A cautionary note on the term “illiberalism”

When I was working as a part-time journalist during my undergraduate years, my editor always cautioned us against the use of particular words that he thought had become devoid of any meaning due to “verbal inflation”. As an example, he would cite the usage of  “adventure” in advertising. Your daily trip to the shopping mall, the deodorant or perfume you buy, or the dinner you have at the local pub – everything was advertised as an adventure, somehow putting these rather ordinary tasks on the same level as, say, a trip to the moon.

When reading the newspapers these days, my former editor’s words often come to my mind. Today, it’s not “adventure” that seems in danger of being overused, but “illiberalism”. Illiberal practices have been ascribed to governments and political leaders in Poland, Hungary, Turkey, all Western Balkan states, and, since the election of Donald J. Trump, even to the United States. Whether these countries are indeed experiencing illiberalism pretty much depends on what this term actually means – and this is, I would argue, anything but clear.

In what follows, I would like to offer a cautionary note with respect to the usage of “illiberalism” to describe the contemporary developments in these countries. To be clear, I am not saying that these practices are not illiberal (at least in a particular sense of the word); quite to the contrary, I am arguing that if we reduce their implications to the conceptually challenging framework of illiberalism, we risk not being able to talk about the much larger dangers such development pose for the liberal democratic order. In other words, illiberalism as a terms risks becoming a euphemism that prevents us from actually discussing what we want to discuss.

From “illiberal democracy”…

Arguably, illiberalism entered the public arena when the term “illiberal democracy” was popularised by Fareed Zakaria in his 1997 Foreign Affairs article “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy”. Zakaria understood Western-style liberal democracy as “a political system marked not only by free and fair elections, but also by the rule of law, a separation of powers, and the protection of basic liberties of speech, assembly, religion, and property”. And he continued to argue that “this latter bundle of freedoms –– what might be termed constitutional liberalism –– is theoretically different and historically distinct from democracy.” What Zakaria meant by illiberal democracies, thus, were countries in which popular participation through elections was a norm that was upheld, but the principles of constitutional liberalism were either absent or subject to the will of the ruling elites.

Zakaria was of course correct in pointing out that the connection between liberalism, as a political theory that rests on the idea of individual rights and liberties, and democracy, a system of governmental legitimisation through mass participation, is anything but straightforward. Historically, as Michael Freeden explains, liberals were rather sceptical of the idea of democracy because they believed it would foster mediocre rule and effectively be a tyranny by the majority. Ultimately, they accepted democracy only when combined with a system of popular education and after particular limits were set on democratic rule guaranteeing it would not unnecessarily infringe upon individual liberties. The result was a canon of individual freedoms, or “inalienable rights” to limit not only governmental but also legislative, i.e. democratic, authority over the individual, secured by the Rule of Law. That is precisely what “illiberal democracies” negate, namely the primacy of individual or collective rights and freedoms as well as the Rule of Law over the collective processes of democratic decision-making.

But there is a problem here. Democracy is conceptualised to merely mean free and fair elections, which in practice is often reduced to the actual developments on Election Day and the counting of ballots. Structural infringements on the electoral campaign and the general context of the election itself are deemed secondary. Such reductionism, however, is dangerous, for it misses a whole lot. In a recent study, Nancy Bermeo shows that while the number of election-day vote fraud has been steadily declining since 1991, strategic electoral manipulation aimed at tilting the electoral playing field in favour of incumbents has actually increased. Such actions include “hampering media access, using government funds for incumbent campaigns, keeping opposition candidates off the ballot, hampering voter registration, packing electoral commissions, changing electoral rules to favor incumbents, and harassing opponents—but all done in such a way that the elections themselves do not appear fraudulent.“ Wouldn’t we agree that such actions to strategically manipulate the electoral process are undemocratic?

Looking at the mere fact that elections are held in an orderly fashion is clearly not enough to assert the democratic character of such regimes. Maybe that is the reason why one increasingly finds the term “illiberalism” on its own, without the suffix of democracy.

… to illiberalism

But does “illiberalism” have the terminological gravity to stand alone as a denominator for the practices we observe today? The big question here is whether we understand “illiberalism” as an ideology (i.e. as another –ism) or as a mode of governing. The textbook definition, provided by Andrew Heywood, states that an ideology has three components: a particular view of the existing world; a vision of how the world should be; and a conceptualisation of the means necessary to make the vision a reality.

