Why are liberal democracies so scared to save themselves?

Our underestimation of the risks that we currently face is baffling, writes Borzou Daragahi

Sunday 31 October 2021 12:54
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<p>Demonstrators holds banners reading (from left) ‘Rule of Law’, ‘Unconstitutional Court’ and ‘No to Polexit’ at a Warsaw protest </p>

Demonstrators holds banners reading (from left) ‘Rule of Law’, ‘Unconstitutional Court’ and ‘No to Polexit’ at a Warsaw protest

Describing the dilemma faced by democracies when threatened by those using their own rules to undermine them, the late United States Supreme Court justice Robert Jackson wrote in 1947: “The choice is not between order and liberty. It is between liberty with order and anarchy without either ... There is danger that, if the court does not temper its doctrinaire logic with a little practical wisdom, it will convert the constitutional Bill of Rights into a suicide pact.”

Justice Jackson was objecting to a decision by the court not to punish a far-right priest whose racist rants had inspired a riot in Chicago. The judge, who during the Nuremberg Trials prosecuted Nazi war criminals who came to power democratically, meant that liberal democracy must put structures in place to protect itself when under threat, even if that meant sacrificing freedom of speech or resorting to illiberal means.

The concept of “militant democracy” became a norm throughout much of post-Second World War Europe, especially in countries emerging from dictatorship such as Germany, Spain, Portugal, Poland, Czechia and Slovakia. New tools were put into place, and old ones revived. But bafflingly, liberal democracies nowadays are proving incapable or unwilling to use the various array of tools at their disposal to fend off threats by the far right. Meanwhile, the far and hard right is constantly trying to manipulate the rules of liberal democracy to undermine it.

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