Jeffrey C. Isaac
This article will be published in three parts, this being the first part.
A specter is haunting Europe and the United States; the specter of illiberal democracy.
The project of instituting a new form of “illiberal democracy” in place of the supposedly outmoded form of liberal democracy is most closely linked to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has repeatedly announced this intention. But the idea is commonly associated with a broader range of political leaders—Jaroslaw Kaczyński in Poland, Vladimir Putin in Russia, and Recep Erdogan in Turkey, among others—who have sought to institute illiberal measures and to justify them, at least in part, by appeal to a more authentic form of “democracy.” As David Ost has recently observed of the Hungarian and Polish cases:
Eviscerating the Constitutional Court and purging the judiciary, complete politicization of the civil service, turning public media into a government mouthpiece, restricting opposition prerogatives in parliament, unilateral wholesale change of the Constitution or plain violation of it, official tolerance and even promotion of racism and bigotry, administrative assertion of traditional gender norms, cultural resurrection of authoritarian traditions, placing loyalty over competence in awarding state posts, surveillance without check—with such policies and more, right-wing governments in Hungary and Poland are engaged in a direct attack on the institutions of democracy. The ruling parties, Fidesz and Law and Justice (PiS) respectively, do not even claim to adhere to “liberal” democracy anymore. Are they committed to democracy at all? Both accept it now that elections have brought unchecked one-party rule by the party representing “the nation.” Otherwise, “democracy” appears to be only a curtsy to the political correctness they otherwise abhor.
The still recent victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election is perhaps the most vivid example of this tendency. Such projects have caused political commentators such as Dani Rodrick to worry about “why illiberal democracies are on the rise.” And they have received increasing attention from political scientists interested in the ebbs and flows and waves and undertows of “democratization,” who are concerned not simply about the spread of “illiberalism” in the previously-considered “democratizing” countries, but its emergence in the more “advanced” or “consolidated” democracies as well. As Yascha Mounk notes:
Across the affluent, established democracies of North America and Western Europe, the last years have witnessed a meteoric rise of figures who may not be quite so brash or garish as Trump and yet bear a striking resemblance to him: Marine Le Pen in France, Frauke Petry in Germany, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, and many of the leading Brexiteers in the United Kingdom. They too harness a new level of anger that is quite unlike anything liberal democracies have witnessed in a halfcentury. They too promise to stand up for ordinary people, to do away with a corrupt political elite, and to put the ethnic and religious minorities who are now (supposedly) being favored in their rightful (subordinate) place. They, too, are willing to do away with liberal political institutions like an independent judiciary or a free, robust press so long as those stand in the way of the people’s will. Together, they are building a new type of political regime that is slowly coming into its own: illiberal democracy. Critics often attack Trump, Le Pen, and their cohort for being undemocratic. But that is to misunderstand both their priorities and the reasons for their appeal. For the most part, their belief in the will of the people is real. Their primary objection to the status quo is, quite simply, that institutional roadblocks like independent courts or norms like a ‘politically correct’ concern for the rights of minorities stop the system from channeling the people’s righteous anger into public policy. What they promise, then, is not to move away from popular rule but rather to strip it of its artificial, liberal guise— all the while embodying the only true version of the people’s will.
What are we to make of this phenomenon, and how ought we to respond to it? Indeed, is its very identification as “illiberal democracy” at all useful, or is it rather part of the very problem that many of its critics wish to understand and to combat?
In a recent piece entitled “The Problem with ‘Illiberal Democracy,” Jan-Werner Muller argues that “to call what is being constructed in Poland ‘illiberal democracy’ is deeply misleading—and in a way that undermines efforts to rein in would-be autocrats like Kaczyński and Orban. After all, Muller claims, it is not just liberalism that is under attack, but democracy itself.” Muller insists that to accept the dichotomy of “liberal democracy” vs. “illiberal democracy,” is foolishly to give credence to the claims of Kaczynski and Orban to be authentic democrats who are troubled by excessive personal liberty and simply seek a less libertarian and more communitarian form of democracy. “What governments like those in Poland, Hungary, and Turkey are proposing is something very different. It is one thing to criticize materialism, atheism, or even individualism. It is something else altogether to attempt to limit freedom of speech and assembly, media pluralism, or the protection of minorities. The first is a disagreement about different political philosophies that can justify democracy. The second is an attack on democracy’s very foundations.” Muller thus insists that what many are calling “illiberal democracy” is really better described as a form of populist authoritarianism, and we would do well to discard the very term “illiberal democracy.” For him, the basic architecture of “liberal democracy” is democracy itself, and to be against this architecture is to be against democracy itself. Janos Kornai recently made the same point: “Personally, I consider this concept a dead end: illiberal democracy is like an atheist pope: the adjectival structure itself is contradictory. In my view all democracies are liberal. I lost my taste for concepts of democracy with an adjective when the communist dictatorship referred to itself as a ‘people’s democracy’, clearly distinguishing itself from the socalled ‘bourgeois’ democracies.” To paraphrase a friend, a distinguished scholar of democratization, who put it more bluntly in private correspondence: “If we cannot specify some minimum core of institutional practice for democracy—that it must give people a real opportunity to choose and replace their leaders in free and fair elections—then there is no way to avoid falling into, and no way to climb out of, a relativistic semantic swamp in which the word ‘democracy’ can mean anything, and then almost any claim has to be debated and taken seriously. . . Are we now going to have to re- litigate the dreadfully tired arguments from 40-50 years ago about whether the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, with its totalitarian juche ideology, offers just another form of ‘popular sovereignty’?”
