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Is There Illiberal Democracy? A Problem With No Semantic Solution | Jeffrey C. Isaac

Jeffrey C. Isaac

This is the third part of the article.


So I do not believe that the idea of “illiberal democracy” ought to be discarded as useless or misleading or even exculpatory for anti-liberals. It signifies something important that needs to be understood and analyzed, as a kind of legitimation, as a political aspiration of selfdescribed proponents of “illiberal democracy,” and perhaps even as a very “diminished subtype” of democratic regime.

The best way for those of us who are committed to pluralist, liberal democracy—and to further deepening its institutional forms—to explain and defend what we value is to oppose the bad things done in the name of “democracy” by carefully criticizing what is wrong with these interpretations of “democracy” and offering a compelling defense of pluralist, liberal democracy. To claim that these bad things are not “really” democracy at all is to play an essentialist semantic game.[1] If such a game could work, it might be worth trying. But I doubt it can work.

One reason is conceptual and historical. For, as theorists such as late Claude Lefort recognized long ago, democracy is an inherently open and an essentially contested idea.[2] That is why it is so widely claimed by so many political agents, some good and some very bad. There is no alternative, theoretically or politically, to continuing to participate in contesting democracy. This means understanding the elasticity of the democratic idea, and presenting compelling arguments for why any interpretation of democracy that rejects the centrality of civil freedom, pluralism, and contestation is a recipe for a dictatorship with a democratic veneer, and why in the modern world the only morally legitimate way of instituting democracy as an ongoing system of self government at the level of the nation-state is through liberal democracy. But there is a second reason it cannot work, and this has to do not simply with the elasticity of the democratic idea, but with the limits of the practices and institutions that this idea has widely come to justify.

In “the West”—an area that now includes the entire territory of the EU, including much that was formerly “Eastern Europe”—these are the practices of liberal democracy or, more accurately, the practices that the idea of “liberal democracy” has come to signify and to describe. And these practices are frail, and vulnerable, and also rife with inequalities and injustices. Indeed, in some ways they have themselves become illiberal or at least incline in this direction. From the United States to Germany to the Czech Republic to Australia to Portugal to Romania:

  1. There exists more or less legally open political dissent, opposition, and contestation. But there also exists cartelized political party systems and captured state institutions. And while there are not legal bans on the organization of new parties, there are enormous obstacles—electoral, bureaucratic, financial, and ideological—to their formation;

  2. There exists freedom of association but also material inequalities that empower some privileged groups and furnish enormous obstacles to collective action for others;

  3. There exists freedom of speech and expression, but also private and public media oligopolies and monopolies that magnify some voices at the expense of others, and also unresolved contests over “net neutrality” that threaten to severely limit the accessibility of contests over “net neutrality” that threaten to severely limit the accessibility of new media to large numbers of people;

  4. There exists civil liberty, but also authoritarian forms of policing, and the surveillance and sometimes the punishment of dissenters, and a preoccupation with “national security” and“homeland security” that formally and informally constrains political debate;

  5. There exists legal equality for most if not all citizens, but also enormous material inequalities within societies and across the “democratic world.” Such inequalities often go under the name of “neoliberalism,” and they produce deprivation but also enormous insecurity for many segments of society and sometimes for entire countries (think Greece after the financial crisis). In the face of these inequalities, the global decline of social democratic parties represents a major setback for populations— including young people—who experience economic and social insecurity;

  6. There exists an egalitarian conception of citizenship, but also rules and regulations that define millions of people as “resident aliens” or “illegal aliens” or “undocumented,” and that justify efforts to exclude or to deport them, and often treats them as without rights and sometimes even as criminals simply by virtue of their presence or very existence;

  7. There exists gender-neutral civic status, but also legally entrenched forms of patriarchy, especially in the domains of family law and the regulation of gender-based violence, and there also exists contestation of these patriarchal practices, and backlashes of resentment against these contests.

