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  • Yeow Poon

The Challenges for Liberal Democracy in the 21st Century.


In January 2020, I gave a short speech at the National Liberal Club Chinese New Year Dinner in London. The speech was titled ‘Challenges of the 21st Century – a liberal democracy perspective’[1]. I asked the question:

Is liberal democracy as currently understood and practised able to address 21st century challenges? I believe the answer is yes but only if liberal democracy becomes credible again and only if liberal democracy is able to adapt to the new challenges’

The speech concluded with:

For liberal democracy to go forward and accommodate a multi polar world it will need to adapt to new realities … be open to discourse from other cultures, philosophies and value systems. If we can better see ourselves through the eyes of others, perhaps we can transcend current understanding of liberal democracy to create new thinking, ideas and paradigms to solve the challenges of the 21st century’

This paper, 3 years later, consists of my further analysis of the difficulties liberal democracy needs to overcome to be credible and applicable to the challenges of today and the global changes taking place in the 21st century.

With the rise of China and the Russian incursion in Ukraine, Western leaders have framed geo-political rivalries as democracy versus autocracy. The ‘free world’ must come together to confront authoritarian countries who seek to replace Western international rules based order and destroy Western liberal democratic values, way of life and governance systems.

This framing of democracy vs autocracy, as the world progressed from Fukuyama ‘End of History’ to an emerging multi-polar world is too simplistic. It is based on the Manichean construct of conflict between good and evil, where good must obliterate evil.

It encourages a world view whereby Western values, political systems and forms of democracy are exceptional and should be adopted by or imposed onto other countries.

What is democracy?

When people defend democracy or champion democracy, do we know what they are saying? Are they talking about the intrinsic principle of democracy or the expression of democracy in the various types of governance structures and systems, as practised by Western countries.

According to Aristotle[2], they are at least 6 forms of democracy and he provided a critique of each.

Direct Democracy, where citizens participate directly in decision-making, rather than through elected representatives. Aristotle believed that direct democracy is only feasible in small communities, and that it can lead to the tyranny of the majority. He also noted that citizens may not have the expertise or time to make informed decisions on all issues. An example of a contemporary application of direct democracy at a national level was the Brexit Referendum. At local levels, Citizens Assemblies are sometimes formed to hear the merits of a local project and then vote to authorise the project or not.

Oligarchy, in which a small group of wealthy or powerful individuals holds political power that benefits the wealthy and powerful at the expense of the broader population. Aristotle criticised oligarchy as a system that can lead to corruption and a lack of accountability. Russia under Yeltsin was an oligarchic system but not under Putin as he targeted and destroyed oligarchs that threatened him and his vision for Russia[3].

Democracy by the Rich, in which only the wealthy have a say in government. Aristotle argued that democracy by the rich is a form of oligarchy, and that it is unjust for political power to be concentrated in the hands of a small group of wealthy individuals. Increasingly, this is the case in the United States (and to a lesser extent in the UK), as wealth is accrued by a few wealthy individuals and large corporations[4], and power and influence bought through lobbying and campaign funds.

Democracy by the Poor, in which only the poor have a say in government. Aristotle criticised democracy by the poor as a form of oligarchy, arguing that it can lead to instability and a lack of effective governance. Historical examples would be the French and Russian proletariat revolutions, which were quickly dominated by idealogues that killed all oppositions. Today, as wealth inequality increases, there is a growing risk that the majority poor would turn to populist leaders that blames others for the country woes and fans hatred for them.

Constitutional Democracy, in which political power is shared between different social groups. Aristotle praised constitutional democracy as a system that balances the interests of different social groups and protects individual rights and freedoms. However, he noted that it can be difficult to establish and maintain, and that it may not work effectively in practice. This is the case in many liberal democratic countries as citizens lose trust in democratic institutions, governance processes and political leaders that are supposed to protect their rights equally[5]. For example, ‘from 2021 to 2023 alone, public trust in government fell … by ten points to 37 percent in the United Kingdom[6].

Anarchy, in which there is no government or political authority. Aristotle viewed anarchy as a state of chaos and lawlessness, and that it is not a viable form of government. He noted that even in the absence of formal government, some form of social organization and cooperation is necessary for human society to function. There are no true anarchist countries, however, Somalia could be considered anarchist from 1991 to 2006, as there was no national government. There are however anarchist societies that were established, the oldest in 1958 and the latest in 2008[7]. Some are still running whilst others have closed.

The Practice of Liberal Democracy

The current practice of liberal democracy in the form of representative democracy with competing muti-parties does not fit well with Aristotle’s 6 types of democracy.[8] Perhaps one of the best definitions of democracy is from Abraham Lincoln ‘of the people, by the people, and for the people[9].

‘Of the people’ is generally interpreted in 2 ways: (i) the people being governed or (ii) the composition of the governing regime represents all sections and strata of the people.
By the people’ does not just mean voting every 5 years to elect a government. It also means having processes that enable people to actively take part in policy development and decision making that affect their lives (i.e., some forms of direct democracy).
‘For the people’ means that the beneficiaries of good governance are all the people (or common good for society as a whole), not just for a select few.

While liberal democracy as practised in Western countries aims to meet the requirements of ‘of the people, by the people, and for the people’, there have been serious shortcomings that have reduced trust in democracy in Western countries and by global south countries generally. This does not mean that liberal democracy in the form of multi-party representative democracy did no good. Much of what we enjoy today – the freedoms, rights of association and economic prosperity for many countries came from representative democracy.

