During a 2014 trip to Berlin, I was in a cab headed down to a museum and the cab driver had on a Latin music radio station. As we approached the Brandenburg Gate, the song Desapariciones, about the “disappearances” that occurred during many of Latin America’s late 20th century dictatorships, began to play. The next thing I knew, the cab driver turned and all I could see were the endless rows of stone coffins that make up the Holocaust Memorial. My eyes welled up at this emotional mixture of sight and sound. Both the Holocaust and this dark period in Latin American history were times when citizen demands for security, economic stability, and a distrust of “others” led to the rise of leaders who promised economic stability, public security, and national pride. However, this came at the cost of civil liberties, basic human rights, and the very lives of their opponents and scapegoats. These tragedies occurred in part because those who favor individual rights and rule of law did not make the case that liberal democratic norms were better at addressing the societal challenges that faced these nations and allowed nondemocratic leaders to gain public support. In 1989, Francis Fukuyama argued that the ideological opponents of political and economic liberalism had been slain. While some thought, or at least hoped, that Fukuyama was right, the resurgence of demands for economic welfare and security over basic human rights and dignity has reemerged as a powerful force within contemporary political discourse. If liberalism is to remain the international norm, its proponents must recognize that this conflict is not settled and make the case for liberalism.
Scholars and development practitioners are concerned that developing countries could interpret Chinese authoritarianism as the force behind China’s impressive economic growth, leading them to view it as a solution to their own economic challenges. Recent surveys of Latin America show a decline in support for democratic governance and growing acceptance of coups to resolve national challenges. The political successes of alt-right groups in Europe and the United States are in part due to demands for greater economic growth and improved public safety, as well as the oft-cited racist and anti-immigrant stances of their members. All of these groups advocate for strengthening the state to address security and economic concerns. However, these demands insinuate social costs. The ways that alt-right and non-democratic movements want to strengthen the state threatens to erode civil liberties, human rights, and political agency. While some may be willing to give up some of these rights, these policies point towards a slippery slope.
Those of us who favor democratic rule of law, the liberal international order, and equal rights cannot simply defend this position on moral grounds, we must demonstrate why our position is the better solution. However, proponents of liberal democratic norms often claim that the other side is morally repugnant or dangerous rather than defending why the liberal democratic order is important. For example, in a September 2017 article titled “The Case for Colonialism,” Bruce Gilley argued that colonialism was good for some colonized states because it improved their governance and political stability. Based on these assertions, Gilley went even further and claimed that developed nations should re-colonize parts of the world. The article sparked outrage and condemnation, culminating in the resignation of much of the journal’s editorial board. Many opponents of Gilley’s views called for the journal to retract the article, rather than debate its numerous problems. The journal eventually retracted the article after Gilley and the editors received threats of violence. It is startling that most took a moral position against its publication. Despite the problems evident in his assessment, few opponents were willing to make the case against his premise.
The truth of the matter is that, whether we like it or not, this debate has once again taken center-stage in today’s political discourse. Those who eschew a return to authoritarian governance and colonialism must take this debate seriously. We cannot shy away from this debate simply because we see the other side as morally bankrupt. If each side self-segregates into different, mutually-reinforcing conversations, the conflict will never be resolved. Opponents of the alt-right, authoritarianism, and colonialism should not seek to silence opposing voices, but rather demonstrate the errors of their proposals. Supporters of democracy cannot simply state that illiberal democracy is “bad,” but must show why liberal ideals and respect for the rule of law are important and effective.
Those who uphold the merits of security and economic growth over political and human rights miss the lessons learned in the past. They forget the tragedies and gloss over the terror. Mankind has a moral obligation to support political and civil liberties, to defend minority rights, and to stand for the freedom of our fellow man. The international community cannot allow for a return to colonialism, a return to dictatorial rule, and the end of human rights. We cannot allow history to repeat itself.