Why Christian Democrats must defend liberal democracy – but think hard about new political strategies

For many in the European People’s Party, the need to defend liberal democracy is part and parcel of our political identity. But for some, both inside and outside the EPP, liberal democracy has somehow come to contradict democracy as such. And for others yet, liberal democracy is nice to have but unsustainable in the 21st century.

In this essay, we will argue why Christian Democracy can only be based on, and thrive in, the checks and balances and the rule of law that make up liberal democracy – and why saving it is not only morally valid but also possible, and therefore the right thing to do. But our policies have to consider new realities.

Liberal democracy is a system of government, not an ideology

Let’s start with some definitions that are obvious to many but need to be re-emphasised in these days of often nebulous disputes. Liberal democracy is a system of government in which the three main branches – executive, legislative and judiciary – balance and control one another and therefore must maintain a high degree of mutual independence. They are complemented in the fulfilment of their tasks by free and independent media and a vibrant civil society which includes political parties, non-governmental organisations and all kinds of associations, including churches.

Liberal democracy shares roots with but is simply not the same as the political philosophy called liberalism (from Adam Smith to Karl Popper). And it certainly is not to be confused with liberal policies which could roughly be subdivided into economic liberalism (a.k.a. laissez-faire capitalism) and social liberalism with its emphasis on diversity, LGBT rights and political correctness.

Liberal democracy is neither unchristian nor passé; it’s liberal policies that need to be questioned

Some conservatives today deliberately mix up the terms explained above. They do so in order to claim that checks and balances and the rule of law are a) deeply linked to the politically correct multiculturalism of social liberalism and therefore b) a thing of the past that has no place in the 21st century. If this criticism refers to the policies of many EU governments, it is justified. They have indeed neglected silent majorities, or at least pluralities, as the case of France’s gilets jaunes protests proves.

What is more, liberal elites in some member states have created filter bubbles and regimes of political correctness in which all kinds of minorities are protected, but opinion minorities are de facto excluded from public discourse, at least in public media and large parts of civil society. This in itself creates situations in which antiliberal populists can define themselves as victims, gain votes and if and when they come to power, can then begin to oppress whoever they define as liberal elites and form their own political correctness.

But counterbalancing political correctness and protecting Europe against illegal migration does not call for curtailing civil liberties or undermining academic and media freedom and an independent judiciary. The EPP’s platform of 2012 contains a great number of references to independent institutions and the rule of law.

Others claim that the very rise of populism in Europe and the Americas and the apparent success of authoritarian regimes like the Chinese one, are signs that liberal democracy has reached its limits and cannot survive. We believe that these notions, too, are deeply mistaken. It is true that the arrival of social media with their information bubbles and sheer acceleration of politics have altered our political environment.

Some say that liberal democracy was made for the era of written documents, not the era of the internet. But again, there is no contradiction between integrating digital elements of participation and better e-education into our democracies and maintaining checks and balances. Unless we want to return to the middle ages or go fast forward to some ominous neo-authoritarianism, we have to stick to the core elements of our constitutions.

While economically and socially liberal policies may clash with basic notions of Christian Democracy, liberalism as a set of ideas still has a place in the EPP’s political family. But most importantly, liberal democracy as a system of government is part of Christian Democracy’s DNA. Liberal policies are mistaken if they impose political correctness and marginalise opinion minorities. Christian Democrats have to listen to disaffected citizens and not marginalise divergent opinions. Only then will it be possible to maintain freedom in the 21st century.

Liberal democracy has a future – if we want it

There has already been a time in history when liberal democracy seemed to be a thing of the past. That was in the 1930s, when communism and fascism seemed so much newer and fresher than the tired capitalist democracies of the West. In fact, many pundits at that time claimed that the future belonged to systems which put the collective on top of the individual.

Those people considered representative democracy unviable because in their eyes, the selfish squabble of political parties and independent institutions would only produce chaos and never be able to correctly represent the will of the people. That will was allegedly much better recognised, formulated and implemented by the self-appointed owners of truth, be they Bolshevik revolutionaries or authoritarian and totalitarian rulers.

We all know where that phase of European history ended: In World War Two. And we all know this was followed by liberal democracy’s greatest successes, first in the West after 1945 and then in all of Europe after 1989. Of course, the global financial and economic crisis has shown that laissez-faire capitalism is not history’s last word. And of course, China’s rise and Russia’s threats are important challenges to the certainties of 1989.

That is why policies will have to be adapted while the system of government that is called liberal democracy, should be fervently defended. The answer to the Kremlin’s threats and interference in our democracies has to be based on a strong civil society and strong democratic institutions. The response to Chinese centralism, one party rule and state capitalism with its strategic investments across the globe has to be based on subsidiarity and the inherent strength of a sound mix of big, medium and small enterprises, as well as multi-level governance and civil society.

If liberal democracy is embattled again today, there is no reason to despair, or start to believe the diverse doomsayers of checks and balances and the rule of law. Instead, Christian Democrats need to be at the forefront of the struggle to renew and protect what we have painfully achieved in the last centuries. We should defend liberal democracy against its enemies, wherever they may appear.

This op-ed was originally published in the Tagesspiegel.