age, reminding the enlightened and empowered individual of the security of the tradition and of the lost Eden. This provided a powerful plane on which individualism- liberal-Democratic edifice could be challenged. Especially where it is not delivering on the promise of a more meaningful and free life for the individual. This failure could be due to the inherent deficiencies or the autoimmune nature of the tenets of liberal democracy.  When the older world is substantially gone, the human finds himself between two words, “one dead, the other too powerless to be born”. Leading to anomie and rootlessness.

The brutal journey of the post enlightened world did little to calm the nerves of the new man. The rational post enlightened world was finding its roots amidst post French Revolution bloodbath, scourge of colonialism, massive wars and challenge of communalism and fascism which blighted much of its existence. Relatively stable period which could be seen as its flowering, that is, post World War period, was also marred by the Cold War and underpinned by strong critique by the left. Therefore, seen historically, this rational man is an aberration, a blip. Yet its rise was so strong that it appears today, or at least till a few years back, the eternal portrait of human beings. The human, driven by the sacred and the collective, was relegated to museums or reservations like religious institutions where old God lived as creator and nourisher of just that aspect and just that cult, instead of a divine sanction, permeating all the aspects of life of everyone.

Memories of the Lost Eden

This older realm represents memory of nurture and safety. Its less examined ways, being devoid of foreign dominance also adds to its allure. In the Indian case, with inadequate historical records coupled with top notch literary and spiritual documents, this lure of the golden age becomes all the more compelling. Being one with a sparkle of a genuine tradition is a primal pleasure and ultimate validation.

In such a scenario, liberal -democratic -secular – individual world is panicking as its tenants are disintegrating. The autoimmune nature of tools of liberalism, its emphasis on banishing emotions making it incapable of reading the mood of the people and not so old memory of the speed with which traditional nurturing edifice crumbled are clearly stressful. The liberal/rational human can only wring hand in dismay at how tenets of rationality unleashed fascism, colonialism and crippling inequality.

In conclusion, the challenge is not to protect the tenets of liberal democracy, individualism and secularism as they existed in the past century or two. It is becoming increasingly clear that even the most stable and beloved elements of any value system are subject to change and even corruption. Clinging to a form of liberal democracy fanatically and treating any challenge to its tenets as catastrophic will not cut it. One needs to develop a wisdom to see the timeless values in rational liberal thinking and what is or has been a work in progress. Humility to realise the youth of democracy/rationality / individuality and liberal values will perhaps help in adjusting with the changing ideological landscape of humanity.

Push of the tradition was inevitable due to insufficient hold of the rational model over the psychological / cultural aspects of society, and lingering influence of the tradition or simply due to the cyclical nature of things. A person of liberal, individual, rational, secular world is perhaps finding himself in the same position as the person who must have, 4-5 centuries ago, faced the ending of all that held him intact and seeing nothing new defined enough to pursue. The most immediate danger is the arbitrary division of human journey into ‘slavery’ or the ‘golden age’. Inadequate tools of history creating ‘others’ and ‘invaders’ is another danger. Demolition of the role of the ‘invaders’ in constructing the reality of our civilization and labelling those influences as humiliating and colonial may become increasingly easy. This process of weeding out colonialism can be both nurturing or it can be a saga of deepening fault lines. This may give primacy to the use of violence to sanitize history of public spaces and THAT needs to be managed with a clear moral compass.


Banner Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the personal opinion of the author and do not reflect the views of which does not assume any responsibility for the same.

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