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Post-democracy: How democracy was captured and how we can get it back

By David Warden

In this article, David traces some of the history of liberalism and its recent decay into authoritarian Marxism. He calls for a reinstatement of a proper democratic dialectic between liberalism and conservatism to save us from tyranny and violence.

The hollowing-out of democracy is a more urgent problem than climate change for human civilisation, and it’s happening whilst we fret about other perceived threats. The theme of the World Humanist Congress in Copenhagen in August 2023 was “threats to democracy”. Many, perhaps most, humanists would list such threats as populism, Brexit, Trump, authoritarian and Christian nationalism, misinformation, the far right and so on. It’s a familiar litany. But there’s an alternative analysis which blames democracy’s woes on the over-reach of liberalism and its supine surrender to a virulent new form of Marxism. We may already be living in the era of post-democracy, where the façade of democracy still exists with nothing of substance behind it.

Enlightenment-inspired revolutions

Humanism, secularism, liberalism, and anti-nationalism are natural bedfellows. They stem from the eighteenth century Enlightenment, including key figures such as John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, which promoted reason, rationalism, and universal human rights in opposition to tradition, monarchy, religion, and despotism. The Enlightenment impulse inspired the French Revolution (1789-99) which, as everybody knows, led to a reign of terror. The slightly earlier American Revolution (1765-83) was also inspired by the republican ideals of the Enlightenment. The first American Constitution of 1777 (also called the Articles of Confederation) organised the United States into a confederation of sovereign states with a very weak central government. It was superseded by the Constitution of 1787 which effectively created a single, unified nation modelled on the British Constitution, rather than a coalition of independent states. It created a centralised and nationalist federation as opposed to a decentralised confederation – hence its proponents were called Federalists (in effect, a euphemism for nationalism). In 1789, George Washington became the first US president under this new federalist and nationalist constitution. The chief opponents of American federalism and nationalism were Tom Paine and Thomas Jefferson, both of whom were imbued to a much greater degree with the universalist rationalism of the Enlightenment and sympathetic to the thoroughgoing revolution in France. Jefferson was US Minister to France from 1785 to 1789, and Tom Paine, the English radical and author of Rights of Man (1791) and The Age of Reason (1794) was actively involved in both the American and French Revolutions. Paine famously referred to himself as “a citizen of the world” – a moniker which some humanists adopt for themselves today.

Christian nationalism

Notwithstanding the First Amendment of 1791, which stipulated that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”, from the time of George Washington until after the Second World War the United States was, at least culturally, a conservative Christian nation. The Federalists were alarmed by the atheism of the French Revolution and Washington designated 26 November as a day of thanksgiving to God. In 1931, the US Supreme Court declared that “We are a Christian people… acknowledging with reverence the duty of obedience to the will of God”. Franklin D. Roosevelt described himself as “a Christian and a democrat” and in 1942 he counted the US among those nations which held to the old ideals of Christianity and democracy. The 1954 version of the Pledge of Allegiance is explicitly Christian nationalist in content: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”  

Secular liberalism

After the Second World War, in America, Britain and other Western countries, Christian nationalism gradually gave way to liberal universalism in terms of self-understanding, and the phrase “liberal democracy” became commonplace. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948, was a pivotal moment in this cultural change. The UDHR is essentially a secular document rooted in liberal principles of human rights rather than being based on any specific religious doctrines. It was designed to have universal appeal and applicability, grounded in the idea that all human beings possess inherent rights by virtue of their humanity alone, regardless of their religious, cultural, or geographical background. In the US, the separation of church and state was reinforced. The First Amendment prohibiting the establishment of religion had originally been interpreted to apply only to the federal government and not to the individual states. But in 1947, the landmark Supreme Court case Everson v. Board of Education made it clear that state and local governments were bound by the same restrictions as the federal government regarding the establishment of religion. Supreme Court decisions in Engel v. Vitale (1962) and Abington School District v. Schempp (1963) further reinforced this separation by abolishing organised prayer and Bible reading in public schools across the country. The US officially became a secular, liberal country.

