‘Illiberal Democracy’ has become a much used term, ritually condemned by liberals, leftists, and American-style ‘conservatives.’ Many see it as an assault not only on today’s supposedly liberal values, but also on the very liberal framework on which western political systems are supposedly based, systems originating in the early-modern period as a safeguard against tyranny. Whether implicitly or explicitly, many have declared that true democracy can only be liberal.
I believe this to be false. Indeed, I would go so far as to argue that the exact reverse is the case: unadulterated liberalism corrodes democracy, and true democracy is opposed to liberalism. Illiberal democracy, on the other hand, is capable of integrating what is valuable in liberalism without allowing the liberal framework to take over. The most important liberal values can only be preserved today within a more communitarian framework, and in Europe I think this should be under the banner of Christian Democracy. In order to argue for this position, it is useful to consider the poster-child of illiberal democracy, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, and to understand better what is meant by the term “illiberal democracy.” In examining illiberal democracy, we will see that it is something far more modest, prosaic, and perhaps even tenable, than its critics seem to think.
The origin of the term ‘illiberal democracy’
Viktor Orbán was the first prominent figure to propose ‘illiberal democracy’ as the way forward for Western politics. This was during a speech in 2014 in the Transylvanian village of Tusnádfürdő during the annual festival of the Hungarian Right. The main topic of this speech was the economic crisis of 2008 and its consequences in Hungary and worldwide. He was, of course, interested in considering what kind of economic policy was needed in response to the crisis, but more than that he hoped to speculate on what theoretical understanding could serve as the best background for understanding the situation and preventing further crises. It may surprise some readers to hear that Orbán positively invoked the then-serving American president Barack Obama, who spoke regularly about the need for change in Americans’ attitude toward work and family and the need to champion a positive economic patriotism.
Orbán’s conclusions were the following: All nations are competing to discover the best way to organize our political communities. This is why a new attempt was under way to understand how those countries which are “not Western, nor liberals, nor liberal democracies, nor perhaps even democracies,” are able to be successful, countries like Singapore, China, Russia, Turkey, and India. Then came some key sentences:
Here we have to state that a democracy is not necessarily liberal. Indeed, something can be nonliberal and still be a democracy. Moreover, it needs to be said that societies built on liberal democracy likely will not be able to maintain their competitiveness. Instead, they may well suffer regression, unless they are able to reorganize themselves significantly.
After that Orbán identified three kinds of contemporary state organization: nation states, liberal states, and welfare states. He argued that the Hungarian answer should be a fourth type, a “work-based state” (or “workfare state”). This workfare state would have a “nonliberal” nature. This means that, as he put it, “we must cease using liberal social organizing theories and methods, and we should abandon overarching liberal theories of society.” This prescription may sound ominous to Western ears, ears that are prone to identify any disagreement with modern liberal ideals as nascent totalitarianism or budding tyranny, but Orbán explicitly identifies what he takes to be the central tenets of liberalism around which Hungary need not base its politics.
The core of this liberal approach is, in Orbán’s account, that “you can do anything so long as it does not offend the freedom of others.” This is obviously a reiteration of Mill’s ‘harm principle,’ a principle many have found convincing over the years. But, Orbán asks, who has the intelligence, awareness, and impartiality to define perfectly where a person’s ‘freedom’ begins and another ends? Because this is not self-evident, someone must be in the position of authority to define these boundaries. Human nature being what it is, in everyday life these decisions are generally made by those who, whether by nature, by privilege, or by the luck of the draw, are stronger or better positioned. This is obviously ripe for abuses of power.
Therefore, Orbán proposed another well-known approach for Hungarians to take as the central tenet of their politics. Just like the central liberal tenet, it is not merely a legal claim, but an intellectual first principle. Instead of the harm principle, Hungarians’ principle should be, “do not do to others what you would not want done to you.”
Does this echo of the ancient golden rule sound authoritarian to you?
The prime minister argued that Hungary, so long as it remained a purely liberal state, would not be able to do all that a state needs to. Principally, he argued that the liberal state is incapable of contributing to the national common good (or, in 2014, even to defend itself against indebtedness). Thus, he argued, the Hungarian political community has to be restructured around a nonliberal base. This base, though, was not the totalitarian base of the early twentieth century, but instead one that uniquely respected Christianity, allowing the regime to protect freedom and human rights. Orbán argued that the Hungarian nation shouldn’t be only a conglomeration of individuals, but a true community, where there is a connection between the life of the person, the life of the family, and the life of the nation.
With all this understood, we can now appreciate anew precisely what the prime minister is defending when he speaks of illiberal democracy. Only with all this clarified does he say:
in this sense, the new state, what we are building in Hungary, is an illiberal state, a nonliberal state. It does not deny the values of liberalism, like freedom—and I would cite others—but does not center state organization around this ideology. Instead it uses a specific, national approach.
Why has Orbán been misunderstood?
