This piece is part of the discussion generated by Jeffrey C. Isaac’s piece, Illiberal Democracy

Jeffrey Isaac wants us to take seriously “illiberal democracy” both as an idea and as a political reality at the beginning of the twenty-first century. It is indeed important to understand the challenges posed by political leaders and intellectuals who consciously employ the language of democracy to justify the erection of what at the very least have to be called regimes with authoritarian characteristics. But there are also particular traps to avoid in such efforts at understanding. I shall focus on three.

First, Isaac assumes that “illiberal democracy” is an “idea,” even a “general idea,” or, for that matter, a distinct “political project.” This is far from obvious. Exhibit A for the current discussion, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, has never used the phrase, as far as I can tell. It is true, of course, that he has spent years vociferously attacking liberalism and, in 2015, triumphantly declared the era of “liberal blah-blah” in Europe to be over (in 2016 he would gloat that Trump’s victory marked a decisive win for “reality” over liberal illusions). But none of this has ever amounted to anything like a theory, despite the fact that in many of his speeches Orbán presents himself as a political leader-cum-political scientist who makes sense of global developments for his people. None of the regime’s ideologues have followed up with anything more systematic either, beyond superficial claims that liberal universalism needs to be rejected in the name of national particularism and traditional values of fatherland, family, and work.

It is telling that Isaac himself traces the idea not to theorists actually associated with the supposed new illiberal democracies, but to a Western policy intellectual: Fareed Zakaria. From the beginning until our day, the discourse of illiberal democracy has been one largely internal to the West, and, as in Zakaria’s original formulation, it has involved a curious slippage: one starts with worries about unrestrained majoritarianism (which one can obviously disagree about – but these concerns are not always a symptom of the kind of liberal elitism with which Zakaria has been charged as a result of his volume The Future of Freedom in particular); but then one ends up with the certainty that very large numbers of citizens in “illiberal democracies” deeply desire illiberal measures and the oppression of minorities in particular. This slippage is also evident in Isaac’s text: he simply takes it for granted that the supposed justifications of “illiberal democracy” find “resonance” among the respective populations; he often goes so far as to assert that “many millions of citizens are apparently eager to imbibe” what he calls “the potent, if perhaps toxic, ideological brew” of illiberal democracy (which makes it sound as if the weak-willed masses are simply addicted to a new political drug).

How exactly do we know all this? To be sure, Orbán, Modi, Erdoğan, etc. remain, broadly speaking, popular (though one always has to factor in that in countries with radically reduced media pluralism and intimidated civil societies, assessments of “popularity” have limited meaning). And, to be sure, all the leaders have successfully employed extreme nationalism and, in particular, portrayed, the “liberal West” as a threat to the integrity of the nation (this is also the gist of the theory of “sovereign democracy” which Isaac sees as an example of “illiberal democracy” — despite the fact that it says little about domestic political institutions). Why these “simulations of sovereignty,” as Arjun Appadurai put it, are so central for these regimes is an important question. But we cannot conclude that “illiberal democracy” is becoming a genuinely popular idea around the world. Many Hungarians voted for Orbán in 2010 because of the economic crisis and the scandals of the post-communist governments, not because they were eager to taste a toxic brew; many Poles opted for Jarosław Kaczyński’s Law and Justice Party in 2015 not because it offered large doses of the toxic brew, but because they were tired of the long reign of the Christian Democrats.

Isaac reminds us that liberalism and democracy are not the same thing. I agree (for a recent sophisticated attempt to think non-liberal democracy, see Josiah Ober’s work). And I agree that the meaning of democracy has been contested throughout history. But it does not follow that the concept of democracy has to be conceded to anyone who somehow engages in such contestation. Isaac himself in the end seems to agree with this when he writes that some of the contemporary regimes at issue might be just “a dictatorship with a democratic veneer.” It does indeed still matter — here I agree with Isaac as well — that even then understanding the particulars of the veneer is worth an extended effort; the only thing is that understanding is not equivalent to having to admit that in some sense the supposed illiberal democrats are democrats, after all.

My suggestion for how conceptually to come to terms with the kinds of regimes at issue is twofold: first, the relevant leaders ground their legitimacy in the claim that they and only they represent “the people,” or, as such populists often put it, “the real people.” It follows from this anti-pluralist claim that an opposition is not truly legitimate. It also follows that any criticism by independent institutions — whether courts or free media — can be dismissed in the name of democracy (after all, who elected judges and journalists?). It, finally, also follows that the winning party can effectively take possession of what should be a non-partisan state apparatus “in the name of the people;” after all, only Fidesz, Erdoğan, etc. represent the people, and, rightfully, the state should be the people’s. So both the official justifications and the institutional changes we observe in these regimes have an inner logic; but I believe that logic is best understood as populism — in the sense of a claim to a moral monopoly of representing the people – as opposed to “illiberal democracy.”

As Isaac rightly underlines, it is an open question where exactly to locate these regimes on a spectrum from democracy to outright authoritarianism. The difficulty here has partly to do with the fact that the regimes themselves are learning to game democracy indices or, at the least, sow as much confusion as possible: witness, for instance, the increasing role of GNGO’s and election observers of dubious status. They have also learnt, wherever possible, to avoid outright repression and limit, rather than completely abolish, pluralism (in that sense they resemble the semi-pluralist regimes, such as Horthy’s, of the interwar period). Therefore I find it plausible in many cases — Hungary and Poland, for instance — to use “damaged democracy’ as an analytical concept. This designation also makes it clear that specific political actors consciously destroyed parts of democracy — unlike with the conceptual alternatives such as “democratic decay” which suggest quasi-natural processes. But it also acknowledges that democracy has not completely disappeared.

The final trap to avoid has to do with the emergence of a new kind of “whataboutism” along the lines of observers effectively saying: “yes, these new illiberal democracies are pretty bad, but what about the ravages of neoliberalism in our democracies?” The rising levels of inequality across the West are a real problem for democracy — but it does not follow that the supposed “illiberal democracies” should be understood as a response to this problem. True, the likes of Orbán have loudly criticized “liberal economics,” arguing, for instance, that, in the internal market of the EU, the game is in fact rigged to benefit West European multinationals. But the reality of what in Hungary is today touted as “unorthodox economics” will look strangely familiar to critics of neoliberalism: a flat tax that has enormously benefited the wealthy; the EU’s highest value-added-tax; public works programs that in effect creates a new kind of feudalism. This kind of moralization of the economy (using it to discipline citizens and also to solidify political power) is clearly not an alternative to neoliberalism; if anything, it is a variant of the actually existing neoliberalism in parts of Europe and North America. We should blame ourselves for many things. But there is no simple story here about injustices in democracies as the cause and illiberal democracies as the effect.