Inside Story

Is illiberalism the force of the future?

Four recent books provide partial answers. But are they asking the right question?

Klaus Neumann 20 April 2020 4579 words

Meeting of minds: India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi with US president Donald Trump in the Rose Garden of the White House in June 2017. Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

The Far Right Today
By Cas Mudde | Polity Press | $31.95 | 215 pages

Cultural Backlash: Trump, Brexit, and Authoritarian Populism
By Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart | Cambridge University Press | $39.95 | 554 pages

Counterrevolution: The Global Rise of the Far Right
By Walden Bello | Fernwood Publishing | $39.99 | 185 pages

Aspects of the New Right-Wing Extremism
By Theodor W. Adorno | Translated by Wieland Hoban | Polity Press | $20.95 | 100 pages

R.E.M.’s 1987 song, “It’s the End of the World as We Know It,” made a sudden return to the charts last month. The title phrase would probably have trended regardless: in just six weeks, the claim that the coronavirus pandemic will bring about lasting change has become a cliché. And among the dire predictions for a post-virus future, two have stood out: that the world will be less global, and that countries will typically be less democratic.

In the New York Times, columnist Bret Stephens imagined what people in 2025 would make of today’s crisis. The year 2020 would be remembered for the rise of authoritarianism, he thought: “The pandemic provided a ready-made excuse for democratic governments around the world to obstruct opposition parties, ban public assemblies, suppress voting, quarantine cities, close borders, limit trade, strong-arm businesses, impose travel restrictions and censor hostile media outlets in the name of combating ‘false information.’”

Early evidence from around the world gives some support to Stephens’s view. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán has sidelined parliament indefinitely and is ruling by decree. In the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte told the police to shoot people who violate the curfew, and his track record in government suggests he meant it and the police will be only too happy to oblige. In Israel, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not only capitalised on his country’s fear by postponing his own trial, writes Chemi Shalev in Haaretz, but has also “opened Israel’s door to a totalitarian state by deploying the Shin Bet’s formidable surveillance apparatus on Israeli citizens, with no external or parliamentary oversight.” Orbán, Duterte and Netanyahu all seem to have got away with entrenching their positions and silencing dissent. Elsewhere, too, measures that do little to halt the spread of the virus but demonstrate the state’s capacity and willingness to restrict the liberties of some of its citizens — the internment of potential carriers of the virus in a far-flung immigration detention centre, for instance — have met with applause.

Even governments and leaders in countries that have shown few signs of supporting illiberal politicians have suspended constitutionally enshrined freedoms without meeting much resistance. Governments have prohibited church services and football matches, banned demonstrations, declared states of emergency, and imposed curfews and travel restrictions without attracting an outcry. Does this suggest a growing preparedness to submit to authoritarian rule?

Predictions that the coronavirus pandemic will further strengthen authoritarian regimes and erode liberal democracy are also supported by fifteen or so years of evidence of a trend towards authoritarianism and a rise in right-wing populism. In its annual review of human rights in Europe, published last week, Amnesty International notes how “values were changing across Europe,” with the rule of law, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly increasingly under threat in several countries. The report draws attention to the deterioration of human rights in countries such as Hungary, Poland, Turkey, Romania and Serbia, and is also critical of France, where “the authorities disproportionately restricted the right to freedom of peaceful assembly,” and Germany, where a majority of states “introduced far-reaching new police powers, including extensive surveillance measures.”

According to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s most recent Democracy Index, democratic practices have been in decline for several years. Each year, the EIU uses five categories of data — electoral process and pluralism; the functioning of government; political participation; political culture; and civil liberties — to calculate a score for each of 167 countries. Last year’s report recorded the lowest average global score since the index was first produced in 2006.

The US-based (and US government–funded) think tank Freedom House found that 2019 was the fourteenth consecutive year of decline in global freedom. According to its most recent Freedom in the World report, “The gap between setbacks and gains widened compared with 2018, as individuals in sixty-four countries experienced deterioration in their political rights and civil liberties while those in just thirty-seven experienced improvements.”

The methodologies used by Freedom House and the EIU differ, as do some of their country-by-country results, but their overall findings are remarkably similar. The most recent Freedom House and EIU surveys both put Norway at the top of their charts (with Sweden and Finland joint first in Freedom House’s ranking, and Iceland and Sweden coming second and third in the EIU’s), and countries notorious for human rights violations, such as North Korea, Syria and Turkmenistan, at the bottom.

