The Crisis of Liberal Democracy

The People vs. Democracy (2018) by political analyst Yascha Mounk is a brilliant book about how liberalism has become separate from democracy. Liberals have become less democratic while illiberal politicians have. One example, mentioned in the book is the Hungarian prime minister Victor Orban, who started out as a liberal democrat and ended up as a right-wing populist/nationalist politician, who disregards or even disrespect liberal values and minorities. One thing you can’t hold against Orban is that he is anti-democratic, as he has the full support of the majority of his people. And this is true for many populist politicians. They love referenda, being fully aware that the majority will vote in a right-wing spirit when it comes to issues such as immigration and refugees. Have no misconception, extreme right-wing leaders are NEVER democratic, they just can afford to be. You can’t accuse them of being anti-democratic, because they often do have the majority of the population behind them in their xenophobia and anti-diversity attitude. However, it’s not hard to accuse them of hypocrisy: while they promise to rid the people of politicians who work in the interest of their in-groups, they do the same, and their in-groups are often even narrower. In 2019 the Austrian far-right Freedom Party suffered a major setback in what has become known as. A video surfaced that showed clearly the massive amount of corruption within the party. More than right-wing politicians far-right-wing politicians have always prioritized their own interests over the people’s, may their names be Trump, Berlusconi, or

Liberals, on the other hand, are increasingly horrified to see how liberal values are quickly being eroded by the choices voters make and are becoming more and more divided. Some become wokeist, which even many liberals would find exaggerated, anti-democratic and pushing liberal values in an illiberal way. Those who are disgusted by these developments often become more right-wing. This is a trend particularly felt in America. While intellectuals have always been overwhelmingly left-wing, there has been a recent shift towards the right, with thinkers like Jordan Peterson being extremely popular, whereas left-wing thinkers like Noam Chomsky are ignored or ridiculed. However, even those intellectuals who are more on the right can’t be entirely at ease. Guys, tell me, how do you feel about the consequences of increasing conservatism? Including:

  • Increasing anti-intellectualism and anti-science attitudes
  • Increasing de-secularization
  • Increasing inequality (no, the fairy tale of trickle-down economics didn’t work)
  • Increasing marginalisation of minority groups
  • Increasing hostility towards diversity
  • The anti-democratic politicians the right votes for

Even the most conservative intellectuals must have qualms about these worrying trends. Liberalism and democracy used to be two sides of the same coin. What happened?

A truth that has historically been repeatedly overlooked is that the origin of liberal democracy lies in hunter-gatherer egalitarianism, which also values freedom and individual rights highly, whereas the origin of conservatism lies in the transition to agriculture that required a hierarchical structure, high conformity and authoritarian leaders. Farmers also became more competitive and in-group oriented as they couldn’t possibly maintain forager socialism. Foragers eventually joined farming societies, be it as slaves or be it voluntarily as lower-class labourers when they couldn’t practice their traditional way of life anymore due to habitat loss. Farmer and forager instincts have always been the antagonists that the philosopher Hegel saw in history.

Conservative farmers have never been too interested in general well-fare, but mostly about their own, their families and their in-group. Liberal forager types maintained an egalitarian and “universalist instinct” and often acted in the common interest. Thus, while liberal achievements often benefit a lot of people, conservative achievements rarely do. This isn’t too hard to prove. Look into history and wherever you find liberals at work, life improves for many, not only a few. This is true for Athenian democracy, the Florentine Renaissance, Elizabethan England, the Russia of Peter the Great, and the Protestant Reformation. Whenever liberals ruled, technology, science, the arts and diplomacy ruled too. Most of all they changed things, one thing conservatives are highly reluctant to do, on the contrary, they have always worked hard to maintain the status quo. Liberals, on the other hand, have been working hard throughout history to restore hunter-gatherer egalitarianism by eliminating nepotism, reducing endogamy, containing corruption and making the world juster for all. Liberal values such as general education benefited everyone and were meant to be “equalizers”.

Three years after the fall of the Berlin Wall Francis Fukuyama argued

in The End of History and the Last Man (1992) that the worldwide spread of liberal democracies and free-market capitalism of the West and its lifestyle may signal the endpoint of humanity’s sociocultural evolution and become the final form of human government. Even though at the time it seemed a realistic prediction, it has turned out wrong and failed horribly for countries like Afghanistan. The Taliban are mostly made up of a “third tribe”, evolutionary pastoralist types (have little fertile land, nomadic pastoralism was the main form of subsistence). Pastoralist types are more freedom-loving (many extreme right-wing parties are called “freedom”/liberal) than farmer types, but at the same time also even more in-groupish and while farmer types tend towards right-wing authoritarianism, pastoralist types tend towards social dominance orientation: our group is the best. Rings a bell? Yes, those very Islamophobic right-wing extremists (Trump, Wilders, LePen) are evolutionary pastoralist types, the very types they want to keep out of their countries (perhaps for a good reason). Perhaps it’s in the interest of right-wingers to keep a healthy left opposition in place, after all.

I have no illusions that Fukuyama’s vision will ever become reality. On the contrary, liberal democracy is threatened even in Western countries with a relatively long history of liberal democracy. The reason is simple: conservative farmer/herder types are outbreeding liberal forager types. Sounds ridiculous, but a simple Google search will tell you that conservatives have more children than democrats (). Farmers and herders have children about every two years, whereas foragers typically do so only every four years. Now that people typically don’t have many children anymore, the ratio still remains, perhaps not as stark, but two consistent findings remain:

a) conservative women have children earlier in life

b) conservative women have more children in life

What this means is that liberals will continue to struggle to find a majority in the population. The more conservative a country becomes, the more democracy itself will be threatened, though. Conservatives long for authoritarian strongmen and those are rarely really democratic. Paradoxically the people may in the end abolish democracy. Even if you are a patriotic conservative, who doesn’t like foreigners too much, there are plenty of good reasons to love liberals, to keep them around and to treat them well. The Japanese think of Hikikomori (young people who opt out from school and society) as lazy antisocial citizens. However, those very people are most likely liberal forager types unhappy with Japanese hierarchical farmer society. A conservative will think that society won’t lose anything if those hikikomori don’t participate in society. Truth is, Japan is missing out on its most creative and innovative potential.

Originally published at on September 2, 2021.