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The Illiberal Contagion

The Illiberal Contagion

We can only hope that it’s self-limiting.

Gabriel Schoenfeld
Democracy Against Liberalism: Its Rise and Fall
by Aviezer Tucker (Polity, 200 pp., $19.95)

Is some semblance of normalcy around the corner? As much as we would like to believe that our political life will return to a degree of health after Donald Trump is evicted from the White House on or before January 20, the odds are that it will not. It is not only the raging pandemic that stands in the way. and it is not only the tens of millions of Americans who voted for and remain in thrall to a pied piper. In Democracy Against Liberalism, a new book by Aviezer Tucker, we are once again jolted out of our America-centric worldview to understand that Donald Trump is in many ways not a freakish one-off. To the contrary, he is an exemplar of a populist illiberalism that has been gaining energy around the globe.

Tucker, a political theorist and an associate at Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, comes to the subject with a wide-angle lens. Born in Israel, having spent a good portion of his life in Prague, and now resident in the United States, he is well-positioned to draw comparisons across a “dazzlingly broad scope of countries of entirely different histories and political cultures” all on the illiberal spectrum—from Hungary to Poland to India and Brazil to Singapore, Venezuela, and Greece. Moreover, the erudite Tucker does not limit himself to the present. The ancient world, the Hapsburg and Soviet empires, and the totalitarianisms of the 20th century—all fall within his analytical ambit.

What does Tucker find?

He tells us that illiberal democracy, the subject of his book, is a “political order” in which “the decisions of the majority or of a decisive significant minority are not balanced or checked by liberal institutions. A representative majority,” it follows, “is not encumbered by tradition and law, and can suppress minorities unprotected by rights.”

In varying degrees, this brand of illiberalism has been the story of post-communist Eastern Europe, where democracy was transplanted without resistance but, thanks to preceding decades of totalitarian rule, no liberal institutions were in place to check political power. Although such institutions, including those of civil society, took root in the decades following the revolution of 1989, they remained far weaker than in the established liberal democracies and, thus, more vulnerable to populist assault. When the countries of Eastern Europe were hit by the shocks of the 2008 global recession, writes Tucker, “progress toward liberalism” was “halted, its growth stunted.” In Hungary, it was “drawn and quartered in the prime of life.”

Why did this happen?

Tucker locates the prime cause of the illiberal eruptions in Eastern Europe and worldwide in the Great Recession of 2008. In all the countries where illiberalism took hold over the following decade, two processes took place. First, the prolonged economic suffering “triggered archaic passions that led to authoritarianism, xenophobia, and scapegoating.” Second, elites scrambled to protect their economic and social status “at the expense of those lower down the slippery social pole,” which provoked “political mass populism of the lower-middle and middle-middle classes.”

In a chapter titled “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” Tucker is emphatic in contending that none of this was inevitable. Everywhere, he writes, there were historical contingencies: “Very small, even minute, differences in initial conditions could have led to entirely different political results.” Understanding these contingencies, he argues, is essential if we are to design institutions “to better withstand the kind of self-destructive pressures that economic recessions generate.”

In Hungary, the major contingent event was the European Union’s failure in 2010 to intercede, and America’s failure to exert pressure, when Viktor Orbán used his ruling party’s parliamentary supermajority to eviscerate the country’s fragile liberal institutions. As one of the poorest countries in the EU, with a population of only ten million, Hungary would have complied if Europe had intervened with decisive action—by, for example, “conditioning subsidies that have been bankrolling Hungary’s political patronage regime on adhering to European liberal norms.” In turn, such compliance would have prevented the imitation of Orbán that followed in Poland, Slovakia, and elsewhere. “Preempting the Hungarian contagion would have been cheap,” Tucker says. “But nobody understood what was at stake, and nobody cared.”

With Brexit in Great Britain, the populist wave “reached the Western core.” The outcome of the plebiscite, “the ultimate populist illiberal tool,” revealed that “even the oldest liberal democracy is vulnerable” to such currents. Yet Brexit, too, was avoidable, a matter of chance and choice. The “decision to hold a neo-illiberal democratic plebiscite that would bypass the ancient British institutions and norms” was a classic example of “gambler’s ruin” on the part of Prime Minister David Cameron, who “believed he had a sure thing, bet the farm on it, and lost everything.”

