The relationship between Liberalism and democracy can summed up by Winston Churchill’s famous remark, “…democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms…” A fear of democracy does runs throughout 19th centrury liberals due to many reasons, one of them being their fear of collective power. On the other hand by the 20th century Democracy became more accepted in liberalism and the fear of democracy no longer remained.
Plato and Aristotle viewed democracy as a “chaotic rule of masses at the expense of wisdom and property”. Nineteenth century liberals agreed with this idea as they saw democracy as dangerous and feared it. They were concerned that democracy could threaten individual liberty. Democracy is necessarily collectivist, in that it places political authority in the hands of the people who are not a single entity but are turned into a collection of individuals or groups.
This contradicts the liberal principle of individuality and atomistic society. Therefore this might lead in the interests of individual citizens being ignored. In society people have different opinions and opposing interests often resulting to political instability and conflict. The democratic solution to this conflict is the application of the majority rule; the principle that the will of the majority should prevail over that of the minority. Mill feared the unintended consequences of the rule of masses.
Therefore nineteenth century liberals feared the negative repercussions of democracy such as the tyranny of the majority as the principle of the majority rule can result into the suppression of individual freedom and minority rights. Majoritarianism can not only ignore the interests of the minority but it can also create a culture of dull conformism, where people according to Mill become “transformed into mere industrious sheep as they defer to the judgments of the majority based on the unfounded assumption that the majority is always right.” Therefore Mill is trying to say that democracy supresses originality and individuality.
However nineteenth century liberals have expressed reservations about democracy not just because of the danger of majority rule but also because of the composition of the majority in modern industrial societies. The liberal theory of utilitarianism and equality led to an abundance for the few but subsistence for the many and while in theory it is happiness that is maximised, in practice it is wealth.
Therefore if society is deeply divided, majoritarianism would expose the rich to a tyranny of the poor. J.S Mill believed that political wisdom is unequally distributed and largely related to education. The uneducated poor are more likely to act according to narrow class interests so for them to have the majority would be disastrous. Mill argued that the educated can use their wisdom and experience for the good of others. Therefore he believed elected politicians should speak for themselves rather than reflect the views of their electors and suggested a system of plural voting that would deprive the illiterate from power .
This argument shows a view against representative government which is a key feature of democracy. Fears of tyranny of majority by the uneducated poor as a result of the arrival of mass democracy which result into the destruction of a civilized society and moral order are also expressed by Gasset.
As well as this liberals feared excessive democracy because democratic systems that widen access to political influence tend to be characterized by growth in interventionism and the problem of over-government. Such intervention may weaken the efficiency of market capitalism and therefore contradict early liberals belief that the market should be free from government interference. As a result excessive democracy may disadvantage the mass of citizens in the long run.
By the twentieth century, however, many liberals had come to see democracy as a virtue. Democracy broadens and deepens popular participation. According to Mill the most important advantage of democracy is that it promotes the highest and most harmonious development of human capacities. It is true to say that democracy stimulates civil participation in the political decision-making process creating a better-informed and politically sophisticated citizenry.
Consequently Rousseau and Mill claimed that in the absence of democracy ignorance and brutality will prevail. Modern liberals have come to understand that democracy has educational benefits as citizens enhance their understanding and achieve a higher level of personal development. Democracy therefore takes a developmental form in the twentieth century.
In addition democracy defends freedom by allowing citizens to protect themselves against tyrannical governments and unpopular policies. In the seventeenth century classical liberals such as Locke argued that voting rights should be extended to the propertied who could then defend their natural rights against government. Jeremy Bentham and James Mill , nineteenth century liberals developed the notion of democracy as a form of protection for the individual into a case of universal suffrage.
This meant that individuals would vote to defend their interests and that is the only way of promoting the greatest happiness of the greatest number. However as time went by Locke’s theory of protective democracy has been transformed into a developmental view of democracy. For example a greater sympathy for universal suffrage is shown by James’s Mill son John who argues for the empowerment of women and against the plight of workers, showing he had moved from a protective to a developmental view of democracy.
Since the twentieth century liberal theories about democracy have tended to focus less on consent and participation and more on the need for consensus in society. Pluralist theorists have argued that organized groups not individuals play the most important role in the politics of increasing complex modern societies which are characterized by competition amongst rival interests. Therefore democracy has the benefit that, in giving a political voice to all competing groups and interests in society it binds them to the political system and tends to promote consensus thereby maintaining balance and political stability within modern societies.
Therefore in conclusion nineteenth century liberals mostly feared democracy but as time went by liberals of the twentieth century came to recognize its benefits .Even though there are conflicting ideas within liberalism and democracy, the liberal acceptance of universal suffrage, the key feature of democracy, has led to an acceptance to all the elements of democracy including majority rule and representative government. This is because liberals were able to create solutions to prevent the extremes of democracy .This can be seen with the example of majoritarianism when the liberal element of checks and balances prevents the tyranny of the majority.