Are conservatives in Europe and the United States still prepared to defend liberal democracy? There are ominous signs that their willingness to do is waning.
Gaining clarity about this question requires a brief discussion of terminology. As is the case with the term “liberal education,” the “liberal” in “liberal democracy” means something very different from the political stance of the Democratic Party or of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
The noun “democracy” means “the rule of the people.” This can take the form of what James Madison in Federalist 10 calls a “pure democracy,” which Madison defines as “a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person.” But this ancient version of democracy has never been seriously advocated for large, modern societies.
The modern type of regime found in the United States and other leading contemporary democracies accepts the sovereignty of the majority, but not its right to rule in an unconstrained or unrestricted fashion. Various protections of the rights of individuals and minorities constrain majority rule, and these protections are grounded in a constitution and the rule of law. It is this species of limited government that has long been called liberal democracy.
Though in modern practice, majority rule and the protection of individual rights often go together, they haven’t always. This point was underlined back in 1997 by Fareed Zakaria, in a much-cited essay in Foreign Affairs entitled, “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy.” Zakaria’s central point was that many of the new democracies that had emerged since the 1970s had successfully instituted free elections but were not performing very well in terms of guaranteeing individual rights and the rule of law. By calling such regimes “illiberal democracies,” Zakaria was indicting them for their failure to become liberal (or constitutional) democracies. His implicit argument was that liberalism so understood was of greater value than popular government—indeed, that the latter was choice-worthy only if accompanied by the former. This generally reflected the high esteem in which individual rights and the rule of law were held at the time. Except among Islamists, very few voices were raised in opposition to liberalism.
Today, of course, the situation is very different. Liberalism is widely attacked and authoritarianism is surging. One clear indicator of this shift is the fact that “illiberal democracy” has been transformed in some quarters from a term of denigration to a proudly proclaimed slogan. This has largely been the work of the man visiting with President Trump in Washington today, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who as early as 2014 began embracing “illiberal” as a positive description.
More recently, Orbán boldly stated that “there is an alternative to liberal democracy: it is called Christian democracy.” And Christian democracy, he added, “is not liberal. Liberal democracy is liberal, while Christian democracy is not liberal; it is, if you like, illiberal.”
Orbán cites three key issues to explain how his brand of “Christian democracy” differs from its liberal counterpart: 1) Liberal democracy favors multiculturalism, while Christian democracy “gives priority to Christian culture”; 2) liberal democracy is pro-immigration, while Christian democracy is anti-immigration; and 3) liberal democracy “sides with adaptable family models” rather than with the Christian family model. With respect to each of these three issues, Orbán emphatically states that the Christian view can be categorized as an “illiberal concept.”
By drawing this sharp distinction between liberal and Christian democracy, Orban wishes to make support for liberal democracy seem inseparable from support for multiculturalism, open immigration policies, and nontraditional family structures such as gay marriage. Historically, of course, this has not typically been the case. Until the last half-century, many liberal democracies tended to be fairly strict in terms of family law. Apart from settler countries such as the United States, Canada, and Australia, liberal democracies were not very welcoming toward immigrants, and the countries that did accept large-scale immigration tended to favor assimilationist rather than multicultural approaches to integrating newcomers. Even today, substantial numbers, if not majorities, of voters oppose multiculturalism, gay marriage, and lax immigration policies but continue to support liberal democracy.
In the past, it was generally accepted that citizens may take opposing views on these matters without ceasing to be good liberal democrats, and that such controversial issues should be decided on the basis of a free and open political process. Orbán, however, is attempting to convince Europeans who find themselves on the conservative side of these social issues that they are being ill-treated and disrespected in contemporary liberal democracies. He seeks to conflate the term “liberal” as it is used in the phrase “liberal democracy” with the term “liberal” as it is used to characterize the left side of the political spectrum in the United States. He thereby suggests that liberal democracy is an instrument of progressivism that conservatives have no interest in supporting. Orbán’s effort to blur these two different meanings of liberalism gains some purchase from the fact that the “Brussels elites” he is fond of attacking tend to hold views close to those of U.S. progressives on social and cultural issues.
The attempt to identify liberal democracy as such with U.S.-style progressivism also fits neatly with Orbán’s efforts to demonize the Hungarian American billionaire George Soros. Soros is a strong supporter of liberal democracy but also is committed to a range of policies favored by American progressives. Thus, at the same time that his philanthropies make generous grants to organizations working on behalf of freedom and against authoritarianism around the world, he is also among the largest funders of the U.S. Democratic Party and of nongovernmental organizations on the Left.
Since last year, Orbán has been heralding the May 2019 elections to the European Parliament as an opportunity to “wave good-bye . . . to liberal democracy and the liberal nondemocratic system that has been built on its foundations.” Elections for the European Parliament have typically been boring affairs, with voters more focused on national than on Europe-wide concerns. This year, however, Orbán and his fellow populists have sought to make these elections a referendum on immigration and related issues.
Orbán’s Fidesz Party has long been a member of the center-right European People’s Party (EPP), the largest grouping in the European Parliament. Because of its illiberal policies, including its efforts to infringe upon the independence of the judiciary and the media, the Fidesz government has stirred huge controversy within the ranks of the EPP. When the European Parliament voted last year to cite Hungary for a “serious breach” of EU values, the majority of EPP parliamentarians voted against their Hungarian colleagues. And in March, the EPP overwhelmingly voted to suspend (though not expel) Fidesz from membership in the group.
Orbán has been unwilling thus far to give up Fidesz’s membership in the EPP, which he hopes to drive in a more illiberal direction. But he has also indicated that, depending on how events unfold, he may be prepared to abandon the EPP to join a new grouping of populist and anti-immigrant parties. The outcome of the parliamentary elections is likely to determine which course he decides to take.
The rise of Orbán-style populism and illiberalism has divided the Right not only in Europe but around the world. Those who support Fidesz and Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s ruling Law and Justice party in Poland tend to be driven by the policy preferences and the common enemies that they share with these parties and thus to downplay their authoritarian tendencies. But some conservative intellectuals go further—they essentially endorse Orbán’s view that liberal democracy is the enemy of conservatism.
Two recent books that have been well-received by many conservatives illustrate this drift: Why Liberalism Failed, by Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen; and The Virtue of Nationalism, by Israeli political theorist Yoram Hazony. Both these books are hostile not just to contemporary American-style liberalism but to liberal democracy as such. They not only attack “classical liberals” like F.A. Hayek and the work of the American Founders, but are especially dedicated to refuting the philosopher at the fountainhead of the liberal tradition, John Locke.
In writing about the “failure” of liberalism, Deneen makes it clear that his target is the liberal democratic principles on which the United States was founded. He calls contemporary progressivism and conservatism two sides of “the same counterfeit coin.” For his part, Hazony explicitly criticizes those conservatives who have risen “in defense of liberal democracy” and have viewed its preservation and strengthening as “the historic task of American conservatism.” He emphatically opposes those who “see conservatism as . . . the ‘classical’ and most authentic form of liberalism.”
Today most conservatives in Europe and the United States undoubtedly still prefer liberal democracy to any other form of regime, but it would be rash to assume that this preference is fixed in stone. Not only are prominent political leaders like Orbán trying to turn conservatives against liberal democracy—so are well-respected intellectuals on the Right. There is likely to be a continuing struggle on the Right over this fundamental issue, and its outcome may well be decisive for the future both of conservatism and of liberal democracy.
This post is drawn from a longer essay published in the January 2019 issue of the Journal of Democracy under the title, “Illiberal Democracy and the Struggle on the Right.”