Illiberal Democracy, Season Three

In “Democracy Against Liberalism” the author argues that there are three important political spectra: democracy versus authoritarianism, liberalism versus absolutism and technocracy versus populism. Tucker asserts that most of Central Europe functioned as an illiberal democracy from 1990 to 2010. In the meantime, some technocratic democracies have transitioned to illiberal populist democracies – states Benjamin Cunningham in a review of Democracy Against Liberalism

Aviezer Tucker, Democracy Against Liberalism, Polity Press 2020, 211 pp

Before Donald Trump was a television game show host, he started a fake university and sold neckties, cologne, steaks and vodka branded with his name. Perhaps inevitable, Trump’s political success has also given rise to a whole new category of consumer product: books attempting to make sense of how a guy whose hair resembles a dead raccoon might become President of the United States.

As the leader of what had long been considered the world’s flagship democracy, Trump was the loudest, most orange-faced incarnation of a new breed of political leaders.

Though styles varied, most were abrasive while showing disdain for logic, facts or reason. Soon enough every country everywhere seemed susceptible to these same incarnate forces — Brazil, Italy, India, the Philippines, even otherwise docile Austria. Each international election was cause for panic. What about France, the Netherlands or those minority parties in Germany? Or Mexico? Or Brazil? It felt like things were coming apart. 

In Central Europe, Viktor Orbán and the Kaczynski brothers laid the groundwork for illiberal democracies in Hungary and Poland. Though the Czech Republic’s Andrej Babiš was largely driven by business interests, his tactical collaboration with President Miloš Zeman marked him as a fellow traveler. Sidelined by scandal and lacking new ideas, even formerly successful politicians like Slovakia’s Robert Fico began betting on Trumpian tactics to revive or prolong their careers.

Though the number of democracies worldwide remained about the same as in 2005, some kind of disfunction was emerging. Experts, thinkers and charlatans alike started clambering about populism, nationalism, illiberalism or authoritarianism. Many books were written, some even sold, and much like the characters in Sergio Leone’s classic western they fell into three categories: The Good (Jan-Werner Mueller’s “What is Populism?”), The Bad (Yascha Mounk’s “The People Vs. Democracy”) and The Ugly (Anne Applebaum’s “Twilight of Democracy”). 

A few years and a paradigm shattering pandemic later, we are still trying to make sense of this political shift. Aviezer Tucker’s book “Democracy Against Liberalism” can count itself among the first of a second, more sober-minded, wave of analysis. He is wary of putting Trump at the center of his inquiry. Now working at Harvard, Tucker has written books on Plato, the philosophy of Czech dissidence, even a potboiler of a detective novel. These varied interests, and Tucker’s extensive travels as an academic, filter his views on current events through a unique lens.

Eight Regimes 

Much of the popular literature on supposed democratic decline tends to use otherwise distinct terms — like the aforementioned populism, nationalism, illiberalism and authoritarianism  — interchangeably. Beyond lazy and annoying, this is misleading as any one of these phenomena might occur independent of the others.

Tucker makes no such mistake, starting his book arguing that there are three important political spectra: democracy versus authoritarianism, liberalism versus absolutism (or illiberalism), and technocracy versus populism. Each political system combines these elements in different ways, and Tucker argues that these combinations manifest themselves in eight general models: liberal democracy, authoritarian absolutism, liberal authoritarianism and illiberal democracy (with all of those coming in both populist and technocratic variants).  

Liberal democracies lean democratic, but embed democratically elected leaders in liberal institutions to curb populist tendencies.

Over time, post World War II liberal democracies moved ever further in the technocratic direction, engaging a professionalized civil service to guarantee competency and consistency.

In contrast, illiberal democracies function without liberal institutions. In this case, elected officials operate more or less unchecked. The populist incarnation of this model sees elected officials playing to the whims of the mob, while the technocratic version sees public officials overhauling society while paying scant attention to public opinion. Tucker asserts that most of Central Europe functioned as an illiberal technocratic democracy from 1990 to 2010. In the meantime some, with Hungary serving as the archetype, have transitioned to illiberal populist democracies.

