Liberalism and democracy The twentieth century has witnessed a number of attempts to construct democracy at the level of the state without the liberal inheritance, usually I n single party regimes. The most widespread have been communist system. Here the argument for the single party was to prevent any reversal in the popular gains of the revolution and to eliminate the influence of private wealth and sectional interests on the political process. The ruling party was indented both as a channel for opinion from below and an instrument for mobilizing the population from above in support of government policy.
Loss of Accountability
There was undoubtedly a certain democratic impetus behind all this, though it is unfashionable now to say so. However, the absence of any freedom and speech and association meant that only those views could be expressed, and only those organization established, that were approved by the party hierarchy; and hence that the influence of citizens over policy and the accountability of public official to them were severely limited.
Despite considerable economic achievements, communist system have been characterized by authoritarian rule, widespread repression and illegality, and have only been able to maintain themselves though the substantial apparatus of a police state.
Similar, if less extreme, fare has met the African attempts to contact single-party democracies on non-communist lines. Here again the intentions were laudable. A single party would prevent the divisiveness of multi-party competition, it was argued, especially in ethically divided societies, and would reflect the traditional emphasis on consensus, to which a idea of a ‘loyal opposition’ was quite alien.
Moreover, the voters would be given a choice to between candidates at election time and the chance to remove unpopular ministers, though competition would not go beyond the party and it agreed programme.
Once again, however, the inability of people to organize independently of the ruling party and to oppose it at elections meant that governments and their leaders became authoritarian and unresponsive, while the back of any effective separation of powers meant that the rule of law, the protection of civil liberties and the accountability of the government to the public though parliament could not be guaranteed.
Liberalism and Democracy
The only conclusion that can be drawn from these histories is that attempt to contract without liberalism is doomed to failure. Whatever disadvantage the freedom of association and open electoral competition may have, they have proved indispensable means to ensure the continuity of popular influence and control over government, while the rule of law and the separation of powers of guaranteed the necessary procedural constraints upon government to make that control effective.
Certainly there remains much room for experimentation within liberal democratic framework and for adaptation to loyal conditions. But it is to mistaken to imagine that democratic forms to work in small-scale contexts or in the framework of traditional society can without hazard be transposed to the level of the state.
The modern state is a structure of enormous power, and the historical straggles of Western liberals and constitutionalism to subject the absolutist state of the early modern period to same degree to public control and accountability constitute an important lesson for contemporary democrats.