Liberal Democracy and its Shadow
Jonathan Laurence 11 March 2019


Political elites in Europe and the United States are gripped by a diffuse anxiety of democratic relapse. There’s no longer need for briefing books or intelligence estimates to speculate what might happen if US and European allies were confronted with a cocktail of homegrown terrorism and financial crisis in combination with a black swan event — such as a flood of asylum seekers, or an unanticipated occupant of the oval office.

In more than half of NATO and European Union countriesi, politicians promoting far-right views have emerged as stealth victors or landed atop the second-largest political formations — most recently in the US, UK, France, Germany, Austria and Italy. Some illiberal practices were already becoming de rigueur in Hungary, Poland and Turkey, where constitution-bending leaders have wished away checks and balances — and a large chunk of their civil societyii — in recent years.

Now there is a five-alarm fireiii in the old core democratic sector, west of the Iron Curtain. Compounding the irony, Moscow has helped it spread by supporting populists and nativists elbowing to the fore of European and American politicsiv. Sparked by financial crisis, the conflagration has been fueled by voters’ malaise over terrorism and immigration. One year into the Trump presidency, Freedom House warned Americans that “core institutions” and “established norms of ethical conduct” were under attackv. The Journal of Democracy dedicated an issue to the United Statesvi for the first time. