Trying to qualify democratic systems with “liberal” or other labels has two negative consequences. First, this conflates the original concept of individual liberty embedded in a democratic structure with specific policy prescriptions—whether laissez faire European liberalism or leftist American liberalism. And second, it allows various authoritarian forces to claim that they are also democrats who are simply qualifying their own version of democracy.
In its original 19th century incarnation, liberalism was synonymous with democracy and stood in stark opposition to all forms of tyranny. In the emerging democratic systems, the will of the electorate was represented through competing parties in regular elections within a constitutional and legal framework. But the times have changed since the flowering of Western democracies, and liberalism has assumed various connotations.
In the United States in particular, the term liberalism is associated with the leftist wing of the Democratic Party. It is linked with a more distributive economy, a broad welfare system and support for diverse individual lifestyles, and is berated by many conservatives. In Europe, liberalism has become closely associated with globalization, monetarism and the curtailment of national sovereignty to international institutions, and is thereby attacked by both leftists and rightists.
As a result of these definitional developments, anti-liberals have become proud of the term “illiberal democracy” or even “anti-liberal democracy.” Indeed, the more they are attacked as “illiberal” the more emboldened they become, claiming that they espouse a credible democratic alternative. Some non-liberals prefer greater specificity and define themselves as “conservative democrats” or “patriotic democrats” in stark juxtaposition to “liberal democrats.”
Most conservatives and patriots are genuine democrats and respect national constitutions, governmental accountability, and the rule of law. However, some populist leaders aiming to restrict political competition adorn the masks of conservatism and patriotism. In an ongoing struggle over democratic norms, EU institutions have charged the current Hungarian and Polish governments with various restrictive measures such as interfering in the justice system and obstructing the mass media. But instead of underscoring that weakening the system of checks and balances is undemocratic, many officials and analysts assert that it is “illiberal,” thus paradoxically giving credence to such actions.
Leftist campaigns for “political correctness” have also contributed to strengthening the anti-democratic populists. Radical populists seek to inflame public outrage against what they depict as restrictions on free expression, in which the leftist or liberal establishment limits the public vocabulary and stifles dissent. However, condemnations of “political correctness” also provide camouflage for racists and xenophobes to claim that their messages of prejudice and hate should not be publicly outlawed by allegedly anti-democratic liberalism.
An additional source of confusion and conflict, especially in the United States, is the “progressive” label that the harder left of the Democrat Party has adopted. Not only is such a self-definition explicitly dismissive of other political positions—presumably in juxtaposition to everyone else who is “regressive”—but it is also tainted in its use by communists throughout the Cold War. The “progressive” label serves to divide society and helps the radical rightist populists to portray themselves as traditionalists and conservatives.
Any qualification of the term “democracy” also allows outright autocrats to pose as democrats. The most pertinent example is Vladimir Putin’s “managed democracy,” a term developed soon after Putin assumed power in 2000 to disguise his reversal of Russia’s incipient democratic developments. Moscow has a long tradition of appropriating and perverting Western concepts. One of the most flagrant examples was the notion of a “people’s democracy”—a term applied to the satellite European states of the Soviet bloc. The system of rule in these countries was neither democratic nor determined by “the people” but by a “progressive” communist elite installed by the Kremlin.
The current threat to European democracy comes primarily from populist radicals, particularly from the hard right. Unfortunately, several EU officials naively assist them by claiming that the EU should enhance its role as the guardian of the “liberal world order.” They inadvertently expose themselves to charges of imposing a particular worldview and “globalist” policy prescriptions on the nations of Europe rather than defending the fundamentals of democracy.
Putin has regularly jumped into the liberal and globalist narrative by either attacking Washington for its avowed attempts to create a “unipolar world” or berating Brussels for imposing an unpopular liberalism. Moscow’s message is that “liberal democracies” are only one variant of democracy, and that Russia is defending the alternatives against American or European globalization. Hence, a restricted political opposition, a compliant parliament, subservient regional governments, a controlled media and police repression are presented as Russia’s “sovereign democracy.”
At a time of ideological confusion and terminological simplification, any definitional qualifications of democracy must be treated with skepticism and suspicion. Above all, analysts must avoid being pulled into a semantic quagmire where almost any system can pose as a democracy and gain some validity despite its disdain of basic democratic principles.
Europe's Edge is an online journal covering crucial topics in the transatlantic policy debate. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.