Is There Illiberal Democracy? A Problem with no Semantic Solution

A specter is haunting Europe; the specter of illiberal democracy.
The project of instituting a new form of “illiberal democracy” in place of the supposedly outmoded form of liberal democracy is most closely linked to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has repeatedly announced his intentions. But the idea is commonly associated with a broader range of political leaders – Jaroslaw Kaczyński in Poland, Vladimir Putin in Russia, Raynep Erdogan in Turkey, among others- who have sought to institute illiberal measures and to justify them, at least in part, by appeal to a more authentic form of “democracy”. What are we to make of this phenomenon, and how ought we to respond to it? Indeed, is its very identification as “illiberal democracy” at all useful, or is it rather part of the very problem that many of its critiques wish to understand and combat? In a recent piece entitles “The Problem with the Illiberal Democracy”, Jan-Werner Muller argues that “to call what is being constructed in Poland “illiberal democracy” is deeply misleading – and in a way that undermines efforts to rein in would-be autocrats like Kaczyński and Orban. After all, it is not just liberalism that is under attack, but democracy itself”. Muller insists that to accept the dichotomy of “liberal democracy” vs. “illiberal democracy” is to give credence to the claims of Kaczyński and Orban to be authentic democrats who are troubled by excessive personal liberty and simply seek a less libertarian form of democracy.
In what follows I would like to outline a more careful approach to the topic and explain why I think it’s both analytically and normatively important to proceed in such a manner. I want to suggest that instead of discarding the idea of “illiberal democracy”, we ought to distinguish between at least three ways that this term needs to be understood: as a form of justificatory praxis that warrants understanding especially by those who oppose it; as a social scientific concept that registers a political aspiration but does not thereby offer an adequate conceptualization of the political consequences of this project; and as a normative commitment that ought to be criticized. And I want to suggest that only by fully grappling with these different uses can we take the full measure of the challenge that “illiberal democracy” presents to a more pluralistic liberal democracy that is worthy of our support, it is too easy to simply dismiss the rhetoric of “illiberal democracy” as a fraud, and doing so inhibits both proper understanding of the phenomenon and its appeal and proper normative critique.

The Conference is organized by Oana Băluță, Associate Professor, Faculty of Journalism and Communication Science, University of Bucharest, Winner of ICUB Young Researchers Grants 2016 Is incumbency a predictor of political support for women? Does incumbency reduce gender bias in candidate selection?

Photos from the event available below.

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James H. Rudy Professor, Department of Political Science, Indiana University, Bloomington.

Professor Isaac was an undergraduate at Queens College, CUNY, and from there went to Yale University, from which he received his Ph.D. in 1983. Since 1987 he has taught at Indiana University and lived in Bloomington. In 2006 he became the Book Review Editor of Perspectives on Politics, and in 2009 he was named Editor in Chief of the entire journal.

Professor Isaac’s research is in the area of political theory, broadly understood. He has published four books, edited two anthologies, and published over 75 articles and essays. He completed a new edition of the Communist Manifesto, which came out in Yale University Press’s Rethinking the Western Tradition series, with essays by Steven Lukes, Saskia Sassen, Vladimir Tismaneanu, Stephen Eric Bronner, and himself. He also co-edited America Through European Eyes (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2009) along with his colleague Aurelian Craiutu.

Much of Professor Isaac’s research is located in the space where political theory intersects with political science more generally. His book The Poverty of Progressivism (Rowman & Littlefield, 2003) is an interpretive essay on the decline of liberal progressive politics in the United States. Democracy in Dark Times (Cornell, 1998) offers an interpretation– influenced heavily by the writings of Hannah Arendt– of the fate of democratic impulses in the wake of the Eastern European revolutions of 1989. Arendt, Camus and Modern Rebellion (Yale, 1992) is a comparison of the writings of Hannah Arendt and Albert Camus, which seeks both to read these authors in light of their historical contexts and to underscore their contemporary relevance. In these books, Professor Isaac explores the possibilities and limits of radical democratic political agency in the contemporary world. Professor Isaac has written extensively on the political thought of Hannah Arendt, in the books noted above, and also in such periodicals as Political Theory, American Political Science Review, Social Research, Praxis International, and Tikkun. He has also written extensively on the political thought of anti-communist dissidence, in Social Research, East European Politics and Societies, Common Knowledge, and a number of anthologies; on the concept of power, and the philosophy of social science, central themes of his first book, Power and Marxist Theory: A Realist View (Cornell, 1987); and on the themes of democracy and pragmatism. (

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