Liberal democracy and authoritarian visions of modernity represent starkly different worldviews. In abstract, these ideologies are virtual opposites, but as we will see, in practice, some similarities will emerge. In the 1930s, the profound tension between liberal democracy and authoritarianism provoked mass conflict and, eventually, the Second World War. What follows are some key similarities and differences:
Representative democracy is a hallmark of the liberal democratic state. Citizens elect politicians to represent their interests in federal and local governments. In authoritarian regimes, elections take a back seat. Authoritarian leaders demand a strict obedience to authority but do not seek to "legitimize" their authority through an election. Many authoritarian regimes are run by militaries, and if there is a parliament, it is often symbolic.
Liberal democracies prioritize individual rights and freedoms. Personal liberty—the ability to make decisions without the encroachment of others—is a very important aspect of liberal democracy. These rights are enshrined in documents like the Bill of Rights. Authoritarian regimes prioritize national identity more than individual freedoms. Individuals are expected to bypass their personal interests and desires for the sake of the state. Authoritarian visions of society place much more emphasis on group identity than the rights of any individual citizen. Unlike liberal democracies, which typically have a codified constitution, under authoritarian regimes there are no fixed rights.
Rule of law
The rule of law was first established by the Magna Carta. The Magna Carta, which was first put in place to check the power of an unruly English king, is now considered the bedrock of liberal institutions. The rule of law establishes that no single person is above the law: the rulers and ruled are accountable to the same laws. Under authoritarianism, this convention is completely ignored.
However, in practice, liberal democracies don't always lift up the rights of individuals over those of the political community. Particularly in the 1930s and 1940s, liberal democracies forced citizens to join the army (conscription) and limited the food supply (rationing). Though liberal democracy holds up an idealistic notion of rugged individualism, in times of tumult citizens were often asked to sacrifice their personal liberty for that of the community.
Some scholars, especially following the political upheavals of 2016, argue that in the 20th and 21st centuries's liberal democracies have taken a sharp turn towards authoritarianism. After 9/11, the United States government suspended many features of its constitution, and United States presidents increasingly govern by executive order, bypassing the will of elected politicians.