In short, there exists everything about the institutional structure and social substructure of the liberal democracies that has given rise to Brexit, the 2014 Greek crisis, the 2013 Bulgarian crisis, and the rise of anti-liberals, many calling themselves “illiberal democrats,” throughout Europe, from Hungary and Poland to France and the UK. And that this is not limited to Europe can easily be signified with two words: Donald Trump[3]

Liberal democracy, then, gives rise—in a complicated way to be sure—to many of the very forces of illiberalism that contest it. And many of these contests take place on the very terrain of “democracy” itself. And they are not limited to one country or one region. They are global in scope, and involve transnational networks, and transnational challenges.[4] As Ivan Krastev argues in a recent piece in Journal of Democracy: “what we see in East-Central Europe is not a crisis of democratization but a genuine crisis of liberal democracy, due to major economic failures, a public backlash against globalization and some of the core beliefs of liberal cosmopolitanism, and a decline in the role of Europe and the European Union in world politics. The crisis in East-Central Europe is not fundamentally different from the crisis of liberal democracy that we see in Western Europe and even in the United States. Because of weaker institutions and much shorter democratic experiences, the ECE countries are much more vulnerable; but at the end of the day, this is the same crisis.”[5]

Those of us who believe that liberal democracy is the only form of democracy consistent with civil freedom in the modern world have no choice but to understand both the strengths but also the practical and normative limits of liberal democracy; to engage, incorporate, and agonistically compete with those social movements and political forces who challenge these limits in ways that are consistent with civil freedom and pluralism; and to oppose and hopefully defeat those forces that challenge these limits in ways that are hostile to civil freedom, political pluralism, and liberalism itself. While in this paper I have focused my attention on the self-styled discourse of “illiberal democracy” associated with right-wing populists in Europe and the U.S., there are forms of left-wing populism, such as the “Bolivaran Revolution” extolled by Hugo Chavez and his successor Nicolas Maduro, that also threaten liberal democratic political institutions, promising to supplant representative government and civil freedom with a more authentic, popular form of democracy.[6] Such forms of anti-liberal populism feed off of the real failings of liberal democracy, and pose genuine challenges to it that proceed in part by promising a more authentic “popular sovereignty.” The only way to defend liberal democracy in the face of these challenges is refute such promises, and at the same time to critique and to improve liberal democracy itself. This is a challenge at every level of politics, from the neighborhood to the nation-state to transnational and global forms of governance.

To return to the question that animates this essay: is there illiberal democracy?

Yes. There is illiberal democracy, as an aspiration and a politics, and it is something to be understood and criticized by liberal democrats.

At the same time, liberal democracy is not democracy itself. It is a partial and vulnerable form of democracy whose defense requires chronic contestation, extension, and deepening.

This is not a matter that can be resolved through semantic fiat or through efforts to limit “conceptual stretching.” For politics is conceptual stretching, normative contestation, and institutional power. The only “resolutions” possible are political ones, and the only political ones worth supporting are ones that leave open the possibility of ongoing contestation, irresolution, and resolution.

We political theorists and social scientists can best contribute to these ongoing contests by developing careful accounts of the range of meanings associated with important concepts like “illiberal democracy” and of the justificatory discourses in which they figure; the actual forms of political contestation these discourses serve; the ways that these contests impact the distribution of political power and the consolidation, weakening, or undermining of pluralistic, liberal democratic political regimes; and the stakes of these contests for the diverse individuals and groups who together inhabit the political world.

La Lutte continue.



[1] A similar argument is developed by Richard Youngs in “Exploring Non-Western Democracy.” Journal of Democracy, vol. 26, no. 4 (October 2015), pp. 140-54.

[2] Claude Lefort, The Political Forms of Modern Society (MIT Press, 1986).

[3] See Justin Gest, “Why Trumpism Will Outlast Trump Himself.” Politico (August 16, 2016); John Feffer, “Donald Trump is not the Presidential Candidate We Should Be Worried About.” Nation (June 27, 2016); and Farai Chideya, “What Can Europe’s Far Right Tell Us About Trump’s Rise?” FiveThirtyEight (May 18, 2016).

[4] Sławomir Sierakowski, “The Illiberal International.” Public Seminar (September 14, 2016).

[5] Ivan Krastev, “What’s Wrong with East-Central Europe: Liberalism’s Failure to Deliver.” Journal of Democracy, vol. 27, no. 1 (January 2016), pp. 35-39. Krastev is writing in response to James Dawson and Sean Hanle’s “What’s Wrong with East-Central Europe: The Fading Mirage of Liberal Consensus,” in the same issue. The disagreements between these authors are interesting but minor, and the entire exchange is consistent with the point I am making here about how the weaknesses of liberal democracy are being contested on the terrain of democracy itself

[6] Hugo Chavez, “Speech to the 6th World Social Forum” (May 5, 2006).


Jeffrey C. Isaac is the James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. He is the Editor-in-Chief of the flagship journal of the American Political Science Association, Perspectives on Politics: A Political Science Public Sphere. He is the author of many books, including Democracy in Dark Times (Cornell, 1998; Polirom, 2000).Click here to access his full bio.

This article was originally published in Public Seminar on July 12, 2017.

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