The problem with illiberal democracies
When the term “illiberal democracy” was coined in the 1990s, it was not widely seen as a threat to democracy but rather as a non-Western variety. While some economic liberals suggested that the rise of market economies would inevitably transform societies and enforce democracy, others cherished the idea of market economies “with Asian values” or with various cultural specificities. What’s more, at the time some political scientists were in favor of non-Western models as a kind of politically correct understanding of modernity. Many post-modern thinkers adopted this as an argument against Eurocentrism and/or Enlightenment-centrism.
Only after the rise of left and right-wing populist authoritarian politics and elected dictatorships did the atmosphere turn sour. It was then that “illiberal democracy” started to be acknowledged as a problem of democratic deficit and majoritarianism. In fact, “illiberal democracy” was a contradiction in terms, as modern democracy can never be defined solely in terms of elections and the dominance of the popular will. Despite modern history witnessing the shortcomings of the narrow understanding of democracy as rule by popularly elected leaders and parties in Italy and Germany less than a century ago, many political observers and thinkers failed to learn lessons from history. Theoretical debates on democracy were ignored at the expense of “culturalism,” in the name of fashionable euphemisms.
Another major problem is with the definition of liberalism. Neo-liberals tended to define it solely as economic liberalism, with no reference to political liberalism and therefore to democracy. Even after that idea failed to foresee the rise of authoritarian politics along with the market economies, liberalism is now being defined as identical with the ideology of so-called “liberal elites.” While it is right to debate how the rise of populist politics reflects resentment against liberal elites, it is easy to confuse the values of political liberalism (a pillar of democracy) with the repulsive detachment of elites from the rest of societies. The principles of political liberalism are about pluralism (respect for differences and dissent) and individual freedoms, rather than the pseudo-progressive whims of alienated elites.
The idea of popular resentment against the perceived snobbery of elites often simply justifies the propaganda of populist authoritarian leaders and parties. Populist authoritarianism channels resentment against perceived “elites” toward resentment against politically liberal values, in order to legitimize political repression. It can even be argued that there is no unchanged, ahistorical “social fabric” but rather a “political fabrication.”
Although the rise of illiberalism, democratic deficits and authoritarian populism is a global phenomenon, and although there are many similarities among very different countries, some countries are hit more severely than others. The anti-immigration aggressiveness is a shame for Western democracies and the populist regimes of Poland and Hungary are a scandal for the EU, but it is in India where populist politics are leading to violence and in Turkey where it has led to zero tolerance for dissent.