Understanding the values, ideas, and norms held by the illiberal drivers of the current trend of global de-democratization is crucial for strengthening the resilience of liberal democracy. A comprehensive review suggests that the emergence of a coherent ideology of autocratization is unlikely, but there is an intensification of ideological framing, structured around illiberal conservatism, paternalist populism and civilizationist ethnocentrism.
March 3, 2023
“Look what they are doing to their own people. It is all about the destruction of the family, of cultural and national identity, perversion and abuse of children, including pedophilia, all of which are declared normal in their life. They are forcing the priests to bless same-sex marriages. Bless their hearts, let them do as they please.”
February 21, 2023
The political developments of the last decade put key components of liberal democracy – checks and balances, pluralism and individual rights – in peril across the globe. Most explanations of the recent trend of de-democratization focus on economic inequality, the negative side effects of globalization, political polarization and the transformation of communication technologies. The values, ideas and norms of the promoters of the change receive, comparatively speaking, less attention. If we want to strengthen the resilience of the liberal democratic order (and even if we just want to understand the political transformation of our political environment) we need to create a map of illiberal actors, identifying both their differences and their fundamental commonalities.
This is not an easy task. As argued in a recent AUTHLIB Working Paper, the autocratizers have diverse social and ideological background. Sometimes the challenge to liberal democracy comes from educated and well-to-do voters. The supporters of Alberto Fujimori, Jair Bolsonaro or Rodrigo Duterte, for example, endorsed illiberal governing because of their fear of the poor and because of their law-and-order concerns. In contrast, left-wing autocratizers like Evo Morales, Hugo Chavez, Nicolás Maduro or Rafael Correa championed the interests of the underprivileged against oligarchic groups. Many of the illiberal leaders, from Narendra Modi to Viktor Orbán and to Donald Trump, speak on behalf of middle classes and against those factions of the social elites that care more about marginalized groups and cultural minorities than about the median citizen.
While there are examples of ‘silent autocratization’ (consider Indonesia where Joko Widodo gradually restricted civil liberties without much fanfare), there is also a growing body of illiberal ideological discourse. This discourse rarely challenges democratic rules and principles directly. In some instances, the autocratizers (and the would-be autocratizers, like some radical actors in Western Europe) even campaign using freedom-of-speech arguments against imposed political correctness. They embrace the values of pluralism and tolerance in a very specific sense of these words: by objecting to the progressive regulations of private and public affairs and by advocating for the coexistence of different regimes in a multipolar world.
This partial borrowing from liberal discourse is combined with a profoundly anti-universalistic orientation, typically with a reference to local cultural traditions that prioritize collective safety over individual freedom, society and family above the individual and consensus and social harmony over contention. This discourse is often combined with the veneration of a paternalistic, economically active and, in terms of values, non-neutral state. The ‘utopianism’ of universalism is countered by the ‘realism’ of the defence of the majority population. As the examples of Benjamin Netanyahu or Narendra Modi show, this means, in practice, ethnoreligious intolerance and attacks against independent media, civil society and judiciary.
21st century autocratizers benefit from the backlash against the robust victories of liberal values across the preceding decades. Within the rhetoric of cultural resistance, the fear of replacement by another racial or ethnic group was fused with the fear of being eclipsed by liberated sexual minorities. The growing visibility of the latter category does not only represent a challenge to traditional lifestyles and religious convictions; it also evokes the fear of demographic extinction through what arch-conservatives call the ‘culture of death’. As a result, autocratization often happens under the banner of traditionalism, an orientation whose clearest expression is to be found in the ‘anti-gender’ discourse. The Florida governor Ron DeSantis, the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and the Russian President Vladimir Putin may not agree on many issues, but they all see an eminent danger in LGBTQ activism.
The type of conservatism these actors offer sees contemporary democracy as overly influenced by liberal values such as internationalism, multiculturalism and human rights. In Europe, this illiberal conservatism is typically coupled with civilizationist ethnocentrism, an ideological construct within which agency is attributed to sovereign ethno-cultural units bound together by a civilizationist solidarity, meaning in the European context the defence of white Christian culture against both globalization and Islam. The culturalist rejections of liberal democracy often have religious roots and/or adopt a religious format, typically manifesting in an opposition to ‘extreme secularism’ of liberal democracy. But the explicit alliance of illiberal forces and churches is sometimes prevented by the pro-democratic stance of the clergy. Consider the example of Jair Bolsonaro and Rodrigo Duterte, who were forced to publicly confront a pro-democracy Catholic Church.
Without any doubt, populism is an important layer of the autocratizing ideological discourse in many corners of the world. But populism is combined with autocratzation mostly through its specific variety, paternalist populism. This ideological module combines the superiority of the popular will with the educational role of the state and calls for the support for model citizens, a social group whose boundaries are determined in line with the values and interests of the ruling elite. The ‘winning formula’ in most cases is the appeal to the homogeneously conceived people against the corrupt foreign or foreign-hearted elites, with the promise that the state sides with the virtuous citizens and takes a leadership role in the fight against foreign interest groups. The state is envisioned as a force capable of redressing the arbitrariness of the markets and of resisting the imperialistic intervention of great powers and of international financial institutions. The narrowing of the channels of accountability is justified with a reference to the need for curbing the pernicious influence of privileged elites, for resisting external powers and, in general, for swift action.
“Autocracies do not need to legitimize other autocracies, they only need to legitimise their own rule, and therefore the emergence of a coherent ideology of autocratization is unlikely.”
Autocracies do not need to legitimize other autocracies, they only need to legitimise their own rule, and therefore the emergence of a coherent ideology of autocratization is unlikely. But there is an intensification of ideological framing, structured around right-wing cultural values and a people- and state-centered discourse that resembles earlier left-wing movements. Illiberal conservatism, paternalist populism and civilizationist ethnocentrism appear as three central pillars of this discourse.
Zsolt Enyedi is professor at the Central European University and senior researcher at the CEU Democracy Institute. He leads the “AUTHLIB: Neo-authoritarianisms in Europe and the Liberal Democratic Response” project.
The AUTHLIB consortium does not take collective positions. Publications only represent the views of their individual authors.