Tech & Rights

The Surprising Truth About Illiberal Democracies & Unicorns

Supporters of the “new types” of democracies popping up in Europe argue their type is just as strong as traditional democracies. But this is bull.

by Orsolya Reich

Many of my Facebook friends are politics nerds. This is not exactly shocking. I graduated in political science from an international university and half of my former MA class is teaching politics at various European institutions. We connect through social media. They regularly engage in debates about the right characterization of certain Eastern European countries. Whether it is appropriate to call them illiberal democracies. Or whether they should be called limited democracies. Or defective democracies. Or guided democracies. Or liberal autocracies. Or electoral authoritarianism.

I am anything but a nerd.* I usually have no patience to engage in seemingly pointless debates.** I do not care how you call something as long as we agree about the underlying facts and your labeling does not cause confusion. But when it comes to describing certain Eastern European regimes, chances are that it does.

Cynical smiles

Why? Let me summarize shortly how these regimes operate. They do not gain power through a military coup. They actually hold elections and win them. They do not question constitutionalism. They just write a new constitution saying that the old one could not meet the challenges we face in the 21st century. They do not blatantly disregard laws. They just change them from one day to another without properly consulting the stakeholders. And then they become obsessed with laws. They make laws that are too ambiguous to figure out whether it applies to you. They make laws that are tailored to one specific institution or event they do not like or want to avoid. They make laws that simply cannot be followed. And they selectively apply these laws against their enemies, citing the importance of law-abidingness with huge, cynical smiles on their faces.

They do not ban independent media. They just ask loyal oligarchs to get hold of as many (formerly) independent outlets as possible and turn them into a propaganda machine. And then threaten the rest of the media with all sorts of hells until they start to censor themselves. They do not close-off civil society organisations. They just call them foreign agents and cut their access to donors. They do not imprison opposition leaders without a trial. They charge them with mismanagement of funds. Or ruin their names. Or buy them out. They do not burn books. They just make sure that critical writers do not get access to support the same way non-critical writers do. They do not ban films. They just pressure cinemas not to show them.

So how to characterize these regimes? Should they be described as new, formerly unknown types of democracy? Or simply as (grossly) imperfect democracies? Or are they no democracies at all?

In with the new, out with the old?

When political scientists try to measure how democratic a country is or what types of democracies exist these days, they normally use a number of well-agreed-on variables. They measure how free the media is, how free the elections are, how independent the judiciary is, how certain basic rights are respected and so on. And then either they add up the numbers or - if they are interested in categorization - they look for similar cases, countries that score more or less the same in most dimensions.

Of course, proponents of the “new types” of democracies could argue that the variables scientists use are skewed, because they measure “their” type of democracy against conditions that are characteristics of the old type. But this is bull. Imagine that your friend suggest that she wrote an opera, but it is a new type of opera. You listen to the music. To your ears, it sounds more like death metal - so you suggest that the best way to decide what the genre really is to compare it with the operas you know. Your friend gets annoyed and charges you with unfairness. Why, after all, should we use the characteristics of the old opera to decide whether this thing she wrote is an opera. It is. A new type.

While with your friend you may want to let it go and agree, for the friendship’s sake, that there is this thing you called opera up until now and there are weird ones that are very different to it. But the same is not a good strategy when it comes to democracy. You may want to insist to use those variables.

Legitimacy and unicorns

When political scientists use the traditional variables to see how democratic contemporary countries are, what they find, unfortunately, is not that there are clear cases of democracies and clear cases of non-democracies. There is a huge (and growing) number of countries that fall in between. A third group - dissimilar enough to dictatorships, but dissimilar to established democracies too.

There is a reason that regimes falling into this third category insist on calling themselves democracies. There is a reason why they insist that their “democracy” being “different” does not make it less of a democracy. And the reason is legitimacy. To date, only democracies are deemed to be legitimate regimes. The vast majority of people do believe that democracy is the one and only acceptable form of government.

But you do not need to fall for this. They are not new forms of democracy. They are not even less-perfect democracies. They are not democracies. Democracies are liberal, they stand on the rule of law, free media, independence of the judiciary and so on. This is so irrespective of whether a conservative, a socialist or a liberal party governs.

Illiberal democracies do not exist.*** If you want to, you can call them hybrid regimes to show that they are more acceptable that dictatorship, but less than real democracies.

For convenience sake, we will call them authoritarian regimes. Because they are still unacceptable.


* My colleagues are probably bursting with laughter right here. Still, I am not.
** On the other hand, once I wrote a philosophy paper on the problem of commensurability. It argued that a crocodile can be longer than it is green. And I meant it.
*** Unicorns do not exist either.

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