The problem of Jan-Werner Mueller’s “illiberal democracy”


After only three months in power, the new Polish government seems determined to establish what critics call an “illiberal democracy”. But the description is deeply misleading – and in a way that undermines efforts to curb would-be autocrats.

PRINCETON – Poland’s turn towards authoritarian rule has sounded the alarm throughout the European Union and within NATO. Since coming to power in October, Jarosław Kaczyński’s Law and Justice Party (PiS) has attacked the country’s Constitutional Court, politicized the judiciary and the civil service, and launched an attack on media pluralism.

Critics of the PiS government, led by Prime Minister Beata Szydło (with Kaczyński, a behind-the-scenes leader because he does not hold any official post), have called its actions a blitz for install “illiberal democracy”, similar to what Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has done in his country for the past six years. But to label what is being built in Poland as an illiberal democracy is deeply misleading – and in a way that undermines efforts to curb potential autocrats like Kaczyński and Orbán. After all, it is not only liberalism that is under attack, but democracy itself.

The concept of “illiberal democracy”, attributable to a test by American foreign policy thinker Fareed Zakaria, was an effort to describe regimes that held elections but failed to observe the rule of law and routinely overstepped the constitutional checks and balances of their political systems. It was an idea born out of disillusionment. In the heyday that followed the fall of communism, a sort of democratic ecstasy reigned (at least in the West). The “end of history” had been reached, and elections, representative institutions and the rule of law would, it seemed, always go hand in hand.

Soon, however, the newly empowered electorates were voting in majorities that used their power to oppress minorities and violate basic rights. The implication was clear: democracy alone was not enough. Liberalism – the protection of minorities and individual civil liberties – needed to be strengthened.

The word “liberalism”, however, does not mean the same for everyone. In many circles it has come to be used to describe unfettered capitalism and full freedom of choice in personal lifestyles. And these are the alternate meanings that initially allowed politicians like Orbán and the Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to advocate for another form of majority democracy.

Erdoğan, emphasizing traditional Islamic morality, began to portray himself as a “conservative Democrat”. Orbán, in a controversy word in 2014, declared his desire to create an “illiberal state”. More recently, during the refugee crisis, Orbán heralded the end of the era of what he called the “liberal blah blah” and predicted that Europe would return to its “Christian and national” vision of Politics.

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Of course, the expression “illiberal democracy” is not necessarily a contradiction in terms. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, many European Christian Democrats would have called themselves “illiberal”. In fact, they might have been offended if their fierce anti-liberalism were questioned.

What that didn’t mean, however, was that they failed to understand and recognize the importance of minority rights in a functioning democracy (after all, minorities can become the majority in the next election). It also didn’t mean that they thought unelected institutions like constitutional courts were somehow undemocratic. They associated “liberalism” with individualism, materialism and, very often, atheism; but being anti-liberal did not mean rejecting the importance of rights or independent institutions.

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 quite another thing to try to limit freedom of expression and assembly, media pluralism or the protection of minorities. The first is a disagreement over the different political philosophies that can justify democracy. The second is an attack on the very foundations of democracy.

An election, after all, can be undemocratic even if the ruling party refrains from stuffing the ballot boxes. If opposition parties have been hampered in their advocacy to the electorate and journalists dare not report on government failures, the ballot boxes have already been filled. It is no coincidence that many democracies that emerged after the fall of communism established constitutional courts to protect rights and preserve pluralism. These institutions ultimately ensure and maintain democracy.

As long as critics continue to use the term “illiberal democracy” to describe what is happening in countries like Poland, leaders like Kaczyński will simply say, “Exactly! Far from being received as a criticism, the sentence reinforces the image of these leaders as opponents of liberalism, while allowing them to continue to qualify their actions as “democratic” – which, despite all the disappointments of the last quarter of a century , is still the most important precondition for inclusion in the geopolitical “West”.

Furthermore, the phrase “illiberal democracy” confirms the narrative that democracy is the domain of national governments – and that it is the European Union that pushes undemocratic liberalism. This allows figures like Kaczyński and Orbán to portray the EU as the agent of creeping capitalism and libertine morality.

The fact that the new European authoritarians came to power through free and fair elections does not lend democratic legitimacy to their efforts to transform entire political systems to their own advantage. Instead of describing them as “illiberal” we should call them what they really are: “undemocratic”.


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