As for the ascension of Donald Trump to the pinnacle of America power, this was, argues Tucker, even more of a historical accident. “Many jointly sufficient and individually necessary conditions had to combine to generate the result:”

Had fewer people believed that Clinton would win without their votes, had the Green Party not run in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, had Clinton campaigned in the Midwest, had members of the Republican leadership come out publicly to call upon Republicans not to vote for Trump and either stay at home or vote for a third [party] candidate like the Libertarian Gary Johnson or for Clinton, had Stormy [Daniels] and Donald’s other special friends come out before the elections, had the Democrats elected a more electable candidate, had a few young voters bothered to leave home to vote, had the weather been different, and so on ad infinitum and ad nauseam it could have ended differently.

It turns out that Trump, in Tucker’s analysis, was a freakish one-off after all.


Tucker closes his book by looking forward at the future of populism and offering policy recommendations that could insulate countries against populist electoral revolts. His outlook is on the hopeful side. Populism, he observes, is by its very nature unstable: “Neo-illiberal politicians elected by populists must play a delicate game to survive. They must satisfy populist passions without self-destructing—for example, using incendiary rhetoric, while not acting on that rhetoric.” If they promise, for instance, “to derail international trade and block immigration, they have to maintain trade and some level of immigration to keep the economy from collapsing.” To take another example, they must “appear belligerent, while avoiding serious wars.” With the blowback from his incitement to insurrection, Trump may have proved Tucker’s point.

To diminish populism’s appeal, Tucker suggests, among other things, the establishment of a guaranteed universal basic income (UBI) as a “fear-preempting social program” that will quell economic anxieties. Though he is not unaware of the price tag and other pitfalls of a UBI, Tucker concludes that it “may well be cheaper than the costs of populism and neo-illiberalism.” He would also tinker with the internet so as to curtail anonymity. The trick, he writes, “is to strike a balance between maintaining freedom of speech and expression for whistleblowers, and even for extremists, and not allowing the disinformers and the mob to hide their identity in order to blur the reliability of what they write.” He would bolster civic education, which he contends would serve as a kind of “political inoculation” for those vulnerable to populism’s allure. And he would strive to eliminate barriers to social and geographic mobility, which “create a sense of entrapment and hopelessness that many victims of recessions feel when they cannot control their lives.”

That these proposals are easier said than done would not be a fair criticism of Tucker’s book; he fully acknowledges the costs and obstacles. But it is a fair criticism to note that Tucker is not always sure-footed when dealing with particulars. The Likud-supporting American billionaire media mogul is Sheldon Adelson, not Sheldon “Edelson.” It is accurate to describe National Review as an “ideological apologist for populist neo-illiberalism,” but it is ill-informed to claim the very same thing, as Tucker does, about the realism-oriented National Interest. It is counter-historical well past the point of plausibility to suggest that Republican leaders in 2016 could have called for the election of Hillary Clinton or Gary Johnson as a way to stop Donald Trump.

More centrally, but also annoying, is Tucker’s grand typology. It has three “discrete and continuous rather than binary political dimensions that stretch between opposing poles,” and its permutations combine to yield eight ideal regime types. Tucker calls this schema “clear, unambiguous, and above all, simple!” It is anything but. “Theorists,” he writes, “need to weed out conceptually inessential or historically accidental properties. Only necessary minimal properties that distinguish regime types should be left in the end.” Tucker himself, however, then goes on to concede that while the “extreme cases” of his typology “are “obvious,” the classification of “intermediate cases may be ambiguous.” Alas for the utility of his framework, the world today consists almost entirely of such ambiguous intermediate cases. After an introductory chapter laying out what he calls his “bikini” concepts—they “cover the bare minimum”—it is telling that Tucker scarcely returns to them.

Turning to substance, is it correct to hang the illiberal wave on the 2008 recession alone? Here in the United States, the agonies of the Iraq war, which go unmentioned by Tucker, certainly contributed to the populist reaction. Also, here and elsewhere in the world, what about the effects of globalization, automation, and the long-term slowdown in productivity? Surely these potent social solvents deserve exploration. Then there is the unresolved contradiction at the heart of Tucker’s argument: On the one hand, illiberal populism is said to spring from deep causes; on the other, it is said to be mostly contingent, so that things could easily have turned out differently. The two clashing propositions are never reconciled.

All told, however, and despite its shortcomings, Democracy Against Liberalism has its value. Tucker writes as a friend of liberal democracy, and for that alone he deserves applause. His book is also replete with fascinating comparisons across time and place, from ancient Greece to the present moment. It helps to know things, and Tucker clearly knows a lot about a lot of things. Democracy Against Liberalism requires forbearance for its flaws, but it has much to teach.

Gabriel Schoenfeld, a contributing editor of American Purpose, is a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center and an opinion columnist for USA Today.

Book ReviewsAuthoritarianismDemocracyPolitical PhilosophyUnited StatesEurope

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