In the 1960s, liberation from religion and tradition gathered pace with a wave of profound social change across the globe, particularly in Western countries. Laws and social norms were liberalised in respect to abortion, divorce, sexual permissiveness, drugs, pornography, and the decriminalisation of homosexuality. It was also the era of women’s lib and civil rights for black Americans.

Economic liberalism

In 1979 and 1980 respectively, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were elected as leaders in the UK and the US. Ostensibly conservative, they promoted the economic liberalism of theorists such as Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. Hayek claimed that he was a liberal, not a conservative. Economic liberalism continued as the new norm under the centre-left administrations of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, and also under transnational organisations such as the EU. Economic liberalism effectively ended economic nationalism in favour of free trade, profit maximisation, outsourcing of manufacturing to countries with cheaper labour, trade union restrictions, free movement of capital across the globe, and free movement of people.

Populist revolts

The global financial crisis of 2008 dealt a shattering but not a fatal blow to economic liberalism. In most countries the banks were bailed out and taxpayers were left to pick up the tab, inaugurating years of austerity. But by 2016, the hollowing out of American manufacturing and the EU migration crisis led to two great revolts: the Brexit vote in the UK, mostly inspired by opposition to uncontrolled mass immigration, and the election of Donald Trump in the US promising a new era of economic nationalism. The UK House of Commons spent years trying to thwart the Brexit referendum result but the British electorate delivered a thumping majority to Boris Johnson in 2019 in response to his promise to “Get Brexit Done”. It was done, but Johnson was subsequently taken down by his own party. Sober-suited financial technocrats, Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt, are back in charge. In the US, Biden narrowly beat Trump in 2020, but at the time of writing it looks as though Trump might win back the White House later in 2024.

“Aristotle warned about the dangers of an oligarchy that would control both the economy and the state.” Joel Kotkin, The Coming of Neo-Feudalism

Nothing works – the impotence of democracy

In the UK, there is a palpable sense that nothing works and that voting doesn’t change anything. In her recent book, former prime minister Liz Truss wrote that “The real, deep-rooted issues in our society and our world are considered too intractable to be tackled.” Politicians increasingly prefer to hand their powers over to unelected technocratic bodies such as the Bank of England and the Office for Budget Responsibility, beyond the reach of democratic accountability. There is a sense that the Civil Service and the legal profession have become politicised and that they work to frustrate Conservative policies. Jonathan Sumption, a former senior judge who sat on the UK Supreme Court, has described the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg as “a seriously aberrant tribunal” with “increasingly obvious political ambitions”. The Conservatives promised to get net immigration down to the tens of thousands, but it has continued to balloon to around 700,000 per annum. Public debt is at around 100% of GDP and taxes are at record high levels, economic growth is anaemic or non-existent, high energy costs and inflation have created a cost of living crisis, illegal migrant boat crossings appear to be unstoppable, the National Health Service is in perpetual crisis, the housing and rent crises continue unabated, privatised water companies discharge sewage into rivers whilst paying shareholders handsome dividends, and local governments are on the verge of bankruptcy, seemingly unable to perform basic functions such as filling potholes and cleaning the streets. The UK electorate seems poised to elect a Labour government into office in 2024, not with any sense of optimism but out of sheer disgust at the failure of the Conservative Party to govern effectively in the interests of ordinary people. As long ago as 2020, Colin Crouch wrote a booklet for the Fabian Society entitled Coping with Post Democracy. If democracy no longer works for ordinary people, maybe it is because we have already entered the era of post-democracy, in which the global system is rigged for the benefit of an elite class. This new reality is better described as an oligarchy a form of government in which power is held by a small group of individuals distinguished by extreme wealth and political and corporate control. John Kingston, in this edition of Humanistically Speaking (Practical Progressives think tank article) cites a 2017 paper by Kenneth Scheve and David Stasavage in the Annual Review of Political Science, and a 2019 Sutton Report, which suggest that the democratic process in the UK has been captured by an elite class.

