News that Penguin Books India has capitulated to demands that it remove from Indian bookshops a controversial history of Hinduism should trouble and sadden liberals around the world. India is the world’s largest (as well as arguably its most diverse and religious) democracy — and it has managed to build and sustain democratic institutions for decades. That’s an extraordinary accomplishment. But with the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party poised to win sweeping victories in upcoming elections, and parent company Penguin Random House buckling to public pressure about an unpopular book, we have reason to worry about the future of liberalism in India.
And not only in India. The details of the situation undoubtedly have their roots in circumstances unique to the subcontinent, but what’s happening in India is part of a much broader trend. A little more than 20 years ago, in the wake of the West’s victory in the Cold War, Americans seriously entertained the idea that liberal ideals and institutions were on the verge of taking over the world. Two decades later, that prediction appears even more naïve than it did at the time.
The world did go through a period in the 1990s when democratic institutions spread into regions that had never known them. But those institutions have been in retreat for several years now. In Russia and some of the other post-Soviet republics, in China, Egypt, Libya, and sub-Saharan Africa, countries are increasingly turning away from democracy — either by refusing to adopt democratic norms in the first place, or by rejecting them once they’ve been tried.
Perhaps even more troubling than the rollback of democratic institutions (free and fair elections, civilian control of the military, etc.) has been the failure of liberal habits of citizenship to take root in other countries and cultures as deeply as they have throughout the West. Americans take it for granted that, with only certain very rare exceptions, people are allowed to write and say anything they please — and that their fellow citizens will not respond to provocation by resorting to violence. We enact John Stuart Mill’s liberal ideal every day, allowing ideas to be aired and do battle with one another in the open, assuming that the bad ideas will die a natural death in the course of discussion and debate.
But other countries struggle to achieve such institutionalized, habitual toleration for differences. Sure, some of the anti-liberal developments are driven by authoritarian leaders out to quell dissent and consolidate their own power. Others, as in India, are encouraged by factions seeking to use jingoistic and sectarian sentiment for electoral gain.
But that’s not all that’s going on. The first function of government — liberal or not — is to secure order. Growing numbers of people across the globe appear to believe that liberalism is incompatible with maintaining that basic level of order — that liberalism will inspire violence within polities with sharp and deep ethnic, religious, and partisan divisions. They fear that instead of provoking a sharply argued response, a criticized group will take up arms or resort to terrorism.
Liberalism is only possible when citizens from every group in society implicitly vow to forgo violence as a way of settling disputes. We take this for granted, but many in other countries increasingly feel they can’t afford to do so.
Are they right to be worried? In some cases, the answer is clearly yes. Until more nations solve the riddle of how to transform liberalism from an ideal into a habit of mind and behavior, its global prospects will remain precarious.