In the ever-changing landscape of contemporary politics, the lines between dictatorship and democracy have become increasingly blurred, giving rise to intriguing concepts in academic literature like illiberal democracy, electoral authoritarianism, and hybrid regimes. The concepts of illiberalism, populism, and authoritarianism are widely, and often interchangeably, used to describe regimes, ideologies, and attitudes arising in these contexts. Setting out to explore the challenges liberal democracies face today, the AUTHLIB team attempts to reconcile this conceptual cacophony and explores the distinct characteristics, overlaps, and differences of these three phenomena to support our understanding of political processes unfolding in Europe.
Members of the AUTHLIB Team, summarized by Marta Żerkowska-Balas
August 31, 2023
A fascinating aspect of contemporary politics is the increasingly blurred line between dictatorship and democracy, a phenomenon captured in the emergence of various terms coined to define the ongoing process of democratic backsliding. Terms describing this gray zone, such as illiberal democracy (Zakaria, 1997), electoral authoritarianism (Schedler, 2015), defective democracy (Merkel, 2004; Bogaards, 2009), hybrid regime (Diamond, 2002; Erdmann, 2011), competitive authoritarianism (Levitsky & Way, 2002), or neo-authoritarianism (Wodak, 2019)—to name just a few—are mushrooming in the literature.
Three concepts stand out from this diverse landscape of political theory: illiberalism, populism, and authoritarianism, which, in principle, can be applied to regimes, ideas, ideologies, attitudes, and behavior. But where to draw the boundaries between these often interchangeably used concepts? Let us start with brief definitions of each.
There are two distinct perspectives on illiberalism—the key concept AUTHLIB explores.
The first perspective is linked to the term illiberal democracy, which describes political regimes with free elections but without liberal institutions and practices. Despite its oxymoronic nature—as the very essence of democracy rests on a degree of liberalism, especially the provision of rights and equality—it encapsulates the erosion of constitutionalism and the rule of law.
Illiberalism as a regime type defines democracies that are not outright nondemocratic but exhibit a gradual backsliding from democratic principles. A vital aspect of this transformation is undermining constitutionalism and the rule of law without explicitly dismantling democratic institutions. Institutions, instead, undergo a process of erosion and emptying. Their meaning is gradually lost, leaving behind shells of what they once were. It is a subtle but profound shift, marking the rise of a new kind of political system: the illiberal regime.
The second perspective presents illiberalism as an ideology, or at least a connected set of political ideas. In this sense, it is a denial not of democracy but of the liberal values underpinning modern democracies, such as human rights, justice, equality, the rule of law, multiculturalism, tolerance, and the ideas of negative liberty, open society, overlapping consensus, or sovereign virtue. The alternative ideological vision offered by illiberalism opposes individualism and universalism, rejects the notions of individual rights and global unity, and thereby becomes a threat to the tenets of liberal democracy.
When it comes to authoritarianism, scholars approach it at different levels of analysis. At the macro level, the literature focuses on various forms of authoritarian regimes, characterized by their limitation of political pluralism, suppression of opposition, and emotional or identification-based legitimation of their rule, as well as the processes that give rise to these regimes. At the micro level, the focus shifts to individual authoritarian attitudes and values. This line of inquiry, originally stemming from Theodor Adorno’s authoritarian personality theory, has gradually been switching focus from psychological motivations to observable attitudes and behaviors instead.
Populism can also be understood in several ways: as a discourse, a style or strategy, an ideology, or an attitude. As a discourse, it is characterized by anti-elitism, articulated in the name of the sovereign people. It often portrays the world as a dualistic struggle, identifying the good with a unified will of the people and the evil with a conspiring elite. From the perspective of style or strategy, populism is considered a folkloric political style with leaders acting improperly and breaking taboos to build a connection with specific segments of the electorate. Populism can be also seen as a thin-centered ideology that dichotomizes society into two antagonistic groups: the pure people versus the corrupt elite. Due to its thin-centeredness, it can be coupled with other ideologies, earning it a reputation for its “chameleonic” nature. Lastly, a growing body of research focuses on measuring populist attitudes among citizens. These attitudes are considered alternatives to pluralist and elitist attitudes, and they are operationalized based on the ideational definitions outlined above.
Illiberalism, populism, and authoritarianism share not only the political stage, but also key characteristics. Understanding how these concepts are alike and how they differ is crucial to making sense of their intricate roles and the ways they shape our world today. This understanding also plays an important role when it comes to empirical studies.
Let us begin this comparison with illiberalism and populism. These two concepts share aspects such as a Manichean outlook, a majoritarian conception of democracy, aversion to traditional representative institutions, and resistance to globalization. However, populism specifically emphasizes anti-elitism, anti-establishment sentiments, and people-centrism, which are not central to illiberalism—or authoritarianism.
When it comes to illiberalism and authoritarianism, both challenge liberal democracy, independent media, nongovernmental organizations, academic freedom, judicial independence, and accountability, and both often involve some form of cronyism, clientelism, and the defense of “law and order.” While both challenge liberal democracy and independent institutions, they differ in their approach and intensity. Illiberal democracies do not directly subject citizens to violent oppression but do constrain the democratic process and undermine the rule of law. Conversely, authoritarian regimes, which lack an equivalent democratic variant, are known for their use of violence and repression, more formal undemocratic structures, and greater manipulation of elections. Another key distinction lies in their practices. Illiberalism tends to involve informal and diffuse practices, while authoritarian regimes establish more formal and rigid undemocratic structures and manipulate elections more extensively.
So, how do we distinguish illiberalism from populism and authoritarianism?
Illiberalism’s unique features include the erosion of freedoms, censure of individualism, and politics of exclusion that defend cultural homogeneity at the expense of minority rights. These aspects, while also present in authoritarianism and populism, are more pronounced in illiberalism. Additionally, illiberalism’s revolt against the liberal world order and globalization often manifests itself as Euroscepticism in Europe and economic protectionism.
While this overview provides some rudimentary understanding by consolidating a conceptual cacophony present in the literature, a more detailed empirical examination of these phenomena is required to address a series of the emerging concerns related, for example, to the mutual relation of illiberalism, populism, and authoritarianism, to the various aspects of their implementation, and to their potential to become the “only game in town.” Therefore, close scrutiny of elite narratives, of their diffusion, and of the attitudinal responses they trigger in society is needed to see where illiberalism is situated on the democracy-autocracy axis, to what extent it is driven by a coherent set of values, and whether it is transient or here to stay, eventually consolidating into a distinct regime type.
This article, written by Marta Żerkowska-Balas, is a short summary of an extensive overview of the existing literature on illiberalism, populism, and authoritarianism that was prepared under AUTHLIB’s work package titled “Identifying the challenges to liberal democracy,” led by the SWPS University team.
Marta Żerkowska-Balas is an assistant professor of the Institute of Social Sciences at the SWPS University.
The AUTHLIB consortium does not take collective positions. Publications only represent the views of their individual authors.