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Among the challengers to liberal democracy in Europe, we can count populists, autocrats, and the increasingly often mentioned illiberals. But who are they and what is illiberalism? How does it relate to populism? Can illiberals be democrats at all? What are the policy implications of having illiberal politicians, especially of the radical right, in power in the EU?


In this interview, recorded as a collaboration between The Review of Democracy and the research consortium “AUTHLIB – Neo-authoritarianisms in Europe and the liberal democratic response“, Professor Cas Mudde answers these questions posed by Zsuzsanna Végh, visiting fellow at The German Marshall Fund of the United States. Cas Mudde is a professor of international affairs and a distinguished research professor at the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia. His academic research agenda centres around the question how liberal democracies can defend themselves against political challenges without undermining their core values. He has published widely on uncivil society, democratization, Euroskepticism, extremism, and the practices of political parties, especially those of far right and populist inclinations.


The interview covers various issues at the intersection of academic and policy research on populism, illiberalism, democracy, and the radical right. It discusses whether the growing body of literature on illiberalism addresses something fundamentally new on the global political agenda, how this literature relates to academic research on populism, and if illiberalism and democracy are reconcilable against the backdrop of a global trend of autocratization. Furthermore, the conversation sets out to understand how the recent election outcomes in Slovakia and Poland fit into the aforementioned trend and also predict what is in store for European democracies in the near future as illiberal actors of the radical right are readying themselves for the next European parliamentary elections in June 2024.

The interview was conducted in October 2023 in cooperation with Bálint Mikola, post-doctoral research fellow at the CEU Democracy Institute.


Zsuzsanna Vegh: After nearly two decades of what we refer to as the populist Zeitgeist, it seems that scholars have recently turned their attention towards studying illiberalism or illiberal democracy. How do you interpret this new scholarly trend? Does it capture something that you think is qualitatively new and different? Do you consider this concept of illiberalism analytically useful? What do you make of this new line of research in terms of conceptual coherence?

Cas Mudde: I think that to a certain extent, it is a logical evolution from the fact that populism has become more relevant. In Europe and North America – Latin America being a little bit different – populist parties and radical right parties were rarely in power or close to power at the beginning of the study of populism and the closely overlapping category of the radical right. We mostly looked at what they did, why they were successful, or why t would become successful. Now we see that populism, broadly defined, has been in power in many countries for quite some time, and as a consequence, we are now increasingly looking its effects on politics. I believe that this partly explains the move towards illiberalism and particularly towards illiberal democracy. Secondly, in a much more implicit way, I believe populism has become much less important to many of the so-called populist actors due to the simple reason that many of them have come to power or have been embraced by so-called mainstream parties. Consequently, populism makes much less sense: populism is great when everyone hates you, but if much of the establishment treats you as any other party, it is no longer particularly useful.

I also believe that a lot of the literature on European populism has traditionally come out of party scholarship. From a theoretical point of view, a lot of the literature on populism originated from democracy studies, and in Latin America, a lot of the literature was closely related to the democratization literature. Populism literature has therefore gravitated towards questions of democracy, rather than electoral behavior or party systems. In my own work, there is a significant difference between my initial writings on radical right parties, which were just party literature and barely ever touched upon questions of liberal democracy; and my work on populism, which has focused on the relationship to democracy from the start. The illiberalism literature is more in line with the literature of democratization. It is also more empirical than theoretical literature.

All that said, I have questions about the terminology. I see the term ‘illiberalism’ as an attempt to grasp a broad range of phenomena that are not perfectly captured by other terms. Populism covers a significant part of them, but not everything. Similarly, classic authoritarianism is also too narrow. However, illiberalism, by contrast, is too broad in a strictly conceptual terminological way. Furthermore, I believe illiberalism tries to provide an ideological term for capturing liberal democracy as a system, in an ideology. I believe it is mostly used to essentially describe forces that are against liberal democracy, without saying that they are illiberal democracies, which is an awkward term. Conceptually though, this is not exactly the same as illiberalism.

Zsuzsanna Vegh: Could you elaborate on the relationship between illiberalism and democracy? Can illiberals under any circumstances be democrats? And if we can speak about the spread of illiberalism – not in scholarly terms, but as empirical practice – what does this mean to democracy and liberal democracy in the world today?

Cas Mudde: The term illiberalism comes out of a concern for liberal democracy in particular. The idea of liberal democracy separates liberalism and democracy. In this limited, narrow definition of democracy, it is seen as a system of popular sovereignty and majority rule. Liberal democracy combines popular sovereignty and majority rule with a set of principles as well as institutions, including free media, independent judiciary, pluralism, rule of law and minority rights. One the one hand, some argue that democracy cannot exist without being a liberal democracy. One the other hand, a lot of people argue that there is an inherent tension between the two fundamentally different traditions and ideological ideas of liberalism and of democracy: liberalism is concerned with autonomous individuals and their rights, whereas democracy is concerned with majority rule.

I think illiberalism tries to capture everyone who is against liberal democracy. However, some disagree with liberal democracy because they are anti-liberal but pro-democratic, there are others who do so because they are anti-democratic but liberal, and then also some people who are against both liberalism and democracy. Illiberalism captures all three, which are very different. Anti-democrats are generally referred to as authoritarians, which is a problematic terminology as well. As a result of adopting a terminology wherein liberalism and democracy are separated and a minimal definition of democracy is used, illiberals can be seen as democratic because illiberals believe in popular sovereignty and majority rule despite disagreeing with minority rights or separation of powers.

How does it work in practice? To a certain extent, I agree that democracy cannot really function if it is not liberal. To have popular sovereignty and majority rule in any meaningful way, you need what Robert Dahl referred to as free and fair elections. To have free and fair elections, you need an incredibly comprehensive system, which includes far more elements than we generally accept. At the same time, I believe it is important to separate people who are fundamentally against democracy and those who pretend to be for democracy but have issues with liberal democracy. In the end, both will certainly attack liberal democracy and subvert democracy per se, but they will do so in very different ways. I always mention the example of comparing Adolf Hitler to Viktor Orban- Hitler destroyed democracy without any apologies because fundamentally, his system was based on the idea of having a leader who is smarter, better, and morally superior to the will of the people. Whereas Orban – similarly to the Republicans in the U.S. – undermines democracy in the name of saving it. While I do not equate Orban and Hitler, in the end, both might destroy democracy, but the processes they employ, and their politics and their justifications will be fundamentally different. This why I think it is important to separate people who are purely against democracy and people who pretend to support democracy but are illiberal.


The interview continues.
Read the entire conversation on RevDem’s website.
Listen to the interview on Spotify.
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