🌊 Harnessing illiberalism’s analytical leverage

Some contemporary political developments take inspiration from the fascist experience. But analogies between modern anti-liberal reaction and earlier totalitarian ideologies tend to obscure more than enlighten. Instead, the concept of illiberalism offers a better way to make cross-national, ideational comparisons – especially transhistorical ones, writes Julian G. Waller

There is a serious, ongoing debate today about the backlash against liberalism and liberal democracy. Discussion, however, tends to oscillate wildly. Some locate the ideational contours of such opposition in extremist ideologies like fascism or ethnonationalism, while others characterise developments as a more prosaic, anti-establishment populism in a variety of flavours.

Luca Manucci recently sparked just such a debate in this blog piece on The Loop. He took the former approach, noting the connection between the fascist legacy and contemporary anti-liberal political agitation in Europe.

There is clearly merit to exploring symbolic references to historic fascism – especially those that crop up in current party politics. Indeed, we should certainly be aware of how the ideational toolkit of fascism and fascist-related traditions may interact with modern variants of anti-liberal sentiment. Yet relying on fascism itself as a comparator concept is difficult, given its deeply loaded nature as an ideological construct and historical experience.

In order to avoid conceptual stretching, we should consider eschewing frameworks that are easily subject to potential, pejorative misapplication. To that end, foregrounding the overarching concept of illiberalism is a more fruitful way to undertake comparative analysis across disparate ideational phenomena, both cross-nationally and in historical perspective.

Understanding illiberalism

Conceptualising illiberalism is hard, and it remains an active scholarly discussion. My research takes cues from Marlene Laruelle’s new project on illiberalism at George Washington University, as well as Jasper Theodore Kauth and Desmond King's recent assessment. I define illiberalism as:

a strain of political culture that opposes philosophical liberalism, chafes against counter-hierarchical political institutions, and promotes a variety of collective, majoritarian, national-level, and culturally integrative approaches to contemporary political society

Elites and Institutions in the Russian Thermidor, Julian Waller, June 2021

This conceptualisation allows for the inclusion of ideology-specific referents, such as fascism, ethnonationalism, national-conservatism, social conservatism, and variants of populism (per researcher inclination). Yet it also avoids over-specification and misleading historical analogies.

This approach has obvious drawbacks. It is an umbrella concept that includes disparate ideational elements. The presence of such elements in any country case or ideological background will inevitably be open to interpretation.

Yet this broadness is also a strength, because many studies struggle to assign specific terminology without extensive caveats. These lead to characterisations that often amount to no more than a partial family resemblance. The specificities of particular ideologies, political-institutional goals, and historical experiences, however, remain insinuated or explicitly assigned.

Illiberalism as a guiding framework

Taking illiberalism as a guiding framework instead allows us to work at a higher level of abstraction. It also removes strong regime-type requirements or party-organisational features particular to certain historical ideologies. This has the further benefit of making transhistorical analogies both less ambitious and more useful.

It is analytically unhelpful, from a comparative politics standpoint, to say that Hungary’s Fidesz or Spain’s Vox are 'fascist'. The same applies to stretched comparisons between, say, elements of the post-Brexit Tory Party or Putin’s regime in Russia. Instead, we could note a shared, diffuse illiberalism that needs to be filled in with ideational context and country specifics. This is more in line with how such comparisons are actually deployed in current scholarship.

Making fruitful historical comparisons

Scholars reach for comparisons to fascism for perfectly understandable reasons. After all, the interwar period was a time of ideational innovation and dynamism in a decidedly anti-liberal direction. Leveraging analogies to this period through the conceptual lens of illiberalism provides insights into modern politics, while removing contentious definitional debates.

Indeed, the suitability of a broader concept is particularly welcome when exploring transhistorical comparisons. The most well-used ideologies of prior eras, such as fascism or communism, often included very specific totalitarian political-institutional commitments. They also relied heavily on mass-movement organisational forms largely absent today. Illiberalism's wider conceptual net and relative institutional agnosticism may be a considerable conceptual boon for scholars.

The interwar period saw considerable elite and popular backlash against liberalism

The interwar comparison remains relevant today, perhaps more so than in many decades. Interwar-era ideational ferment provides us with an important reference point to a similar age of massive elite and popular backlash against liberalism.

Political legitimacy crises in liberal democracies ushered in many different ideational responses. These ranged from political collapse and the capture of the state by the extremist Nazi regime in Germany and distinct, national-conservative authoritarian regimes emerging in East-Central Europe and Iberia, to a statist-populist turn in the United States and liberal resilience in Britain and – for a time – France.

Throughout the period, the most motivated and successful subnational movements and organisations all shared a similar illiberal bent. This illiberalism was often most vibrant when critiquing the perceived failures of laissez-faire economics, party-fragmented parliamentary institutions, and elite cartelisation. This mirrors many discontents of our own era, although we should apply such analogies with nuance.

Applying historical insights to modern realities

There are similarities in the ways we can mine the illiberal interwar political ecosystem for relevant insights today. Some veins of illiberalism can be compared straightforwardly. We find (and found then) ideational illiberalism in the primacy of national and ethnic affiliation as a marker of political identity – especially in party politics. Illiberal civil society groups based on religious or ethnonationalist identification similarly have provided bastions for contesting the ‘liberal script’ that was, until recently, hegemonic in elite discourse.

An approach based on the concept of illiberalism allows us to apply historical insights to contemporary realities

More tentatively, we saw institutional illiberalism in experiments with corporatism and explicitly hierarchical forms of political rule. This was apparent in both democracies and authoritarian regimes across the region. Such experiments partially mirror questions about ‘illiberal democracy’ or the steady autocratisation of states along the European periphery today.

All these comparisons have merit for scholarly fields like populism and nationalism, party politics, and even comparative political regimes. An approach based on the concept of illiberalism allows us to apply historical insights to contemporary realities, without ideological over-specification and undermining the methodological utility of cross-national comparative analysis.

The dynamic political and social developments of the last thirty years remain a top concern for social scientists. To that end, our concepts should always be targeted towards analytic usefulness, rather than reifying old ideological divisions.

Fourth in a Loop thread on the spread of illiberalism – the 'illiberal wave' 🌊 sweeping world politics

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Julian G. Waller
Julian G. Waller
Associate Research Analyst, CNA Corporation and Professorial Lecturer in Political Science, George Washington University

Julian's research focuses on the institutional politics of authoritarian regimes, dynamics of illiberalism in Europe, Eurasia, and North America, and the substantive politics of the post-Soviet space.

He also works on Russian political-military decision-making.


He tweets @JulianWaller

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