Tucker’s argument is more nuanced than is possible to detail here, but he is careful to distinguish his definition of populism — “the rule of political passions” — and quickly makes clear that his book focuses on what he calls “Neo-illiberal democracy”. The “Neo” or new part comes as today’s illiberal democracies generally had to weaken or abolish existing liberal institutions. This deconstruction process differentiates today’s illiberalism from the illiberalism in ancient Greece, the Roman Republic or eighteenth century France, where no such institutions ever existed.    

Starting with this simple but insightful point, Tucker already differentiates himself from someone like the aforementioned Applebaum who makes a lucrative career drawing misleading parallels between places like Russia, Poland and the United States—one with zero history of liberal institutions, another that had weak institutions and a third with centuries of liberal tradition.

History Rhymes, It Does Not Repeat

Other books in the populist panic genre do draw on history in an attempt to examine the present, but Tucker goes back a great deal further for proof that many of our contemporary ills have a longer history. By comparing and contrasting illiberalism from different epochs, he is able to isolate both commonalities and distinctions. This wider historic lens means Tucker’s book goes beyond the common, often cliched, comparisons of 1930s Europe and today.

“Neo-illiberal democracy attempts to gradually bring about the evisceration, or deconsolidation if not deconstruction of liberal institutions,” Tucker writes. “Emotional manipulation of self-destructive passions is naturally fickle and difficult to maintain. Therefore to have absolute power, Neo-illiberal governments must weaken countervailing liberal institutions, checks, and balances.”

Once again, this attempt to erode institutions is new, as democracies in the ancient world were limited by no such things. Tucker argues that elite populism — that is political passions among upper classes conspiring to limit social mobility — has fueled Neo-illiberal politics. This, he contends, resembles the forces that pushed the Roman Republic toward collapse. “The republican elite, the senatorial class, succumbed to its passions, to avarice, to pay for what they recognized as luxury,” Tucker writes. In other words, much like fans of the fictional character Gordon Gekko from the film “Wall Street,” the followers of Julius Caesar had concluded greed was good.   

Then as now, illiberal politics are not some inevitability. Rather, as Tucker argues, contemporary Neo-illiberal democracy is birthed by a combination of historical conditions and human error. 

Tucker’s polymathy makes the freewheeling Chapter 2 (subtitled: “Old Hemlock in Plastic Cups”) one the most enjoyable sections of the book. Riffing on Karl Marx’s quip that history repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce, Tucker — in a reference to the inanity of Trump and others — notes that it’s third incarnation comes as a reality show.  

As Tucker notes, many of the European nation-states that emerged following World War I were democracies on paper—but few included liberal institutions. As in the Roman Republic, that made for an easy drift toward authoritarianism. 

Although the First Czechoslovak Republic is often considered an exception to this, even there something as elemental in a liberal democracy as accounting for minority rights was nowhere near a priority. Germans outnumbered Slovaks among the First Republic’s 13.5 million people. Healthy helpings of Hungarians, Romany, Ruthenians, Poles, and more than 100,000 Jews, meant Czechs comprised less than half the population while exercising disproportionate political power.

Hangover From a More Recent Past

Overall, there is much to admire about Tucker’s book. His argumentation and terminology are  clear, but forced to pick nits one might quibble with Tucker’s choice of labels. Although his focus is almost entirely political, his preferred term of Neo-illiberal democracy conjures up an economic term that would seemingly, misleadingly, refer to its opposite. 

Neo-liberal is a designation generally referring to the ideology that became the dominant organizing paradigm for much of the world starting in the late 1970s—whereby GDP growth became the near exclusive measure of wellbeing and was supposedly best advanced through privatization, deregulation and liberalization of markets.  

While Tucker points to limits on the social (and thus economic) mobility imposed by elites, and worries about the push to deconstruct institutions, he does not make explicit connections to the Thatcher-Reaganite revolution that fired the starting gun on this race to the bottom. I would go one step further to contend that economic Neo-liberalism’s extremist emphasis on deconstructing or neutering key institutions, in the proto-religious belief that the invisible hand of the market might do better, was the biggest single contributor to Neo-illiberal democracy. Donald Trump campaigned with the slogan “Make America Great Again,” but stole the idea from Ronald Reagan’s 1980 slogan“Let’s Make America Great Again”.