Yet, for liberal democracy to remain appealing and relevant, we need to acknowledge the flaws in its application, the exploitation of poor countries and the hypocritical of ‘do as I say and not as I do’ to advance Western interests. The Enlightenment in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries established a set of rights, including the right to life, freedom, equality and ownership of property, which formed the bedrock of liberalism and liberal democracy. Yet, Western powers only saw these rights only for themselves and not to others. For examples:

The right to freedom and property for the European settlers in North America resulted in the decimation of Native Americans, estimated to be up to 18 million people, by about 90%. Deaths were due to diseases that the natives had no immunity to and land grab as the settlers and the US government took native lands for farming and other natural resources[10]. Similarly, the Indigenous populations in Australia were destroyed in the name of liberal democratic values.
During the colonial period from 1858 to 1947, the British extracted about USD 45 trillion from India. The manufacturing base in India was destroyed and Indians were only allowed to produce raw materials and sold at low prices fixed by the British. The Indians were also heavily taxed by the colonial government. The Bengal famine in 1943 led to more than 3 million deaths and millions in abject poverty because of deliberate policies from the British government[11].
Closer to home, the potato famine from 1845 to 1852 in Ireland resulted in about 1 million deaths and the emigration of another million. Although the initial response by the British government was positive, the problems were exacerbated by subsequent insistence on liberal market forces that saw “Lord Brougham declare in the House of Lords that the rights of property take priority over the rights of Irish tenants to survive”. There was a reluctance to intervene in order not to interfere with private enterprises and market forces of supply and demand[12]. The poor died as they could not afford the prices of grains to replace the potato. Corn and other foodstuff were even extracted from impoverished area to England for export to Europe[13].

Today, as Western powers gave up their colonies post World War 2, some peacefully and some violently, the benefits of liberalism and liberal democracy for the newly independent states were patchy. Some countries like Singapore have prospered. Others like the Congo and the countries in the Sahel remained in extractive relationships with their former colonial masters, although this has started to change[14].

Back home in the West, there is an increasing democracy deficit, as the general population loses faith in democratic institutions and political leaders. Voting once every 5 years in a general election is not enough, if there are little or no opportunities for citizens to participate directly in policy making and political processes. Instead, only lobbyists, private donors, big corporations and other powerful elites have the ear of government. The result is growing inequality, as liberal economic policies has tended to transfer increasing wealth to the top 10%, at the expense of broader society. The cynical use of policies just before a general election to gain votes, rather than for the good of the country, further erode trust in our political parties.

Hence, while liberal democracy as practised in Western countries has many strengths, it has also failed in many ways to meet the requirements of "of the people, by the people, and for the people". We need to identify potential improvements and undertake reforms as needed for liberal democracy to achieve its ideals.

One example of reforms would be:

“We stand committed to the proposition that freedom is no half-and-half affair. If the average citizen is guaranteed equal opportunity in the polling place, he must have equal opportunity in the marketplace.”

Franklin Roosevelt[15]


In every major epoch of human history there had been philosophers and thought leaders that advanced human development. From the Middle East and Europe, we had the early civilisations of Ancient Egypt, Persia and Ancient Greece. With the end of the Roman and Byzantine Empires, the advancement of human knowledge passed on to the Islamic states from the 7th to the 16th centuries and then back to Rennaisance Europe. Besides the Middle East and the West, we also had civilisation development in China, India and other parts of Asia, Africa and the Americas (before colonisation).

Over time, each part of the world had evolved cultures that shared certain human values but at the same time unique traits that evolved from their history, conflicts and conditions. Today, we are inter-connected, a global village and the critical problems we have, such as climate change and the 5th Industrial Revolution with the advancement of Artificial Intelligence, require global response and cooperation.

In each major epoch in human history, although there was continuity of ideas and values, there were also major changes in culture and behaviour as the next civilisation took over.

Will a new generation of worldwide philosophers and thought leaders arise to help us navigate these global challenges? Will we be able to advance human civilisation beyond the 20th century into better social, economic and political paradigms for human life in the 21st century? Will the West continue to think of itself as the ‘garden’ that must tame the ‘jungle’ in the rest of the world?[16]

Can Western powers accept the voices of Global South countries and adapt to a multi-polar world?

I really hope so since an international order based only on Western rules is not international at all.

[1] [2] Aristotle ‘Politics’ written in the 4th Century BC. See for more information. [3] See for more analysis. [4] See and Oligarchy in the United States? | Perspectives on Politics | Cambridge Core for further analysis. [5] See for better understanding of the issues. [6] [7] and [8] Neither does democratic centralism as practise by countries such as China and Vietnam. China goes further with ideas around whole-process people's democracy. A comparative analysis of liberal democracy, democratic centralism and whole-process people's democracy will be the subject of a future paper. [9] The source of the phrase ‘of the people, by the people, and for the people’ is contested, as there was variants preceding Lincoln but Lincoln seemed to have been first with the precise wording. See [10] and [11] and [12] There were opposition from other political leaders but they lost the general election and the ruling party continued with their pr-market policies. [13] and [14] In an extractive economy, a country’s natural resources are drained by foreign corporation and little is left for the indigenous population. These countries remain poor and the ruling elites corrupt and supported by foreign powers, often by Western liberal democracies. Today, several African countries are exerting their independence through military coups, ousting regimes supported by the French. [15] [16]

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