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Photo: “Booths at Ethete Polling Station“, by WyoFile WyoFile, licensed under CC BY 2.0. Hue modified from the original

Galston, William A. “The Enduring Vulnerability of Liberal Democracy.” Journal of Democracy 31, no. 3 (2020): 8-24.


Liberal democracy is under pressure and on the defensive. Well before the covid-19 outbreak, antiliberal politicians and intellectuals had issued a complex bill of particulars against liberalism. Populists charged that liberalism had become a cloak for antidemocratic elitism that took power away from rank-and-file citizens while undermining their economic interests. Nationalists alleged that liberalism bred international institutions and laws that invaded nations’ sovereignty and hobbled the pursuit of legitimate national interests. Cultural traditionalists claimed that liberal individualism eroded moral and religious communities and that liberal freedom erased the distinction between liberty and license. Yet these populist, nationalist, and cultural-traditionalist critiques are based on misunderstandings of liberalism. Like every other form of government, liberal democracy has inherent structural weaknesses that the difficulties of the moment exacerbate but do not create. Wise leadership can mitigate these weaknesses, but it cannot eliminate them.

The Illiberalism Studies Program studies the different faces of illiberal politics and thought in today’s world, taking into account the diversity of their cultural context, their intellectual genealogy, the sociology of their popular support, and their implications on the international scene.