That democracy can be a vehicle for tyranny was well understood by earlier generations of liberal thinkers. From Benjamin Constant, Alexis de Tocqueville, and John Stuart Mill through to Isaiah Berlin, it was recognized that democracy does not necessarily protect individual freedoms. The greatest danger for these liberals was not that the historical movement toward democracy would be reversed, but rather the potential ascendancy of an illiberal type of democracy — a development they saw prefigured in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s theory of the general will. Legal and constitutional protections have little force when majorities are indifferent or hostile to liberal values. Because democratic regimes can claim a source of legitimacy that other forms of government lack, liberty might be more threatened in the future than in the past. Most human beings, most of the time, care about other things more than they care about being free. Many will vote readily for an illiberal government if it promises security against violence or hardship, protects a way of life to which they are attached, and denies freedom to people they hate.An excerpt from the thought-provoking essay Under Western Eyes, by John Gray.
Today these ideas belong in the category of forbidden thoughts. When democracy proves to be oppressive, liberals insist it is because democracy is not working properly — if there were genuine popular participation, majorities would not oppress minorities. Arguing with this view is pointless, since it rests on an article of faith: the conviction that freedom is the natural human condition, which tyranny suppresses. But the mere absence of tyranny may allow no more than anarchy; freedom requires a functioning state, with a competent bureaucracy and a legal system that is not excessively corrupt, together with a political culture that allows these institutions to work independently of lawmakers.
In the absence of these conditions, human rights — which are, fundamentally, legal fictions that are created and enforced by well-organized states — are meaningless. Such conditions do not exist in most of the world today and will not exist in many countries for the foreseeable future, if ever. Where they do exist, they are easily compromised. Far from being the natural condition of humankind, freedom is inherently fragile and will always be exceptional.
Liberals in all countries find this prospect intolerable...