illiberal democracy

Ascendant Illiberalism

Illiberal democracy is on the rise

Across the globe, illiberal democracy has emerged as a potent force.  The discontents caused by the Great Recessions, coupled with other structural economic issues that exacerbate inequality while failing to lift the incomes of the middle and working classes, have left many yearning for change of any sort.  That desire has manifested itself in a resurgent populist movement, both from the left and the right.   Unfortunately, most so-called populist candidates have a decidedly authoritarian bent that challenges liberal democracy, though not democracy itself.

Liberal democracy refers to a representative democracy in which a constitution bounds the actions of lawmakers and preserves the fundamental liberties of individuals to protect any given minority from the possibly tempestuous whims of a majority coalition.  Citizens choose lawmakers in free and fair elections in which all who qualify have the equal opportunity to participate.  The system thrives of vibrant discourse and national unity largely free from identity politics and grievances.  It does not refer to a government controlled by a left-wing political party.

Illiberal democracies have the opposite values: Lawmakers rarely feel meaningfully constrained by a constitution which can be easily amended or simply ignored and that does not guarantee the rights of all residents.  Instead, minorities can see liberties abridged by the majority.  This typically happens for easily defined groups based on ethnicity, but can extend to religion, economic status, or any other discernible characteristics.  Though such polities have elections, they are not typically free and fair.  Citizens may find it difficult to vote either because of limited polling access, voter intimidation, or brute voter suppression.  At worst, elections exist for show only with the outcomes already predetermined by the in-power party (who, in most cases, acts to consolidate and preserve attained power).  It’s a system that can quickly devolve into authoritarianism.



Yet politicians who believe and embrace such illiberal principles have recently seen electoral success in western democracies (or democracies that, in recent decades, have sought to be considered western).  Turkey, Hungary, Poland, and the United States all exemplify ascendent illiberalism.

In Turkey, President Erdogan has transformed a liberal democracy into an increasingly autocratic state.  He’s done so through a variety of reforms that strip powers from the prime minister and instead place them in the president (ie, himself), a position that’s traditionally been ceremonial.  Though a national referendum supposedly endorsed these reforms, many critics have complained about electoral irregularities, claiming that Erdogan fixed or manipulated the vote to ensure the desired outcome.  The referendum itself took place under conditions of fear: In the year since the failed military coup, Erdogan has jailed some 45,000 oppositionists (and 150 journalists), purged around 130,000 from the civil service ranks, and shut down around 160 media outlets.  Erdogan supports such actions by claiming the jailed or fired individuals supported the coup and thus posed a threat to Turkey, a ridiculous lie few believe.  Together, the referendum and ongoing state of emergency point to a country partially embracing illiberalism and partially having shoved down its throat.

Hungary has seen a popular lurch towards authoritarianism, with Prime Minister Orban winning a “landslide” reelection despite his known illiberal attitudes.  Orban himself, inspired by the likes of Russia, China, and Erdogan’s Turkey, declared he will build a new, “illiberal state” in Hungary to lead the nation “in the great global race for decades to come.”  His tenure has seen “an erosion of the independence of the judiciary, the packing of courts with political loyalists, a wholesale political purge of the civil service and the chief prosecutor’s office, new election rules that advantage the governing coalition and the intimidation of the news organizations (who can be issued crippling fines for content deemed “not politically balanced” by a government-appointed panel).”  When stopped or challenged, he’s simply used a large parliamentary supermajority to amend the Constitution.  Freedom House proclaims the upcoming 2018 elections to be a critical juncture for Hungary: If Orban emerges victorious, Hungary may become the illiberal state once thought to be confined to Europe’s dark past.



Poland, too, has moved in an illiberal direction under the leadership of the far-right populist “Law and Justice” party.  The party, legitimately elected, has broken “the constitution, both in letter and in spirit,” by undermining the constitutional court, politicizing the civil service, and subverting public media.  These actions create cronyism and a government that serves the party, not the people.  Once all institutions have been coopted, they can be successfully turned against opposition, thereby creating a de facto one party state.  Luckily, Poles have not bowed down to such illiberalism.  While a large percentage of the country supports Law and Justice and its illiberal aims, a large, liberal sect of the population widely protested laws that would fundamentally overhaul the constitutional court’s composition, subserving it to the will of the ruling party.  The Polish president vetoed both bills because of the popular backlash.  More judicial reforms, however, have been promised.  Poles need to continue resisting illiberal intentions and not let Law and Justice create an illiberal state.

Lastly, America, democracy’s shining beacon, has moved in an illiberal direction with Donald Trump’s election.  Trump campaigned on a variety of illiberal themes and identity politics that relied on vilifying an ever amorphous “other” — in his case, illegal immigrants and Muslims comprise that villain/enemy group.  He’s attacked the judiciary and questioned its legitimacy.  His belief in US intelligence agencies remains doubtful.  He fired James Comey because of the Russia investigation and has sought other methods to curtail its scope and authority, even threatening to fire special investigator Robert Mueller.  Trump’s routinely attacked the press and even labelled them “enemies of the American people.”  Many of his campaign positions would violate the constitutional rights of minorities.  And yet he retains the support of almost the entire Republican congressional caucus and most Republicans in the nation.  His clearly illiberal bent should worry Americans, but thankfully, unlike in Turkey, Hungary, and Poland, our institutions have thus far been resilient to Trump’s illiberalism.



Illiberalism is ascendent.  The above cases only mention the most obvious — other examples of illiberalism include UKIP’s influences in Britain, Alternates for Deutschland in Germany, and the National Front in France.  Across the western world, these populist movements manifest themselves in illiberal forces that all traverse the road to authoritarianism.  We must resist these populist temptations and instead stay committed to the long-standing liberal values that promote and defend our natural liberties.

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