December 2020

Liberal societies are famously open to a wide range of different ideas. Must they tolerate political movements that are openly illiberal? Both theory and practice propose a range of limits, or not, on illiberal groups’ speech, political participation, membership, and other questions.

Illiberals don’t mind resorting to liberal tactics; that is, they are happy to win elections whenever they can—or to come to power by other methods. Liberal groups, though, make the critique of illiberal methods a central feature of their activism. As such they can’t as easily adopt their opponents’ tactics.

So when an illiberal movement proposes, for example, to permanently disenfranchise a segment of the population, what should a liberal polity do? Is so-called “militant democracy” the right way to go? Our lead essay this month is by Mila Ghorayeb, an essayist and law student who has studied political theory at McGill University; responses will be by Prof. Brian Kogelmann of the University of Maryland; attorney and author Mike Godwin; and Cato Unbound’s editor, Jason Kuznicki. Readers are welcome to join the discussion, and comments will remain open through the end of the month.

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Lead Essay

  • Mila Ghorayeb looks at liberal polities’ use of antidemocratic tactics against illiberal groups. She concludes that it is not necessarily paradoxical to limit political participation with a view to preserving an imperfect democracy, but that whether it is desirable or feasible are different questions.

Response Essays

  • Brian Kogelmann says that a democracy shouldn’t compromise on democratic participation. Allowing antidemocratic groups to participate runs the risk that they might win and restrict the franchise, but restricting their participation creates a new form of political inequality. It is therefore preferable to allow them to participate.

  • Rather than restricting antidemocratic groups, Jason Kuznicki proposes to safeguard democratic and other rights by articulating them in an impersonal way and making it constitutionally difficult for anyone to change them. Under such conditions, open participation by antidemocrats becomes less risky, and persecuted minorities can organize for their own protection.

  • Mike Godwin argues that democracies should tolerate antidemocratic activism—at least as an initial response. Yet democracies’ responses to antidemocratic activism need not end there. He urges the defenders of liberal democracy to better articulate how to respond to antidemocratic critiques. Such critiques need not lead us to abandon democracy, and at times they might even draw attention to genuine shortcomings in a democratic polity.

Coming Up

Conversation through the end of the month.