Election outcomes have also been used as evidence of the decline of liberal democracy, and they do show far-right parties increasing their share of the vote. According to the 2019 Timbro Authoritarian Populism Index, populist and extremist parties captured around 10 per cent of the vote in thirty-three European countries in 1993, but that figure has doubled since then. Today, more people are living in countries with authoritarian, autocratic or right-wing populist leaders than twenty — or even ten — years ago. Think of Narendra Modi in India, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Donald Trump in the United States.

In several European countries, respectable centre-right or centre-left parties have invited parties that used to be considered unfit for government to join them in coalition agreements. Norway’s Fremskrittspartiet (Progress Party), for example, deemed too extremist just ten years ago, was part of the country’s ruling coalition from 2013 until January this year, when it withdrew in protest at the repatriation from Syria of a Norwegian woman suspected of having supported Islamic State. In Finland, the right-wing populist Finns Party was part of a governing coalition led by Juha Sipilä of the conservative Centre Party from 2015 until 2017. In a recent interview with the German magazine Spiegel, the country’s current prime minister, Sanna Marin of the Social Democrats, who heads a centre-left government, didn’t categorically rule out a future deal with the Finns Party.

To judge whether the current pandemic is likely to hasten the end of liberal democracy and accelerate the rise of populism and authoritarianism, we need to know more about why populist leaders and autocratic regimes have been comparatively successful in recent years. If we knew which factors have contributed to their appeal, we could make a more informed prediction about the likely effects of the coronavirus crisis. It would also be useful to know more about the similarities and differences between, say, Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, or between Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party and Orbán’s Fidesz. Finally, we need to better understand why a country such as Norway was awarded a perfect score for the strength of its liberal democracy despite the fact that the data was collected when the country was governed by a coalition that included the Fremskrittspartiet.

In search for answers to these questions, I turned to four books about populism and/or the far right published in the past twelve months.

Cas Mudde is a Dutch political scientist at the University of Georgia. He has written half a dozen books about populism, racism and right-wing extremism, the latest of which, The Far Right Today, is a very readable introduction to what he calls the “fourth wave of the postwar far right.”

According to Mudde, this wave began at the turn of the century and followed three earlier waves: neo-fascism (1945–55), right-wing populism (1955–80) and the radical right (1980–2000). For Mudde, people on the far right believe that “inequalities between people are natural and positive” and are hostile to liberal democracy. He distinguishes between the extreme right, which rejects democracy, and the radical right, which “accepts the essence of democracy, but opposes fundamental elements of liberal democracy, most notably minority rights, rule of law, and separation of powers.” While both variants of the far right are nativist and authoritarian, only the radical right can be, and often is, populist.

Mudde aims to highlight the main characteristics of the far right over the past twenty years. That’s a big ask because one of its features is heterogeneity. “The far right is plural rather than singular,” Mudde writes. “[E]ven within the most relevant subcategory of the far right, that is, populist radical right parties, differences are at least as pronounced as similarities.” And even in countries that are structurally similar, far-right movements and parties differ enormously in terms of ideology, organisation and strength.

The far right has grown over the past twenty years to the point that it has become mainstream, says Mudde. It has become increasingly difficult to distinguish between the radical right and the mainstream right, and coalitions between radical-right parties and mainstream parties have become routine. He also observes that the leaders of far-right parties — once exclusively white men — increasingly resemble those of mainstream parties. He cites the example of Alice Weidel, the parliamentary co-leader of the Alternative for Germany: “female and lesbian, she worked for Goldman Sachs and speaks Mandarin, and lives partly abroad (in Switzerland) with her non-white partner.” The far right’s supporters, however, are still overwhelmingly white and male.

The far right’s support, Mudde says, is fuelled more by sociocultural than socioeconomic anxieties, although it is not always easy to separate the two: “It is the sociocultural translation of socioeconomic issues that explains most support for far-right policies.” The issues that have energised the far right more than any other are immigration and integration, but he doesn’t hold the “refugee crisis” responsible for its mainstreaming. Its ultimate goal is a monocultural ethnocracy — a nominally democratic regime in which citizenship is based on ethnicity. But far-right groups are also obsessed with security (typically blaming migrants for insecurity) and corruption.

Mainstreaming and normalisation should not be confused with domestication. Mudde argues that we have been witnessing a radicalisation of the mainstream. This is also true in organisational terms: some of the most successful far-right parties in Europe — the Freedom Party in Austria, PiS in Poland and Fidesz in Hungary — were previously mainstream conservative parties. At the same time, mainstream parties have adopted positions that were previously the preserve of the far right, with the Republicans in the United States being a case in point. In countries whose electoral systems favour coalition governments, the populist radical right has become the most logical partner for mainstream right-wing parties because of its ideological fit.