“Instead of a progressive, woke, egalitarian age, we may be entering an era that is more feudal in its economic and social structure.” Joel Kotkin, The Coming of Neo-Feudalism

The new Marxism and the spectre of totalitarianism

Until 2016, liberal democracy meant that conservatives, socialists social democrats and liberals were all considered to be legitimate players in democratic politics. Debates could be spirited and passionate, but during the era of liberal democracy there was an underlying respect between politicians of different stripes. This all changed in 2016. Since 2016, a virulent new form of Marxism has captured most of the institutions of Western democracies. Variously labelled as social justice, critical race theory, gender theory, intersectionality, identity politics or “woke”, this ideology is based on the Marxist dogma that society is composed of oppressors and the oppressed and that the revolutionary imperative is to overthrow or at least silence and subdue the oppressors in order to inaugurate a new society of perfect equality and justice. In this ideological matrix, the oppressors are white, male, old, heterosexual, cisgender, colonialists, Zionists, capitalists, conservatives or some combination of these identity markers. Conservatives have been delegitimised and they are stigmatised as right-wing, far-right, alt-right, fascist, purveyors of hate, or simply “scum”. Under this new dispensation, the old liberal and humanist idea of free speech is no longer permissible because speech by members of privileged groups, such as white heterosexual males, is one of the ways in which oppression is perpetuated. Such people are advised to “check their privilege” before they open their mouths in case they unwittingly commit a hate crime. If they are booked to speak on college campuses their events are likely to be disrupted by noisy protest or cancelled altogether. The powerful oligarchy which effectively runs the global economy is adept at paying lip service to this new form of Marxism by various forms of DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) and “woke-washing”. To the extent that it diverts attention from economic inequalities, and labels ordinary people as “racists” for desiring national sovereignty, it suits the interests of the global oligarchy to play along with it.

On the day I wrote this article, 16th April 2024, police in Brussels, the capital of the European Union, tried to stop a perfectly legitimate and orderly National Conservatism conference from taking place over spurious concerns for “public order” raised by Emir Kir, the socialist mayor of Saint-Josse-ten-Noode. The conference had already had to move to a third venue. This is an example of the way in which the mere expression of conservative and nationalist views has been delegitimised by left-wing activists and even senior politicians. Nicola Sturgeon, former First Minister of Scotland, is reported as having pulled out of a BBC event in 2018 because a Trump advisor had also been invited. She is reported to have said: “I believe passionately in free speech, but as First Minister I have to make balanced judgments – and I will not be part of any process that risks legitimising or normalising far right, racist views”. You may not like the views of a Trump advisor, but it seems all too easy to label political figures as “far right” or “racist” and thereby deny that they have any legitimate part in democratic debate. In the case of the NatCon conference, there was a swift turnaround and a victory for democratic freedom. The Conseil d'État, the highest court in Belgium, suspended the mayor's decree. The fact that a court of law had to intervene at short notice to protect free speech in the heart of Europe is deeply worrying. Is the spectre of totalitarianism haunting Europe and other Western countries?

The psychology of Marxism

Karl Marx had some interesting ideas, just like Jesus. But their followers have, over the ages, turned their ideas into fanatical and lethal creeds. Marxism, in some respects, is a secular version of Christianity. In Matthew 19:30, Jesus says, “But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.” The Marxist version of this inversion of the social order is that the oppressed will vanquish their oppressors. From the 12th century onwards, the Catholic Inquisition was intent on rooting out and extirpating heresy. The Spanish version of the Inquisition targeted Jews in particular. The main goal of these institutions was to enforce religious orthodoxy within the Christian community, which included addressing any deviations from the established beliefs and practices of the Catholic Church. In a similar way, communist states enforce Marxist-Leninist ideology. This involves suppressing political dissent, controlling speech, and punishing those considered ideological deviants. Neo-Marxists follow the same script. Although they tend to be atheists, and some of them are humanists, they are unconscious victims of a mind virus which hijacks the same neural networks which drive all religious fanaticisms. They are convinced of their own righteousness and they hate dissenters. A familiar tactic is to stigmatise their opponents. In the Middle Ages, Jews were described as Christ-killers”. In a similar tactic, neo-Marxists stigmatise any deviance from liberal-left orthodoxies as far-right” and they use porcine references such as gammon” to dehumanise people. This can cross over into real violence when it is deemed OK to punch a Nazi”. The humanist answer to all of this religious extremism is to desist from stigmatising people and to engage, instead, in the battle of ideas.