Like many of the earlier books examining populism or illiberal democracy, Tucker also finds himself  — inevitably — outpaced by events. In recent years, truth has proved stranger than fiction, and as Tucker wrote a good chunk of the book in the spring of 2020 it’s hard to imagine he could have foreseen the tumult that has occurred since. He evokes the Reichstag fire of 27 February 1933 but could hardly have predicted the Trump-inspired 6 January 2021 storming of the U.S. Capitol building.  

“The big unknown as I write is how long it will take scientists to bring this [COVID-19] plague under control, find cures, a vaccine, and then vaccinate the population, to bring this historical episode” to a close, Tucker writes elsewhere. But how could he have imagined scientists developing vaccines at record pace, manufacturers adept at making and distributing inoculations, and significant chunks of the population still refusing to take life saving treatments anyway?

Liberalism Strikes Back

Even as events evolve, most of Tucker’s core analysis holds up. Unlike some earlier books, which focused exclusively on mapping the causes of populist politics, Tucker also takes a stab at advocating specific methods for countering Neo-illiberal currents. The good news is that Neo-illiberal democracy is not a foregone conclusion, but the bad news is that few of Tucker’s sensible and subtle ideas offer a quick fix.

One concept Tucker discusses is Universal Basic Income (UBI), whereby the state or another such sovereign provides all citizens with regular cash payments to supplement earnings. It is an interesting idea, and one that has shown tremendous promise in smaller scale experiments. It “would not be cheap, but it may well be cheaper than the costs of populism and Neo-illiberalism,” Tucker writes.

In fact, a good number of UBI studies show themselves revenue positive in the long term. One at the University of California found that just $4,500 per year, on average, is needed to lift the average American family living below the poverty line, above it. Per child in those families, the return on investment leads to 12.5 percent more hours worked by their parents, $3,000 in annual savings on welfare, between $50,000 and $100,000 more in lifetime earnings, and between $10,000 to $20,000 more in additional state tax revenues.

Tucker favors steps to limit online anonymity, and renewed emphasis on historical education. Another thing he discusses, and a topic that I agree is urgent, are potential reforms to antiquated election systems. Tucker notes that “of all the Neo-illiberal populists,” that reached power, “the only one to receive a majority of the vote was Hungary’s Fidesz.” Populists, as it turns out, are not really that popular—and yet they still manage to win elections.

A July 2021 poll by the Bertelsmann Stiftung found just 54 percent of Europeans satisfied with how democracy functions in their own country. In the United States, those numbers are even lower. At least part of dissatisfaction comes as elections seem to reflect the public will less and less. Even in the countries of Central Europe, where poll numbers indicate people still view democracy favorably, the extreme majorities of voters end up disappointed with election results. Just 27 percent of Czechs voted for the current prime minister’s party. In Slovakia, meanwhile, just 11 percent did.

Tucker outlines an assortment of potential electoral improvements. Proportional representation is superior to the first past the post voting systems used in the United States and UK, he notes, and Tucker also discusses the so-called instant runoff method of election—whereby voters list a second preference on their ballots. Should their preferred candidate lose, their vote transfers to their second choice and the process continues until one candidate receives a majority of the votes. 

Indeed there are many similar such experiments underway. New York City’s 2021 mayoral election utilized ranked choice voting. Voters cast ballots for more than one candidate—listing them in order of preference. Meanwhile, the Czech magnate Karel Janeček has long advocated doing away with one-person, one-vote systems and replacing them with elections where voters have multiple votes or negative anti-votes. In his model, mathematical formulas set the numerical balance between positive votes and negative ballots, with the sum of pluses and minuses determining the final outcome.

While all these proposals make plenty of sense on paper, their biggest shortfall is that they can be difficult to explain. These necessarily complex solutions to a simple problem are forced to compete with populist and Neo-illiberal politicians offering simple solutions to complicated problems. 

As Tucker notes: “Unlike earlier outbreaks of populism, authoritarianism, and totalitarianism, at least for now, there are no significant intellectual inspirations.” This dearth of political content once played as a populist strength, but now risks becoming a weakness.

Politicians who act as outlets of popular discontent, while enriching oligarchic elites, live on borrowed time.

Cheap, sensational content can sell well for a while. But, much like a bad television show,  people tend to get bored of it—so long as it’s forced to compete with something better.

Benjamin Cunningham

is a Barcelona based writer. His book “The Liar: How A Double Agent in the CIA Became the Cold War’s Last Honest Man” is forthcoming in August 2022 from PublicAffairs.

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