“In fact,” Mudde writes, “over recent decades, the populist radical right has barely moderated, not even when in government. Instead, mainstream parties have radicalised, moving further towards the (populist radical) right in terms of, first and foremost, immigration and integration, but also law and order, European integration (or international collaboration more generally), and populism.” The far right is increasingly able to set the agenda. In that, it has been helped by elements of the mainstream media.

The picture painted by Mudde is bleak. His book doesn’t provide grounds for optimism about how the world will look when the current crisis is behind us. But he has some practical suggestions: the defenders of liberal democracy ought to fight for it (rather than merely against the far right), they ought to reclaim the political agenda, and they “should set clear limits to what collaborations and positions are consistent with liberal democratic values.” I suspect Mudde would not consider Norway between 2013 and 2019, or Finland between 2015 and 2017 to be exemplary success stories

The main value of Mudde’s book is its broad sweep — but given the heterogeneity of the phenomenon that he describes, this is probably also one of its weaknesses. A more important drawback is Mudde’s unwillingness to dig deeper. I take his point that the far right is successful because its agenda has been adopted by previously moderate conservatives. But that raises the question of why nativism and authoritarianism are more attractive now than they were twenty years ago — including to previously moderate conservatives. For it’s hard to believe that the radicalisation of mainstream parties is largely the result of tactical positioning.

Pippa Norris teaches politics at Harvard University and is professor of government at the University of Sydney. Her co-author, Ronald Inglehart, is a political scientist at the University of Michigan. Their book Cultural Backlash, while a hefty 554 pages, puts forward a comparatively simple argument: over the past few decades, largely because of changing values between generations but also because of the expansion of tertiary education and increasing urbanisation, high-income Western societies have moved “in a more socially liberal direction.” As cultural change reached a tipping point, an “authoritarian reflex” was triggered, and social conservatives began supporting populist authoritarian parties and political leaders. Here is a summary of their argument about Trump’s America:

We argue that a tipping point has been reached in the gradual erosion of the socially conservative hegemony of traditional values in America. This has triggered a negative authoritarian counterreaction among moral conservatives threatened by these cultural shifts — a backlash that has been especially powerful in mobilising older generations of white men in rural communities.

Norris and Inglehart write about long-term cultural change as if it has occurred naturally. They also depict the “authoritarian reflex” as almost inevitable: “Newton’s third law of motion holds that ‘For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction,’” they write. While conceding that “societal changes are more complicated than physical ones,” they nevertheless claim that these changes “can reach a tipping point that brings an analogous response.” Their evidence suggests that “birth cohort effects” play an important role in societal change. But I am sceptical about applying Newton’s law to sociocultural dynamics. What about the human capacity for adaptation and value change?

Norris and Inglehart argue that the minority position of social conservatives doesn’t act as a brake on their influence during the tipping point phase because they are much more likely to vote than young and generally less conservative people.

Unlike Mudde, who treats populism as a common feature of the radical right, Norris and Inglehart argue that political parties can be classified along three axes: authoritarian–libertarian, populist–pluralist, and (economic) left–(economic) right. In doing so, they recognise that the rise of populism in Western democracies manifested itself also in the emergence of powerful left-wing and/or libertarian populist parties and movements, such as Podemos in Spain, the Five Star Movement in Italy, and Syriza in Greece, and that authoritarian values (security, conformity and obedience) shouldn’t be conflated with the values promoted by the (economic) right. In their view, however, populism in itself can also cause damage: it “tends to undermine the legitimacy of democratic checks on executive powers, opening the door for soft authoritarian leaders.”

Their analysis focuses on the attraction of parties that offer both populism and authoritarianism, “a dangerous combination fuelling a cult of fear.” They argue that authoritarianism arose more from cultural backlash than economic grievance, whereas those who perceive economic disadvantages (without necessarily experiencing them objectively) tend to be particularly attracted to populism. Overall, however, and much like Mudde, they agree that the terrain on which today’s key battlelines are drawn is culture rather than the economy. That claim is supported, for example, by a survey of thirteen democracies showing that since 1984, non-economic issues have become more prominent than economic issues in party programs.

Norris and Inglehart’s analysis is informed by large-scale longitudinal datasets about attitudes and values, voting behaviour and social change. As often happens in this kind of data-driven research, the figures also set limits for their analysis. The abundance of data about electoral behaviour means their litmus test for the strength of authoritarianism is the performance of authoritarian parties at the elections. They have comparatively little to say about people who hold authoritarian values long before a political party advocating these values enters the scene.

Norris and Inglehart are not as pessimistic as Mudde. While concluding that “it remains to be seen how resilient liberal democracy will be in Western societies, or whether it will be damaged irreparably by authoritarian populist forces,” they also seem to believe that the “advance of liberal values” will resume after the “tipping point era.”