If the illiberal democracy Orbán defended in his initial speech is, as I have argued, not any threat to freedom or human rights, then why is it so widely perceived as a dangerous and oppressive form of politics? It cannot be merely that the terminology he used (namely, “illiberal state” and “nonliberal democracy”) was unfamiliar or threatening, for many progressive leaders have introduced new political terms in similar speeches. Additionally, it seems difficult to think that those who object to the speech read it carefully in good faith and became concerned that Orbán was failing to recognize the values of liberalism, since he explicitly speaks of the necessity of preserving these values, only arguing that liberalism cannot project these values in Hungary and that the nation will thus not make liberalism its core ideology.
My conviction is that there are three main reasons why Orbán’s illiberal democracy has become infamous, being seen as one of the biggest threats to humane governments the world over.
The first is that he was already infamous when he gave this speech. He just won his second term with his second supermajority some months before the speech. He had already clashed with the EU and global elites over the new Hungarian media law, the new electoral law, retiring old judges, and over the new constitution. So he already had a tarnished reputation in global liberal circles; but wasn’t yet particularly famous in international conservative ones.
The second is that liberalism, in its Lockean sense, is a core constituent of the American political order and American thinking, and America holds great sway over the public image of other nations. To put this point more simply, conservative leaders are consistently attacked in the press, but when they are defended by other conservatives their image is generally less tarnished. However, many American leaders who go by the title ‘conservative’ are in fact what would have traditionally been termed ‘liberal,’ and they are proud of that.
As I have previously explored the differences between American and European conservatism at some length, I will only say that American conservatism is, in many ways, a liberal viewpoint. At its core, liberalism is anthropologically optimistic, whereas conservatism is anthropologically pessimistic. The consequences are that liberalism is rationalistic and individualistic, while traditional conservatism is more communitarian—and community means traditions, its and its leaders authority, its culture, religion, etc.
Viktor Orbán is not an American politician. Hungarian ‘founding fathers’ were pagan tribe leaders, and two generations later the true founding father of the Hungarian state was a Catholic king, Saint Stephen. The political institutions in countries outside America may often today be framed after the liberal standard, but they were not founded in an American way. They were first premodern pagan tribes, then Christian premodern kingdoms, and then Christian liberal nation states, and only then did they morph into the modern secular states (to the extent that any given one has). Thus, Lockean liberalism is not a constituent part of their national identity.
This leads us to the third reason Orbán’s political philosophy is so odious to Western progressives. The most recent structure of European political institutions is clearly liberal. Because the memory of the two World Wars has loomed so large in European political thinking for decades, the universal remedy has been largely thought to be individualistic liberalism and a liberal understanding of human rights. This has meant not liberalism only in state structure, but as the central public belief system or ideology. Thus, questioning this system is seen as questioning the basis of the peace the West has largely enjoyed in recent decades.
Must democracy be liberal?
For many, it seems self-evident that democracy could be only ‘liberal,’ but this claim only serves to make serious consideration of political questions impossible, thus avoiding all debate. This claim of self-evidence is rather odd given what, it seems to me, is a cornerstone of the contemporary liberal world: the principle that the government should not privilege one point of view above any other, because there are no self-evident truths. When liberals began to champion this principle in past centuries, they were the challengers, but today they are in the dominant position and conservatives like Orbán are the challengers.
But there are other problems with the idea that democracy must be liberal in order to be deserving of its name. In order to discover these problems, it is helpful to ask ourselves what, precisely, we mean by the term ‘liberal democracy,’ as it can be understood in at least three ways.
Under the first understanding, ‘liberal democracy’ simply refers to a liberal political framework, namely representative parliamentary democracy with an emphasis on balancing power. But this is only a single form of democracy, a form that can be filled in with conservative content—and regularly is.
The second understanding of the term ‘liberal democracy’ is a state of affairs in which liberal ideology is implemented through a democratic system. This is obviously a problematic way of understanding the term, as it starkly determines the range of policy a nation can possibly put into place. For an example of this kind of thought, we need look no farther than Anna Donáth, ex-president of liberal leftist Momentum party in Hungary, who has suggested that contemporary progressive LGBT ideology is an inherent part of rule of law. The rule of law, an ancient political ideal, becomes nothing more than an ideological term that can be used as a cudgel. In Donáth’s view, then, if there is no same-sex marriage in a country, there can be no rule of law there. (It follows, then, that there was no such thing as the rule of law in the West before 2001. Interesting.)
Arch-liberal Friedrich von Hayek argued in The Constitution of Liberty that ‘liberal democracy’ can easily become a contradictory term. This is because democracy is a method of decision making (namely, decision by the people), but liberalism is not merely procedural or methodological. Instead, liberalism has a concrete goal: to ensure that Mill’s harm principle is enshrined at the center of law, thus implementing liberalism’s own atomistic vision of the human person and political life. If the people democratically reject liberal means, therefore liberalism contradicts democracy. Hayek choosed liberalism.
And there is a third meaning of liberal democracy, drawn from typologies of democracy, or ways that different scholars identify different types of democracy in their analytic systems. I mention two typologies here.