Illiberal politicians certainly share a distaste for liberal institutions such as independent judiciaries or bureaucracies, the Rule of Law in general, or a free press. In this sense, they indeed have a common worldview, even if it is a rather thin one. But that hardly qualifies as a worldview unique to illiberalism, for nationalists, fascists, oligarchs, and autocrats all negate the principles of political liberalism in one way or another. This cannot be a distinguishing feature of illiberalism.

However, illiberal rulers seem to have a common playbook by which they operate. They know that to capture the state and turn it illiberal (or, in the case of the Western Balkans, prevent the true establishment of a politically liberal structure), they need to gain control over the press, the judiciary, and the bureaucracy while presenting themselves as the defenders of the common people. That is the reason why so many of them turn to populism. Ultimately, their goal is “executive aggrandizement”, as Bermeo calls it, which “occurs when elected executives weaken checks on executive power one by one, undertaking a series of institutional changes that hamper the power of opposition forces to challenge executive preferences”. But this common playbook only points to a common mode of governing, not to an ideological congruence between the illiberal rulers, precisely because such congruence is conditioned upon having a common vision for the future.

So, the crux of the case seems to be the following: what is the illiberal rulers’ endgame? What do they want to achieve? If your initial response is “to gain, or to stay in power”, I am afraid you have fallen victim to the danger of using the term illiberal as a stand-alone marker of political development. Of course they want, and need power, but what they want to do with it differs quite substantially. Some illiberal rulers may want to abandon liberal democracy and turn their countries into authoritarian systems while others may seek to secure particular privileges for a ruling class, or group and thus effectively establish an oligarchy.

But if that is the case, should we not better call it as it is? Shouldn’t we speak of proto-authoritarian or proto-oligarchic tendencies rather than of illiberal ones?

The risks of the term

Sticking to illiberalism highlights where systems come from rather than were they are going; depending on the context, that might be desirable, necessary, or indeed accurate. Yet lumping all the developments in the different countries cited at the beginning together under one conceptual umbrella may also mean not seeing the forest for all the trees. In other words, it could mean concentrating on the means and not seeing the ends––with potentially very dangerous effects.

Apart from implying a false teleology, there are two arguments for the need to use the term “illiberalism” more carefully. The first one is conceptual. So far, I have only spoken of principles of political liberalism (or constitutional liberalism, as Zakaria termed it) thus neglecting the gigantic variation that exists within liberal thought. Tasked with defining liberalism, one will quickly understand that the many different forms of liberalism are not necessarily congruent with each other. What one liberal considers illiberal might be at the ideological core of what the other liberal believes. (For example, try reconciling the ideas of Hayek and Dworkin, both of which are part of the liberal school of thought.) I have witnessed many panel discussions seeking to find a precise definition of illiberalism. They all failed, precisely because illiberalism is the opposite of liberalism, and liberalism suffers from a conceptual cacophony. Sticking to the term “illiberalism” thus muddles the waters and diverts our attention away from accurately capturing what is actually going on.

The second reason for more carefulness is closely related to one particular consequence of the conceptual cacophony. In many contexts, defending liberalism is nowadays perceived as defending a globalised cosmopolitan elite that exploits ordinary people, and especially workers, while fighting for the interests of Big Business and international capital. Rather than being conceptualised as a complex set of principles and values, liberalism thus becomes exclusively linked to its neoliberal form. Rightful criticisms leveled against neoliberalism thus risk delegitimising the mere foundation of political liberalism. What is more, from this skewed perspective, illiberalism is in danger of appearing even defensible, as a means to curb the excesses of capitalism. Such a conclusion should certainly be avoided, even if it only rests on a misguided perception.

Preventing “illiberalism” from becoming a euphemism

Even if the inflationary use of the word “adventure” in advertising has led to the erosion of its content, many of us still regularly describe certain things as adventures. This is of course not problematic in and of itself, and claiming that only the deeds of the Victorian explorers or the space pioneers deserve to be called adventures would be ridiculous. The point here is not to restrict the use of any particular word, but rather to show that words have consequences and that overuse is dangerous.

The same holds true for “illiberalism”. Whatever one may think of the word itself, its conceptual and strategic implications and problems, it will, and should be part of our vocabulary. It has the important function of alerting us to the inherent dangers of particular actions by political leaders. When we are not sure, or when we are unable to convincingly prove where threats to individual and collective freedoms, the Rule of Law, or an independent bureaucracy are leading, calling such actions “illiberal” is an analytical necessity.

Yet “illiberalism” should not become a euphemism for situations in which we know what a leader attempts to do. If he or she wants to capture the state so as to establish an autocracy or an oligarchy, we should say so clearly and describe these actions as accurately as possible. In such cases, we all benefit from calling it as it is.