🌊 Understanding the illiberal challenge in Europe

To understand the illiberal challenge to liberal democracy, write Gianfranco Baldini and Hugo Canihac, we need to consider three dimensions: how illiberalism emerged as a challenge in and from liberal societies, how populists implement illiberal practices, and how liberal institutions respond to the challenge raised by illiberals

Over the last two decades, a great deal of scholarship has attempted to apprehend the 'chamaeleonic' populist phenomenon by exploring its relationship with democracy. Scholars define it either as a threat to democracy or, to the contrary, as an element of democratic rejuvenation. However, these debates often leave unattended an equally pressing issue. How is populism related to the other building block of contemporary democracies: political liberalism?

A rapidly growing literature generally assumes that there is a tension between populist movements and political liberalism. This tense relation has found expression in the concept of 'illiberalism', as popularised by Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Assaults against institutions and values at the heart of political liberalism – the rule of law, separation of powers, judicial independence, minority rights, pluralism and toleration – have become a hallmark of populist movements across Europe (and beyond). It is thus fundamental to understand the nature of the contemporary challenge to liberal democracies, and how those democracies are addressing it.

Assaults against institutions and values at the heart of political liberalism have become a hallmark of populist movements across Europe

Building on our Section at the 2023 ECPR General Conference in Prague, we propose a novel perspective on the illiberal challenge.

Populism and the illiberal challenge in Europe

In a widely cited article published in 2004, Cas Mudde initiated an influential reflection on the ‘populist Zeitgeist’. Twenty years on, and after many populist parties (especially, though not exclusively, on the radical right) have entered government across Europe, contemporary liberal democracies are facing an illiberal challenge that overlaps with, but is not identical to, the populist challenge. The latter relates to democratic institutions, norms or practices. The former is concerned specifically with political liberalism, whether constitutional safeguards, judicial independence, basic freedoms or toleration.

Clearly, populists are especially eager to reject some elements of political liberalism. And yet, not all populism is concerned with attacking every aspect of liberalism – as the liberal rhetoric of minorities’ rights mobilised by several populists in Northern Europe to attack migration policies clearly shows. Conversely, not all attacks against liberalism emanate from populist movements. Indeed, illiberal practices are also widespread in otherwise liberal settings. In contrast with Latin America, in Europe non-radical-right populists are less dangerous for the functioning of liberal democracy. Conflating ‘populism’ and ‘illiberalism’ thus results in more confusion.

To face this problem, we conceptualise the distinct illiberal challenge along three interrelated dimensions. First, it is a challenge stemming from historically liberal societies. Second, it is a challenge to well established liberal institutions. Finally, it is a challenge for liberals because they have to respond to illiberal contestations.

Populism and the foundations of illiberalism

The first dimension focuses on illiberalism as a challenge that has emerged in and from liberal societies. It looks at the foundations on which current illiberalism has built its success. Many accounts of illiberalism's recent surge tend to focus on overarching causes, including neoliberalism, unresponsive institutions, and relative frustration. This fosters a deep-seated opposition to liberalism that populists can mobilise readily in the name of a ‘true’, restored democracy. But these rather mechanistic explanations overlook how these different causes play out in practice. And it fails to consider their differentiated effects when it comes to challenging liberalism.

Moving away from grand narratives, we must undertake empirical analysis of the emergence of contemporary illiberalism – analysis that focuses on illiberalism's grassroots conditions. Thus, it is crucial we focus on the different mechanisms that explain concretely the rise of illiberalism.

Illiberal movements, particularly in Eastern Europe, harness the power of folk memory. They also focus on the ideological construction of illiberalism and individual attitudes

Across Europe, research shows the importance of memory and its uses in the success of illiberal movements. This is true especially, but not only, in the East. Other key elements include the ideological construction of illiberalism and individual attitudes. Taken together, these aspects are crucial in explaining, for instance, the varying agendas towards minority rights in different parts of Europe.

Liberal institutions and policies in populist hands

The second dimension analyses populists’ illiberal practices in otherwise liberal settings. It explores how populist leaders (try to) implement the ‘illiberal playbook’, once they have secured power, thus transforming liberal institutions and policies.

When populist leaders secure power, they manipulate institutions such as political parties or citizenship, to transform their meaning and practice

Here, the focus is on how illiberal leaders manipulate institutions typical of modern liberal polities, such as political parties or citizenship, to transform their meaning and practice. Another crucial area of investigation is how illiberal leaders target liberal public policies, such as those fostering gender equality or welfare provisions, to implement their ideological preferences.

Ultimately, this investigation will help refine the articulation of ‘ideological’ and of ‘disruptive’ illiberalism proposed by Jasper Theodor Kauth and Desmond King. It will explore how the former can transform into the latter, or fail to do so. In the ideological case, illiberalism unfolds at a rhetorical level; in the disruptive case, by contrast, it converts into actual policies.

Liberal responses to illiberal challenges

The third dimension investigates how liberal institutions respond to the challenge raised by illiberals. In particular, it is interested in the dilemma liberal institutions face: it might be appealing for liberals, too, to defend liberalism through illiberal means. Responses can range from strict containment (cordon sanitaire) to partial adoption of illiberal discourses and policy proposals. However, all these strategies run the double risk of missing their target while exposing liberals to the accusation of themselves resorting to illiberal practices. Thus, these strategies contribute, ultimately, to the erosion of liberalism.

Of course, this speaks to the classical question of ‘militant democracy’. This is currently very relevant in the German debate, but elsewhere, too. Analysing the answers to this dilemma deepens our knowledge of the various strategies deployed by liberals in resisting populists’ illiberalism. It also offers insights into the broader issue of the future of liberalism.

Only by combining these three dimensions can we better understand the nature of the most important challenge Europe faces today.

No.30 in a thread on 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.

Contributing Authors

photograph of Gianfranco Baldini Gianfranco Baldini Associate Professor, Department of Political and Social Sciences, University of Bologna More by this author
photograph of Hugo Canihac Hugo Canihac Associate Professor of Political Science, Sciences Po Strasbourg, University of Strasbourg More by this author

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