Illiberal democracy and conceptual clarity: Report from a debate

Ewa Atanassow, co-author of The Governance Report 2017, on debating the meaning of democracy.

This May 8 in Berlin - a date and place whose symbolism cannot be mistaken - the Hertie School of Governance launched the 2017 issue of The Governance Report. This year’s issue is devoted to the topic of democratic innovations. Launched in 2013, the report is an annual interdisciplinary effort to examine state-of-the-art governance.

In his opening remarks Helmut K. Anheier, President of the Hertie School and editor of the report, highlighted the need to care for democracy by elaborating innovative ways to address the challenges that threaten democratic principles worldwide. As has become clear in recent years among the most daunting of those challenges is the rising tide of populism. So it was no surprise that among the keynote speakers invited to comment on the report was Princeton Professor Jan-Werner Müller, whose recent work focuses on this phenomenon.[1]

In a compelling speech, Müller called for conceptual clarity as indispensable to resisting populist efforts to undermine liberal democratic values - efforts that, as he pointed out, have proved astonishingly innovative. Conceptual clarity, he urged, requires that we reserve the term "democracy" only for polities committed to the rule of law and a liberal system of checks and balances.

Müller claims that to speak of "illiberal" democracy, as has become common place in media and academic circles, or to qualify democracy in any other way (e.g., "people’s" democracy, "sovereign" democracy etc.) is to proliferate analytical and normative confusion. Worse still: not only conceptually problematic, this language is strategically weak and potentially self-defeating, as it allows anti-democratic forces to claim a democratic standing they do not merit.

In other words, for Müller, to extend the conceptual mantle of "democracy" to illiberal or autocratic regimes is to anoint the likes of Orbán, Kaczyński, Putin or Erdoğan. It amounts to legitimating what should be openly denounced, ceding political ground to authoritarian innovators, and furthering their efforts in the global battle for hearts and minds - a battle in which, once again, we are fatefully engaged.

In a recent post on Public Seminar, the New School’s public debate platform, and an in-depth essay referenced below, Jeffrey C. Isaac, Professor at Indiana University, Bloomington, offers a comprehensive response to Jan-Werner Müller. Endorsing both Müller’s call for conceptual clarity as paramount in defending liberal democratic values, and his personal commitment to these values, Isaac advances an alternative view of what clarity entails and how to achieve it.

As Isaac argues, the idea of "illiberal democracy" deserves to be taken seriously because it has had and continues to have real traction in the world. Without this idea, we cannot understand the history of modern democracy - a history of fratricidal wars and global contests over democracy’s meaning and value. Denying that there were and continue to be illiberal versions of democracy, indeed, that democracies can have illiberal aspirations, “makes it difficult to understand the ideological struggles of the 20th century. And it also makes it difficult to understand the popular, demotic source of the contemporary appeal of the Orbans and Trumps of our world.” (Isaac, 7).

Put bluntly, what Müller calls conceptual clarity is, for Isaac, a historical and empirical obfuscation. Choosing to ignore that democracy’s institutional and ethical meaning - its very definition - is the ground on which past political battles were fought and the stakes behind current political disagreements, impedes more than promotes liberal self-understanding.

Not only is the discourse of "illiberal democracy" historically justified and empirically accurate, for Isaac, it is also analytically useful: it helps advance social science by pointing to the plurality of democratic forms, and the difficulty of conclusively judging them. Citing a pioneering article by Philippe Schmitter and Terry Karl as well as subsequent comparative studies, Isaac shows that, just as in the sphere of political contestation, so too in social scientific analyses consensus is in short supply.[2] Not unlike party politicians, scholars disagree about how best to define democracy and whether one single definition is appropriate. “In short, regimes are shifting targets of analysis; their understanding requires a range of concepts, distinctions, and qualifications; and it is unwise, if not impossible, to stipulate, in a simple or essentialist fashion, what is or is not ‘a democracy.’” (Isaac, 10)

In making this point, Isaac endorses one of Müller’s main if implicit assumptions: because democracy cannot be conclusively defined, the key criterion for judging the discourse of “illiberal democracy” may well be a pragmatic-political one. Does this discourse advance the efforts to care for and defend liberal democracy? Or does it rather - as Müller contends - subvert such efforts by relativising democracy’s meaning, thus eroding the moral high-ground of its liberal proponents while exculpating anti-liberals?

From this strategic perspective too, Isaac judges “illiberal democracy” to be a useful concept. By pointing to the tensions between democracy and liberalism, it calls attention to liberal vulnerabilities and failures, and to the complicated ways in which liberal democracy itself “gives rise… to many of the very forces of illiberalism that contest it.” (12) By forcing us to take its proponents seriously as contestants in a democratic struggle, the notion of “illiberal democracy” encourages critical self-understanding and helps improve liberal democracy itself.

To Isaac’s points, which I find convincing, I would add another friendly objection to Jan-Werner Müller’s assertion.

As Isaac notes, contesting the meaning of democracy is here to stay, and attempts to put an end to it by conceptual fiat are unlikely to work. Not only is it inevitable that the character of democracy will continue to be disputed, as it long has been. Insofar as democracy is defined by contestation, questioning democracy’s meaning is also a democratic good. If contestation is democracy’s chief mode and its distinctive political virtue, to champion liberal democracy by removing from the zone of debate its central-most concept is inconsistent at best, and likely counterproductive.

Recognizing the democratic credentials of contemporary populists may seem self-defeating, for it cedes precious ground to formidable political opponents. Yet to maintain that there is only one meaning of democracy - ours - turns a blind eye precisely to the features of democracy that require most intense scrutiny and care, and abandons one of liberalism's most powerful tools and highest value: its commitment to the search for truth.

[1] Jan-Werner Müller, What is Populism?, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.

[2] Philippe C. Schmitter and Terry Lynn Karl, “What Democracy Is. . . And Is Not,” Journal of Democracy (Summer 1991). For my comment on this essay, see Atanassow E. (2015) “Rollback of Democracy? A Tocquevillean Perspective” Global Policy 6:Suppl.1


This commentary first appeared in the journal Global Policy on 31 July 2017.

Ewa Atanassow is Junior Professor of Political Thought at Bard College Berlin and co-author of The Governance Report 2017.