By seeking to embrace democracy and at the same time to jettison liberalism, Orbán is blazing a trail that he hopes to lure others on the right to follow.
It is useful to review the strange history of the term “illiberal democracy” in order to understand how Orbán has tried to wield it for his own purposes.
It combines two constituent elements that often go together and yet are sometimes in tension with each other—a element.
Each of those words has a long and complex history, and each has taken on different meanings in different eras and places.
Although democracy was typically conjoined with liberalism in the twentieth-century West, the two are not inseparably linked.
Premodern democracies were not liberal, and historically there have been liberal societies (some European constitutional monarchies in the nineteenth century, and Hong Kong under British rule in the twentieth) that were not governed democratically.To compound the confusion, in Europe the term liberal has been applied to parties that support the free market and a more limited role for government.Moreover, especially outside the United States, figures on the left pin the label of “neoliberalism” on those they regard as too friendly to market capitalism.The distinction between the liberal and the democratic aspects of liberal democracy has long been a topic of scholarly discussion, but the term “illiberal democracy” is not so old.It was first introduced by Fareed [End Page 7] Zakaria in 1997, in an influential article that he wrote for Zakaria argued that in the past virtually all modern democracies were liberal democracies.Overall, it is the parties of the center-left (mostly socialist or social-democratic) that have been experiencing the steepest decline, and there are signs that the commitment to liberal democracy of some emerging forces on the left is questionable.But at the moment I believe the graver threat to liberal democracy is that it will wind up being abandoned by substantial segments of the right.[End Page 6] Consequently, features such as the rule of law and the freedoms of speech, assembly, religion, and the press, though more properly categorized as liberal, are often regarded as hallmarks of democracy.Further confusion stems from the fact that the term liberalism, in addition to the broad sense conveyed by the expression liberal democracy (or liberal education, meaning literally the education befitting a free person), also is used in a more narrowly political sense: In the United States, “liberalism” denotes support for an activist government and is typically regarded as the opposite of conservatism.With the longstanding dominance of center-left and center-right parties ebbing across Europe and Latin America, there is a growing danger that substantial segments of the right will be captured by tendencies indifferent or even hostile to liberal democracy.The 2019 elections to the European Parliament will provide a key test.