Where Mudde believes that by trying to steal the far right’s thunder, mainstream parties are normalising authoritarian positions, Norris and Inglehart take a very different position. They claim that governing elites in countries such as Norway and Sweden “may have undermined confidence in democratic institutions” by not responding to “genuine public concerns” about refugees and asylum seekers, and that it is possible to squeeze out authoritarian-populist parties “by adopting immigration policies that are more restrictive” and using “nationalistic language.” In fact, they seem to validate the far right’s criticism of policies and programs for asylum seekers and refugees by demanding that they “need to be carefully calibrated to avoid cultural backlash and accusations of ‘queue jumping.’”

I don’t doubt that it is possible to sideline authoritarian-populist parties (as happened last year in Denmark, for example) or prevent them from playing a major role in the first place (as has happened in Australia, among other countries). But this often comes at the high price of the radicalisation of mainstream parties. The rankings in the EIU and Freedom House reports make me wonder whether this radicalisation is always properly accounted for — particularly in cases where it does not affect the functioning of government, citizens’ political participation, civil liberties and the electoral process, and where authoritarian values play out in relation to non-citizens, particularly those seeking asylum.

Norris and Inglehart ask the question that Mudde sidesteps: why has there been a recent trend towards authoritarian populism in Europe and the United States? I am, as they are, convinced that those who flock to authoritarian parties and leaders often do so because they feel threatened by society’s liberalisation, rather than because they are the victims of economic globalisation or because they feel threatened by migrants. But I am afraid that Norris and Inglehart’s focus on parties and votes is too narrow, and that they are telling only part of the story.

Mudde provides a very accessible account of a phenomenon that can be observed around the world. Norris and Ingleheart’s book is more narrowly focused — but within that focus the authors furnish a comprehensive analysis that is rich in detail. Overall their book is less readable than Mudde’s because they keep repeating their main thesis, and overload the text with statistical information (much of which could have been relegated to the appendix). Given the insights they are offering, the text’s unwieldiness is a great shame.

Walden Bello is a Filipino political activist, eminent sociologist and former member of parliament who was awarded the Right Livelihood Award (also known as the Alternative Nobel Prize) in 2003 for his efforts “in educating civil society about the effects of corporate globalisation.”

Bello’s book differs in three important respects from the two I’ve discussed so far. First, his analysis doesn’t focus on European and North American democracies. In fact, of his case studies, only one, about Italy, is European; the others deal with Chile, Indonesia, India, Brazil and Thailand. But not even Bello’s Italy is part of the global North as we know it, because he is writing about the rise of fascism in the Italy of the 1920s. That points to the second difference: Bello adopts a broader, historical approach spanning the past century. Finally, he doesn’t focus on electoral patterns and doesn’t rely on survey results; rather, in Marxian fashion, he focuses on class struggles and the dialectic of revolution and counterrevolution.

For Bello, “movements of the extreme right, authoritarian right, and fascism are variants of counterrevolution.” Thus, Benito Mussolini in 1920s Italy and Augusto Pinochet in 1973 in Chile led counterrevolutionary movements — against reform socialism in Italy, and against the Allende government in Chile, respectively. Only the fascism of Rodrigo Duterte, he says, has not been counterrevolutionary.

Although I’m not convinced by Bello’s argument that Marx’s 1851 text, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Napoleon Bonaparte, can guide our analysis of authoritarian populism today (or of Pinochet’s and Mussolini’s regimes), Counterrevolution does offer useful insights and, in some respects, can serve as a corrective to the books reviewed above. I mention only two insights here: Bello emphasises the role played by charismatic leaders, and draws attention to the fact that today’s far right is often using a critique of neoliberalism and globalisation first formulated by the radical left.

As authoritarianism increased its appeal, Theodor Adorno’s writings about the social psychology of fascism were rediscovered. Last year, Verso republished the path-breaking study The Authoritarian Personality, the result of a large research project led by Adorno in the United States during the 1940s that tried to explain the rise of fascism. Also last year, a transcript of a lecture about the extreme right, delivered by Adorno at the University of Vienna in April 1967 at the invitation of the Socialist Students of Austria, was published for the first time in German. The English translation will be available later this month.

In Germany, the year 1967 is best remembered for an anti-authoritarian revolt. Two months after Adorno’s talk, Benno Ohnesorg, one of the students protesting against the Berlin visit of the Shah of Iran, was shot dead by the police; the ensuing demonstrations marked the beginning of the student rebellion in Germany. It is less well known that 1967 also saw the resurgence of the German far right. In November 1966, the National Democratic Party of Germany, which had been founded only two years earlier, won more than 7 per cent of the vote at state elections in Hesse and Bavaria. The following year, shortly after Adorno’s Vienna lecture, it was successful at three more state elections.

