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June 27, 2023

Illiberalism, populism, (neo-)authoritarianism… What do these neighboring concepts mean? Where does one end and where does another start? Over the first six months of the project, the AUTHLIB consortium took a plunge into Identifying the challenges to liberal democracy and developing precise definitions and ontologies for the above terms, with Radosław Markowski’s team at SWPS University taking the lead. These efforts laid the conceptual groundwork for all data collection to come. With this theoretical work coming to an end in March, the spring brought the start of five new work packages: Ideological configurations, Survey-based data collection and experiments, Rhetorical and emotional appeals, Illiberalism in power, and International co-operation and diffusion. With that, an even fuller program ensued for the entire consortium during the spring.

Jan Rovny’s team at Sciences Po CEE, leading the work package exploring the Ideological configurations of alternatives competing with liberal democracy, made a flying start already in February when Twitter unexpectedly announced that within a week’s time free access to its API for researchers would be over. The Sciences Po team scrambled to do in a week what it planned to do later over months: harvest the Twitter data that was intended to be one of the sources of the text analysis work under the work package.

The team—consisting of Jean-Philippe Cointet, Elena Cossu, Caterina Froio, Romain Lachat, and Jan Rovny—as well as colleagues from across the consortium met to discuss the most appropriate ways to start building a first version of a machine-learning model to process the data gathered. The model will be used to decide whether a political text is illiberal, populist,  or authoritarian, and thus what type of ideological challenge it represents. Using the Manifesto Project Database, Elena started by creating a dataset with texts mentioning, for example, immigration, multiculturalism or constitutionalism in a negative manner. She is now building and training a model so that it could find other instances of such texts. She will later do the same kind of work using social media data, parliamentary speeches, and answers to surveys.

In April, the SWPS team—including Adam Bodnar, Ben Stanley, Radosław Markowski, Piotr Zagórski, and Marta Żerkowska-Balas—moved its focus to Survey-based data collection and experiments, its second work package. The work package seeks to analyze individual-level data from existing and new surveys to discern the profiles of people who are most inclined to support specific illiberal configurations. It will attempt to identify the propensities of people to back various authoritarian forces and different illiberal ideologies. Over the past three months, the team has thoroughly reviewed existing research questionnaires and publications on illiberalism, populism, and authoritarianism, as well as the primary empirical research findings on these three concepts. These steps were taken to map the existing operationalizations of the phenomena and their correlates, to find relevant questions for AUTHLIB’s own surveys, and to identify gaps in related empirical studies. To facilitate the process, the SWPS team held several online meetings with colleagues from Sciences Po, the University of Vienna, and the Central European University. Based on these investigations, SWPS found that, while authoritarianism and populism are well researched (and well operationalized) phenomena, there is a gap in empirical studies on illiberalism. As a next step, the team will settle on the most suitable operationalization of authoritarianism, illiberalism, and populism, including the choice of the elements that constitute these phenomena and the best inquiry wording to capture these concepts.

Meanwhile, in Oxford, work began on the Rhetorical and emotional appeals of illiberal parties by analyzing the emotional rhetoric embedded in political texts. The Oxford team of Stephen Whitefield, Spyros Kosmidis, Giuliano Formisano, and Daniil Romanov is collecting a variety of textual sources, including from Twitter, Facebook, and the Comparative Manifesto Project, with Giuliano taking the lead on data collection and running the analysis. While the research is still at an early stage, and it has so far covered only France, Italy, and the United Kingdom, some distinct differences in the emotional intensity and direction in the texts of parties is already detectable. Moreover, using measures from a 2019 expert survey conducted by Robert Rohrschneider and Stephen Whitefield that classifies parties as constitutional liberals, populists, and authoritarians, emotional differences among such parties that are core to the project’s main interests are also apparent. Much more work needs to be done of course to determine whether it is a party’s stance on democracy that affects its rhetoric or other factors such as incumbency, economic context, or the point in the electoral cycle. However, the initial steps appear promising. The Oxford team is now expanding its analysis of emotions by applying the NRC Word-Emotion Association Lexicon (EmoLex) to the collected texts.

The team exploring Illiberalism in power at the Central European University, led by Zsolt Enyedi, had a foundational meeting in late March in which lead researchers responsible for each of the policy areas—education and culture (Péter Radó, Bálint Mikola, William Edmonds), social policy (Dorottya Szikra, Éva Fodor), foreign policy (Mehmet Yavuz, Erin Jenne), citizenship and immigration policy (Elena Basheshka, Dimitry Kochenov), gender policy (Éva Fodor) and governmental communication (Bálint Mikola)—agreed on the main analytical framework, definitions, and research questions of the work package. The decisions were based on a literature review and discussion starter document compiled by the CEU team. In successive stages, lead researchers were matched with a team of BA and MA students interested in working on their respective policy areas, and a joint meeting was held on May 5 to finalize the composition of teams. This was followed up by individual group discussions during which teams agreed on their policy area-specific research questions and workflow. The teams are now working on the analysis of different policy documents (speeches, parliamentary debates, and legislative texts) to see what kind of policies illiberal political actors in Europe advocate. The final paper summarizing their findings will be published this fall.

Last but not least, the team at Scuola Normale Superiore has started a thorough literature review and desk analysis of relevant cases for the exploration of illiberal actors’ International co-operation and diffusion of their political frames, networks, and strategies. The SNS team—consisting of Manuela Caiani, Karlo Kralj, and Hans-Jörg Trenz—has been undertaking keyword searches of news items in order to trace instances of transnationalization of different illiberal actors, including far-right parties, far-right movements, and anti-gender, anti-immigrant, and pandemic-related illiberal actors. In the next months, it will conduct semi-structured interviews with two groups: experts on various types of illiberal actors (including watchdog organizations) and illiberal actors themselves. It will also compile a list of key actors necessary for implementing a social network analysis in the later stages of the project.


While these work packages will certainly keep us busy throughout the coming quarter, we are also excited to meet at the upcoming ECPR General Conference in September in Prague where AUTHLIB is going to be represented with two individual panels: Contesting democracy: Varieties of illiberalism (September 4, Monday) and Reimagining Europe: How populist right-wing actors construct an illiberal Europe (September 8, Friday).

We hope to see many of you there!


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