Why I Dislike the Word Illiberal

Was the Tea Party movement a manifestation of “illiberal democracy” or “undemocratic liberalism”? (2009/public domain)

I want to expand a bit on my recent comments on why I dislike the word “illiberal” and the phrase “illiberal democracy,” terms that appear to be nearly ubiquitous in contemporary popular political discourse.

In part, this is because I’m delighted to discover that there is an existing debate over this that I was entirely ignorant of. It seems that there is a cadre of political scientists—at least according to Wikipedia—who question the use of a phrase that seems simply to mean “undemocratic democracy.”

I was also happy to see the primacy of “illiberal democracy” challenged by Yascha Mounk, and perhaps further so in this review of Mounk’s book by Shadi Hamid. I think Mounk leans too hard on liberal civic nationalism as a panacea—see why in my previous post!—but I like his contribution of the phrase “undemocratic liberalism” into the discourse.

The problem with the phrase “illiberal democracy” seems to me to exist on two levels: the definitional and the rhetorical. On the definitional level, the problem is simple: no one knows what “illiberal” means. Too often it is understood, as noted above, as synonymous with undemocratic. And no doubt this speaks to our confusion over the word liberalism in America. Half the time, when people say liberal democracy, they seem to be saying “democracy democracy.”

Consider this example. If a government were to restrict voting rights, say by requiring voter ids at the polls, or by only opening polls when most working people cannot take time off, is that illiberal? It seems to me that voting rights are positive rights, rights to allow and encourage civic republicanism, and are thus civil rights rather than civil liberties. A government that denies these rights is undoubtedly being undemocratic, but not necessarily illiberal.

On the rhetorical level, “illiberal democracy” is a concept that functions itself as a kind of ideograph; it bundles together certain assumptions about liberalism. In its implicit casting of illiberal democracy as a pejorative, it sets up liberal as a norm and a good. Illiberal becomes not just that which is bad, but that which requires our attention. In other words, it sets priorities. It tells us to focus on that which is “illiberal,” rather than the question of democracy.

Consider another example. Imagine the most liberal society, that in which individual actors, presumed to be rational and free-thinking, endowed by free-will, are afforded the “opportunity” and “choice” to amass as much concentrated wealth that they possibly can, and then, this being the most liberal of societies, are permitted to spend that money, freely and unregulated. They are free to pursue their own self-interests, and they can contribute to political campaigns and causes, buy influence and shape mass cultural discourse.

This most liberal society would most certainly be an undemocratic society. Maybe this is Mounk’s “undemocratic liberalism.” And maybe it’s the system we’re living in right now.

This is not to argue that certain kinds of illiberalism aren’t bad. But these tend to be multi-faceted by their very nature, I think. For example, the Trump administration’s campaign against LGBT people seeks to dismantle both their liberties and their positive rights.

In any case, I think questioning the primacy of “liberal/illiberal democracy” as a framing device for how we think about political systems helps us think about our own democratic norms. I remember about five years ago, I was pretty well convinced that democracy was a shitty form of government. This was during the rise of the Tea Party, and maybe it was the first time in my postgrad career that I had seriously concerned the problem with—and I hate to deploy this word lazily—populism. In the last couple of years, I’ve become more convinced that democracy is a good thing, but I’m also more convinced than ever that it hasn’t ever really existed in the United States. For true democracy requires far more than liberalism to work; it requires a strong social-material foundation on which people can participate meaningfully in the system.