I bought my copy of Adorno’s published lecture at a newsagency at a train station in a medium-sized German town, which is perhaps as good an indication as any of its reach. The interest that it has generated in Germany has a lot to do with the fact that Adorno’s reflections can be read as an original and perceptive commentary on the authoritarian-populist Alternative for Germany, which has been represented in federal parliament since 2017.

Adorno writes about the National Democratic Party’s campaign against intellectuals and established political parties and about its anti-Americanism, its claim to represent the true democrats, its attempt to monopolise the attribute “German,” its gesturing towards issues that must not be named, and its practice of making up stories and representing them as facts. He observes that the mobilisation of support for the far right appeals to a yearning for catastrophe, reminding us how little will be gained if we assume voters and followers of authoritarian populism make only rational choices when succumbing to the appeal of the Trumps and Orbáns and Bolsonaros.

Adorno observed that the approach of the German far right was characterised by a unique constellation of rational means and irrational ends. He found that the far right’s propaganda, much like the Nazis’ propaganda, was not a means to transport a message but was actually the substance of their politics. Adorno’s attention to propaganda is particularly noteworthy. He would have had much to say about social media’s impact on the rise of the populist far right — which surprisingly rates hardly a mention in the other three books.

Of the four books reviewed here, the one that was never intended for publication is perhaps the most interesting.

Well before we all became obsessed with a virus, two of the authors reviewed here likened authoritarianism to a contagious disease. Adorno suggested that the masses needed to be inoculated against the tricks employed by the far right, and that these tricks needed to be uncovered and named. I don’t share his optimism about the efficacy of such inoculation, but it’s certainly worth a try.

“Perhaps my stance can best be compared to that of the virologist,” writes Bello, “who is engrossed in the study of an exotic but deadly virus for scientific reasons and to make a contribution to the development of a vaccine against it.” He does not offer such a vaccine in his book, but at least he recognises the key role of contestation. While I don’t have much time for the use of physical laws in the social sciences, I am surprised that Mudde, Norris and Inglehart pay no attention to the opposition that has often been energised by the successes of far-right politicians. Whether authoritarian populists succeed will also depend on the strength of the counter-movements they trigger. Focusing on the rise of the populist far right without taking into account those movements unduly favours pessimism.

I would like to suggest that in order to come to grips with the phenomenon of authoritarian populism, neither Mudde’s overview, nor Norris and Inglehart’s number crunching, nor Bello’s class analysis gets us particularly far on its own. What is probably also needed is a combination of the kind of study carried out by Adorno and his collaborators in the 1940s, and ethnographic analyses that help us understand how and why individuals and communities subscribe to authoritarian values.

While the four books nevertheless help us to understand key aspects of the phenomenon of contemporary authoritarian populism, they don’t enable us to predict the post-coronavirus future. Contrary to the impression I gave at the beginning of this article, the evidence is messy. So far, the coronavirus crisis has harmed as well as benefited autocratic and populist leaders. That’s because some of them — including Erdoğan, Trump, Bolsonaro and Boris Johnson — initially failed to take the threat seriously. While some, including Orbán and Duterte, seized the opportunity to shore up their position, others who we might have expected to use the virus as a pretext for declaring a state of emergency and ruling by decree have been surprisingly reluctant to do so. They include, most importantly, Donald Trump, who has threatened to suspend Congress but so far done little more than use the crisis as an excuse for daily campaign events camouflaged as press briefings. That 2020 will be remembered for the rise of authoritarianism is by no means a foregone conclusion.

Should we really be most concerned now about the question of whether liberal democracy in the global North emerges weakened or strengthened out of the current crisis? That we can is a sign of our privilege. And it’s an indication of our (global Northern) egotism that in our newspapers we read much these days about the future of liberal democracy, and little about how the coronavirus might affect the global South.

Or maybe we shouldn’t ask “what will liberal democracy look like after the end of the world as we know it?” in the first place. “Perhaps some of you will now ask me… what do I think about the future of the far right?” Adorno said at the end of his Vienna lecture:

I think this question is wrong, because it is too contemplative. This way of thinking, which assumes that such things ought to be viewed as if they were natural catastrophes, like cyclones… that are subject to forecasts, implies a kind of resignation, whereby one removes oneself as a political subject. It implies a spectator’s relationship to reality. How these things will develop, and the responsibility for how they develop, that’s eventually up to us.

Oh, and by the way, the full title of R.E.M.’s 1987 song is: “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine).” •