The dysfunction of American politics, fueled by populism and partisanship, makes it clear why, for so many people around the world, liberal democracy is not a model to follow. There may be forms of democracy worth following, but they are not liberal democracy, American style. The problem is not simply that American politics are governed by money and power; it is also that they are rooted in an incapacity of Americans themselves, especially politicians, to think in term of a common good where kindness and care, not resentment, are guiding lights. Furthermore, American culture is permeated with a form of hyper-individualism that informs its understanding of democracy and supersedes a commitment to community and responsibility. Democracy itself seems to be only about individual rights but not economic justice and neighborly love. Liberal democracy, American style, is experiencing a period of humility today. This page is a response to the humbling, hoping my response might spur ideas of your own.
Following the end of the Cold War in the late 20th century, many political observers were highly optimistic about the prospects of liberal democracy. The American political theorist Francis Fukuyama, for example, famously announced the “end of history”—that is, the victory of liberal democracy as the final form of human government and “the total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism.”
However, liberal democracy continued to be challenged in subsequent decades. Autocratic leaders—notably, Xi Jinping of China and Vladimir Putin of Russia—continued to rule in powerful countries, thus presenting an alternative model of governance. Liberal democracy was also challenged within several countries by the emergence of (predominantly right-wing) populist leaders in the first decades of the 21st century—including Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of Hungary and Pres. Donald Trump of the United States—who tended to dismiss key liberal-democratic ideals such as pluralism, the rule of law, and the need for institutional checks on governmental power."
- Encyclopedia Britannica, 2023.
Beyond the Humbling
There was a time, not too long ago, when some political theorists believed that history was over and that liberal democracy had won the battle. The idea was that, with the collapse of Soviet-style communism, liberal democracies would arise all over the world, fostered by economic globalization, free-market principles, science, and technology.
Today, very few people hold that belief. The world has become a battlefield of ideas and ideologies, with no clear victor. Many people around the globe, except perhaps in the United States, hope for a multi-polar world, in which there are numerous centers of cultural and economic power and no single nation exercises dominating influence. The hope is for a world that becomes a community of communities of communities, rather than one dominated by an American empire.
One thing is clear: Democracy, especially the form traditionally referred to as "liberal democracy," is under threat both internally and externally. And if those who espouse it hope that it can or should win a global battle for domination, they best recognize that liberal democracy is one among many forms of governance and culture.
Internally, democracy is threatened by the emergence of populist movements that gravitate towards strong, authoritarian rulers, who pledge to defend national culture and identity against perceived outsiders. Populist movements are rooted not only in economic and social grievances and a fear of outsiders but also in a psychological need to belong. These movements offer a sense of community not easily found in hyper-individualistic, meritocratic cultures, where a "successful" elite enjoys privileges and power unavailable to many. Populism claims to give power back to "the people," establishing a pronounced sense of "us" versus "them." In the most vehement forms of populism, this sense of community is cultivated not only by the joy of belonging and a sense of reclaimed power but also by resentment, anger, and a desire to exact retribution on perceived enemies.
Externally, democracy faces threats from regimes that consciously reject liberal values and seek alternatives to "Western-style democracy." These regimes include:
Russia under Vladimir Putin
China under Xi Jinping
Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan
Hungary under Viktor Orbán
Poland under the Law and Justice Party
Such regimes, sometimes labeled "illiberal" (using Viktor Orbán's term), often prioritize state control, national tradition, and communal values over the individual freedoms, human rights, and pluralism championed by liberal democracies. They reject the liberal concept of an autonomous individual forming his or her identity independently of shared values, local traditions, and a vibrant community.
Interestingly, process philosophy also critiques the liberal democratic conception of the self-made individual. Instead of affirming the autonomy and isolation of the individual, process philosophy favors a more interconnected and communal framework for human existence, emphasizing relationality and becoming over static existence. From this perspective, the emphasis on individualism and the resultant belief in meritocracy are perceived as central components of the dilemmas humanity faces today.
According to process philosophy, human life is fulfilled through felt relations with other people and the natural world, including relations of family, friends, religion, nation, local customs, and local places. However, local allegiances must also include care and compassion. In the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr., special care must be given to the vulnerable and otherwise forgotten: the poor, the powerless, the very young, the very old. Additionally, local community can include within its horizons an appreciation of pluralism: ethnic, religious, and cultural. Differences make the whole richer.
In process philosophy, these relations are rightly expanded to include a sense of community with the larger world and planet, providing a sense of what the philosopher Whitehead called "world loyalty." Such expanded loyalty includes, rather than excludes, local relations, and combines respect for other people who have their own local relations. The world is, says John Cobb, a community of communities of communities. In this respect, process philosophy is more Confucian and communitarian in spirit than it is Lockean, viewing the person as a person-in-community.
Despite this emphasis on relationality, process philosophy does not endorse authoritarian governments. It advocates forms of social democracy that regard individuals as integral members of communities enriched by traditions, balancing communal and individual well-being. Additionally, process philosophy underscores the importance of eco-democracy, endorsing governance that recognizes humans' embeddedness in and responsibility to the broader web of life, both locally and globally. It champions the integration of nature’s rights with human well-being, promoting a comprehensive approach to democracy that respects and nurtures the intricate relationships between humanity and the environment. This concept is similar to what Pope Francis calls "integral ecology.”
As an ally of integral ecology, process philosophy agrees with illiberals on anti-individualism and the role of community in life, and with liberals on protecting the vulnerable and respecting human rights. This perspective appreciates the valid critiques from both sides and propels a more inclusive and holistic view of human existence and governance. It suggests that the contemporary debates between illiberals and liberals can evolve into dialogues for the sake of the common good of the world, recognizing that the hope of the world is not in the United States being the sole leader but in evolving into a multi-polar world order. In this order, diverse ethnic, cultural, and political traditions coexist, embodying the spirit of ecological civilizations where humans live with respect and care for their own cultural traditions and the larger community of life.
Currently, few parties worldwide truly embody the principles of social democracy that process thinkers propose. However, many do embrace facets of it. Western process-oriented thinkers should recognize and commend these elements, moving beyond the entrenched "us-vs-them" mindset. Given the urgency of our global challenges, it's counterproductive to vie for victories that benefit one side at the other's expense. We need to cultivate world loyalty without neglecting local ties, cherish traditional wisdom without succumbing to parochialism, appreciate various democratic forms without an undue western-centric focus, and be critical of our own traditions while embracing their best aspects.
The ultimate goal is local and collective well-being, learning to coexist harmoniously for the good of a small and beautiful planet, appreciative of differences, and with no one left behind. This, not the domination of American empire or hopes for a "victory" of liberal democracy over all other forms of democracy, would be genuine progress,