Imagine no countries

One of the most destructive dogmas of liberalism is the utopian belief that human beings have the right to live wherever they please and that borders are inherently oppressive. The conservative instinct is that democracy can only work effectively at the level of the nation state where bonds of trust and social solidarity can be cultivated. If you dissolve national borders then power is inevitably transferred to global corporations and transnational organisations beyond the reach of democratic accountability. And without trust and social solidarity, you need increasingly authoritarian and intrusive government to keep order. Over the last couple of decades, liberals such as Tony Blair and his successors in government have encouraged mass immigration with scant regard for social cohesion and any sense of national identity. This reckless experiment loosens social solidarity and renders nations vulnerable to internal collapse and invasion. How many young people today would willingly take up arms to defend their country if nationhood no longer has any meaning or purchase, and if national heroes from the past, who literally saved us from fascism, are vilified as racist oppressors?

The complicity and impotence of humanism

Many humanists, but by no means all, have gone along with all this. Some humanists have embraced the new Marxism. Humanist and secularist organisations are still busy campaigning to rid Western countries of public religion in the belief that the absence of religion and appeals to “kindness” and “shared human values” will be enough to hold societies together and soften the effects of programmatic individualism. After a century of effort, humanism should by now be a well-established alternative to religion, poised to replace or at least stand alongside established religion in terms of stature and ethical seriousness. But its negative framing and lack of ambition have resulted in weakness and invisibility. Western societies are fracturing and splintering. Where will we be in ten or twenty years from now? The US looks like it’s on the verge of civil war between neo-Marxists and Christian national conservatives whilst Europe is committing suicide through a combination of low birth rates and gradual takeover by alien and highly illiberal cultures.

What needs to be done

To restore health to our democracies, we need the insights of conservatism and liberalism. If we fetishise only one of these competing political philosophies, we will find ourselves heading into tyranny and violence. I grew up in the 1960s in a conservative Christian family but I cherish the liberalism that makes it possible for me to be in a same-sex marriage. I do not want us to go back to a time when people had to get married in order to have sex, or when women had to give up babies born out of wedlock, or have dangerous backstreet abortions, or when gay men were imprisoned or chemically castrated. I certainly do not want to live long enough to see liberal culture dismantled in favour of Sharia law or some other oppressive religious dispensation. I would like to see the new Marxism challenged head-on and defeated. I would like to see moderate conservatism and liberal nationalism rehabilitated as a normal part of our democratic conversation. And I would like to see a more positive relationship between humanistic Christianity and humanism, as two great ethical worldviews which can collaborate to restore an ethos of the common good and human flourishing. At the individual level, humanists should reimagine themselves as active democratic citizens, not just passive spectators of the Westminster or Washington soap operas. Everyone should vote and everyone, in my view, should join a political party. We can restore democracy but only by empowering ourselves. Citizens' Assemblies may be one practical contribution to achieving this and I recommend John Coss's article on them in this edition of Humanistically Speaking.