In the normative, hierarchical typology of Richard Dahl, liberal democracy is the ideal, but nobody can reach it, so the optimal version of democracy is polyarchy, where there are elected officials, free and equal elections, inclusive voting rights, freedom of speech and gathering, and real alternatives and information.
On the other side there is the descriptive typology of Notre Dame University from 2011, measuring real, existing democracies of the world. According to it, there are six types of democracy, which are equally valuable, and partly opposed to each other. They are: Schumpeterian elitist-minimalistic democracy; liberal (consensual, pluralistic) democracy; majoritarian democracy; participatory democracy; deliberative democracy, and egalitarian democracy. Now there are two which are greatly contradictory with each other: liberal (pluralistic, consensual) and majoritarian democracy. Liberal democracy stresses every kind of limit on power, ensures rights for many kinds of groups (as well as for the individual), and places great emphasis on consensus-making. Majoritarian democracy does not approach power in such a negative way: it says that the majority is sovereign, therefore the government elected by the majority should have wide space to maneuver. But majoritarian democracy is not inherently contradictory to ensuring rights for individuals and groups. Viktor Orbán’s illiberal democracy is identical to this typology’s majoritarian democracy.
So, depending on the context the term ‘liberal democracy’ can refer to a number of different, and conflicting, things. The crucial point I wish to stress, though, is that, in the Western context, more liberalism means less democracy, not more. For example, liberal ‘human rights’ actually limit democracy. But the fact is that we do not admit this; instead we view them as implementing ‘democratic values.’ This is a sign that the idea of democracy and ‘democratic values’ have become more of a cult than a political movement. We are forced to justify and legitimize things by arguing they are democratic, rather than because they are good.
It is also important to remember that political ideologies do not hold exclusive domain over particular values. As Michael Freeden reminds us, political ideologies that are porous naturally have a great overlap with each other. For example freedom is not the same for liberalism or conservatism; but is important for both. And values that are core concepts in one ideology can play supplementary roles in the other ideology. That’s why basic liberal values can be maintained in a conservative (illiberal) framework, as well.
What can illiberal democracy be?
Orbán’s ideas of nonliberal democracy and an illiberal state was, and continues to be, somewhat frightening for many people of goodwill on all sides of the political spectrum. But the controversy surrounding his concepts was deliberately created to disqualify him by ideological progressives acting in bad faith.
In both theory and practice, illiberal democracy is completely compatible with defense of property, human rights (understood in the light of the natural law), fair and free elections, representative democracy, the sharing of power, and the rule of law. Illiberal democracy is also able to protect free speech—something we may not be able to say of contemporary liberalism given the power held by illiberal woke leftism. Illiberal democracy is able to integrate important liberal values. Only the overarching theoretical framework of liberalism—its anthropology, its views regarding society, in short, its ideology—must be rejected.
But it’s best to simply ask Mr. Orbán himself about his intentions. When asked what he meant by “illiberal democracy” in March 2022, eight years after his speech, Orbán replied:
People like us lost the language wars in the early 1990s, and since then we’ve not only failed to find our bearings, but also our language. In the first third of the 20th century, European democrats clearly identified the common enemies to be fascism and communism. Thus the two otherwise competing democratic tendencies – liberal and conservative—joined forces against the common enemy: the fascists and the communists. We cast aside our intellectual differences and joined forces to fight totalitarian ideas. And in 1990 we won. The liberals woke up first, realizing that once the common opponent had been eliminated, the old competitive order would be restored: liberals on one side, conservative Christian democrats on the other. In order to gain a competitive advantage, they’ve created their doctrine: democracy can only be liberal. Since then the conservative side has been fighting a rearguard action, and its lost momentum has allowed the doctrine of liberal democracy to become the dominant view. Since then we’ve been trying to come up with a competitive counter-narrative: Trump said “America First,” and I talk about illiberalism; but really we’re just looking for positions from which we can competitively challenge the liberal doctrine.
When asked what’s wrong with liberal democracy, he added:
It’s a trick. Democracy is a standalone concept: the rule of the people. This concept cannot be appropriated ideologically. From democracy there can grow liberal administrations, conservative administrations, Christian democratic administrations— or, indeed, social democratic administrations. Earlier, democracy itself was never subjected to labeling by anyone, because democracy is the soil from which the governmental policies of different ideologies grow and then compete with one another. In the early 1990s, however, liberals realized that democracy itself had to be captured. The liberals concluded that the object was not to win the debate over who could democratically enact better policies, but to seize democracy itself. Now we need to say that not all democracies are liberal, and just because something isn’t liberal doesn’t mean that it can’t be a democracy. It’s difficult to assert this— although in the meantime the liberals have walked into a trap.
Illiberal democracy, as understood by Viktor Orbán, is much less ambitious and more prosaic than his critics portray it. It is simply having the vision of society, human beings, and the world from an ancient, nonliberal perspective and daring to implement it. It means a communitarian, personalist understanding of political community, in which liberal core values are important, but they are applied within—and limited by—a conservative framework. All of this is for the maintenance of the political community for the common good. As Joseph Ratzinger put it, liberal and democratic values are maintained by nondemocratic and nonliberal social institutions.