These are powerful objections to the concept of “illiberal democracy.” I share the aversion to the evolving authoritarianism being practiced in Poland, Hungary, Turkey, and elsewhere, and I also share a commitment to liberal democratic values and practices. Words do matter. And it is troubling to allow Orban, Kaczynski, Erdogan or even Putin to claim the mantle of “democracy.” To the extent that this implies any kind of sympathetic understanding much less endorsement, it seems more appropriate simply to deny such leaders the imprimatur of “democracy,” and to place their authoritarianism front and center.
At the same time, I believe it is a mistake simply to dismiss the idea of “illiberal democracy” because it is mobilized for objectionable political purposes. It may be distasteful. It might echo earlier efforts to invoke “democracy with adjectives” on behalf of oppressive and sometimes murderous policies. But this is precisely why we must take it seriously as a rhetoric and a political project that has real traction in the world. It is true that after 1989, it was possible to declare, as Philippe Schmitter and Terry Karl did in Journal of Democracy, that: “The wave of transitions away from autocratic rule. . . has produced a welcome convergence towards a common definition of democracy. Everywhere there has been a silent abandonment of dubious adjectives like ‘popular,’ ‘guided,’ ‘bourgeois,’ and ‘formal’ to modify ‘democracy.’ At the same time, a remarkable consensus has emerged concerning the minimal conditions that polities must meet in order to merit the prestigious appellation ‘democratic.’” But it is equally true that this consensus about “democracy without adjectives” was always contested, and it was rather short-lived, and it has recently been eroded. The challenge facing supporters of liberal democracy is to take the full measure of this erosion, so that it can better be countered. In that sense we do need to re-litigate the arguments from 40-50 years ago about what to make of illiberal appeals to “popular sovereignty” and “democracy.” I wish it were not the case. But it is. And the reason why is because throughout Europe and in the US leaders are rising to power, through at least quasi- “democratic” means, and claiming to stand for and to institute an illiberal form of “democracy.” We need to oppose them. And part of that means “litigating” the ideological contest that they are pursuing, i.e., to bring a “suit” against them, to take seriously their arguments and to demonstrate rather than simply assert that their claim to “democracy” ought to be rejected.
In what follows I would like to outline a more careful approach to the topic and explain why I think it is both analytically and normatively important to proceed in such a manner. I want to suggest that instead of discarding the idea of “illiberal democracy,” we ought to distinguish between at least three ways that this term needs to be understood:
(1) as a form of justificatory praxis or legitimation that warrants understanding though not embrace, precisely because an essential element of political analysis is understanding the terms, symbols, and self-understandings of political actors and the ways that these ideas resonate with publics, whether we like these terms and symbols or not;
(2) as a social scientific concept that registers a political aspiration or project but does not thereby offer an adequate conceptualization of the political consequences of this aspiration or project; and
(3) as a normative commitment that ought to be criticized by those who take the values of individual autonomy and political pluralism seriously. And I want to suggest that only by fully grappling with these different uses can we take the full measure of the challenge that “illiberal democracy” presents to a more pluralistic and egalitarian liberal democracy that is worthy of our support. It is too easy to simply dismiss the rhetoric of “illiberal democracy” as a fraud, and doing so inhibits both proper understanding of the phenomenon and its appeal, and proper normative critique. My point is not that it is wrong to denounce adherents of “illiberal democracy” as “authoritarian” or to claim that such actors threaten “democracy.” There surely are many practical situations where this kind of rhetoric makes perfect sense. Mass politics is not a graduate seminar, and rhetorics of denunciation play an important role in democratic politics.
My point is that, as political theorists and as participants in the effort to clarify public events for broader publics, we ought to proceed with a proper sense of care. And the assertion that what goes under the heading of “illiberal democracy” is simply hostility to democracy itself is too simplistic. Indeed, we need to better clarify the different meanings of “democracy” precisely so that we can better appreciate the strengths and limits of the liberal democracy that is worthy of our intellectual and political support.
 David Ost, “Thoughts on the Hungarian and Polish New Right in Power.” Public Seminar (September 21, 2016).
 Dani Rodrick and Sharun Mukand, “Why illiberal democracies are on the rise.” Huffington Post (May 18, 2015) and Andrew MacDowall, “Illiberal Democracy: How Hungary’s Orban is Testing Europe.” World Politics Review (December 18, 2014).
 Yascha Mounk, “The Week That Democracy Died,” Slate (August 14, 2016).
 “The Problem with ‘Illiberal Democracy’.” Project Syndicate (January 21, 2016).
 Janos Kornai, “Vulnerable Democracies: An Interview with Janos Kornai.” Hungarian Spectrum (December 30, 2016).
 Philippe C. Schmitter and Terry Lynn Karl, “What Democracy Is. . . And Is Not.” Journal of Democracy (Summer 1991).
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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