There’s No Such Thing as an ‘Illiberal’

There’s No Such Thing as an ‘Illiberal’, by Yoram Hazony. A long but interesting article, worth a read in its original.

In the wake of Donald Trump’s election and Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, “illiberalism” is being treated as a key political concept.

In the writings of Fareed Zakaria, David Brooks, James Kirchick, the Economist and the Atlantic, among others, it is now assumed that the line dividing “liberal” from “illiberal” is the most important in politics.

Who are these “illiberals” everyone is talking about? Respected analysts have ascribed illiberalism to the Nazis and the Soviets; to Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un; to Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Abdel Fattah Al Sisi; to the Shiite regime in Iran and the military regime in Myanmar; to the democratic governments of India, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic; to Donald Trump, Theresa May and Brexit; to the nationalist parties in Scotland and Catalonia; to Marine Le Pen, Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn and the lefty activists demanding political correctness on campus; to Venezuela, Pakistan, Kenya and Thailand. …

This is a way of legitimizing the big government, globalist elite, and delegitimizing everyone else. Beware.

It’s vital to understand this phenomenon, not because “illiberalism” really identifies a coherent idea — it doesn’t — but because the new politics these writers are urging, the politics of liberalism vs. illiberalism, is itself an important, troubling development. …

Start with the exaggerated sense of power many Americans and Europeans experienced after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. … George H.W. Bush declared in 1990 that after 100 generations of searching for peace, a new world order was about to be born, “a world quite different from the one we’ve known, a world where the rule of law supplants the rule of the jungle.” …

These speeches and books raised expectations into the stratosphere, asserting that decent men and women everywhere would embrace the liberal order, since the alternatives had been discredited.

Even at the height of all this, one caveat was consistently repeated: A rogue’s gallery of holdouts would continue to resist until the mopping-up operations were complete. … The term that stuck … came from “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy,” an insightful 1997 essay in Foreign Affairs by Mr. Zakaria, which argued that resistance to the new order was far more widespread than had been recognized.

In this context, “liberalism” was understood as the belief that it was possible and desirable to establish a world-wide regime of law, enforced by American power, to ensure human rights and individual liberties. “Illiberalism” became a catchall term that lumped together anyone opposed to the project — as Marxists used the word “reactionary” to describe anyone opposed to the coming communist world order. …

[But] in a world full of illiberals, how to choose whether to go after Russia or China? Saudi Arabia or Iran? India or Pakistan? Bashar Assad or the al Qaeda-dominated Sunni rebels?

By the time Barack Obama was elected in 2008, the American public was ceasing to care whether the Balkans or the Middle East were liberal. Not so American elites and intellectuals, many of whom continued to talk and write as if Western civilization had, since antiquity, been defined by a manly hostility toward illiberalism, and the only way forward was to keep bombing.

Elites and intellectuals defined an unattainable end — universal liberalism — as the purpose of Western foreign policy, creating a simplistic and ultimately incapacitating division of the world between liberals and illiberals.

Yet the effects of this on the domestic politics of the U.S. and other Western nations may be even greater than its consequences in foreign policy.

During the Cold War, the basis for electoral politics in the democratic West was the opposition between liberalism and conservatism, both regarded as legitimate movements. The conservative parties had been holdouts against utopian theories at least since the French Revolution. …

Now we get to the pointy end of the stick:

But where does a conservatism of this kind fit into a politics that has been reimagined as a universal effort to eradicate illiberalism in all its forms? We know the answer. Anyone who advocates nationalist and religious ideas in the wrong circles gets tossed straight into the basket of illiberals, with Messrs. Putin, Erodgan and Kim.

This is worth thinking about with care. A country where you can no longer advocate a nationalist or religious viewpoint without being stigmatized in this way is a place where only one political party is legitimate: the liberal one. The illiberal party is going to be put out of business, whatever it takes.

The politics of liberals vs. illiberals, if adopted as the basis for public discourse, will mean the end of the old democratic system of two legitimate political parties.

A few conservatives, hoping to maintain their standing in the face of increasing intolerance, will break left, framing their support for human rights and economic growth as a form of liberalism.

But most conservatives will continue to see nationalism and religion — no less than individual liberty and the free market — as indispensable in maintaining a strong and free nation. They will find themselves members of an illegitimate party, even as journalists and public intellectuals discover that, for them, stamping out illiberalism is simply more important than maintaining a two-party system of democratic government.

‘Illiberalism” is a theoretical construct currently being auditioned for a central role in political discourse in America, Britain and other Western nations. Many brilliant minds have been tempted by its simplicity. But it should be rejected as an ill-framed and destructive way of looking at the political world.

There is no such thing as illiberalism. No reasonable purpose is served by using a term that lumps together totalitarians, autocrats, conservatives and democratic nationalists, as though these are all varieties of a single dark worldview