Postscript on conservative philosophers

I was particularly inspired by Yoram Hazony's book Conservatism: A Rediscovery (2023) to write this article. Hazony is a quietly-spoken Israeli-American philosopher, chairman of the Edmund Burke Foundation and organiser of National Conservatism conferences. Unlike Hazony, I do not want to see a restoration of highly conservative religious morality and politics. Rather, I would like Western countries to reinstate a proper democratic dialogue between conservatism and liberalism, and between religion and humanism. This kind of balance can be found in the philosophy of David Hume, an Enlightenment humanist who valued tradition and established institutions. His influence is notably present in the work of later conservative thinkers such as Edmund Burke who admired Hume’s writings and shared his sceptical view of human nature and revolutionary change. Adam Smith is another Enlightenment thinker of interest to conservatives. Known primarily for his liberal economic theories outlined in The Wealth of Nations (1776), Smith also exhibited elements of conservative thought, particularly in his appreciation for the roles of institutions and morality in society. He advocated free markets but also recognised the importance of a moral framework to maintain social order. Liberalism is strong on abstract rights and freedoms but it ignores evolutionary psychology and it lacks understanding of human groups as they appear in the real world. Humanism can help to address these deficiencies in liberalism if it is prepared to critically reassess its premises and allegiances.


References and further reading

  • Humanists International General Assembly Resolution on Democracy

  • Copenhagen Declaration on Democracy: a humanist value”, Humanists International, World Humanist Congress, Copenhagen, Denmark, 2023. Full text is here

  • Jonathan Sumption wrote about the European Court of Human Rights in an article in The Telegraph, 17 April 2024: “Liz Truss's attacks on the judiciary are a travesty”.

  • The Nicola Sturgeon incident was reported in The Telegraph, 20 April 2024 (Steerpike article)

  • Ten Years to Save the West (2024) by Liz Truss

  • Conservatism: A Rediscovery (2023) by Yoram Hazony

  • Values, Voice and Virtue: The New British Politics (2023) by Matthew Goodwin

  • The Identity Trap: A Story of Ideas and Power in Our Time (2023) by Yascha Mounk

  • The New Puritans: How the Religion of Social Justice Captured the Western World (2022) by Andrew Doyle

  • The Politics of Humanism (2021) Joseph O. Baker in The Oxford Handbook of Humanism (2021) edited by Anthony B. Pinn

  • Justice-Centered Humanism (2021) by Roy Speckhardt

  • The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class (2020) Joel Kotkin

  • Post-Democracy After the Crises (2020) Colin Crouch

  • The Parasitic Mind: How Infectious Ideas Are Killing Common Sense (2020) by Gad Saad

  • Why Borders Matter (2020) by Frank Furedi

  • Why Liberalism Failed (2019) by Patrick Deneen 

  • National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy (2018) by Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin

  • The Virtue of Nationalism (2018) by Yoram Hazony

  • Conservatism: Ideas in Profile (2017) by Roger Scruton

  • Humanism and the Political Order (2015) by Alan Haworth in The Wiley Blackwell Handbook of Humanism (2015) edited by Andrew Copson and A.C. Grayling

  • The Cameron Delusion (2009) by Peter Hitchens

  • Post-Democracy (2004) Colin Crouch

  • Toward a New Political Humanism (2004) Edited by Barry F. Seidman and Neil J. Murphy

  • Socialist Humanism (1967) Edited by Erich Fromm

  • Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays (1962) by Michael Oakeshott

  • Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) by Edmund Burke

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With entire life chapters measured in 'parliaments' with Keir Starmer in for two, the inevitable reappearance of the Conservatives afterwards, under Penny Mordaunt (?), will we achieve anything close to a working society in the next fifteen years? The UK population is disillusioned and defeated, can't see anyway forwards or anyway out. Division over Brexit, now division over Israel is causing fractious divides. The haves and have not growing further apart, and £300k now deemed the affordable housing solution? It's difficult to see any green grass on any side of the fence. When a defeated Prime Minister resigns the fact that achievement of a manifesto is near impossible he resorts to just five aims whilst in office, even such a…

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Fourteen out of 100,000 is still pretty low but each one is tragic of course if driven by despair. We can't assume that the political situation is driving suicide but it could be a range of complex factors.

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