The rise of “democratic illiberalism” or “illiberal democracy” has become a staple of media narrative these days — covering populism, the Trump administration, and even Brexit (it’s not clear how membership in the EU determines whether a nation is a liberal democracy or not). Tellingly, “illiberal democracy” has not for the most part been invoked to describe last week’s referendum in Ireland, which removed restrictions on legalized abortion. Instead, it has been described as a “modernising step” or a chance to expand the “autonomy” of women. Many people might believe that a right to life for the unborn is a significant part of political liberty, but it’s clear that many of those who set the media narrative don’t.
The point of this is not to say which side is right; it’s that there is a real disagreement on this issue. One of benefits of having distinct national governments is that the diffusion of political systems provides a way for different polities to put in place the values that they consider most important. Some polities might make the “wrong” decision, but the nation-state model helps create a space for normative pluralism. Trying to dissolve the nation-state in the name of cosmopolitanism, maximum liberty, or some other aim would probably end up undermining the ability to come to local consensuses about what things like “liberty” actually mean. (Again, certain understandings of liberty might be incorrect, but the dialogue between local consensuses could help better inform us about the real contours of liberty.)
Moreover, in a democratic republic, this civic consensus will very likely end up being affirmed through some democratic means — whether through referendums, elections, or some other mechanism. Utopianism might burn with an imperial certainty, but a more sober politics recognizes that we live in a fallen world, that our eyes do not see perfectly, and that we might face deep disagreements. Seen in this sober light, one of the aims of a political system is to allow for a way of conducting debates about issues ranging from abortion to zoo regulation.
In an era when “liberal democracy” has often been confused with the policy preferences of those who control the commanding heights of culture, it’s worth remembering that one of the real aims of liberal democracy is to find ways of navigating competing visions of the world.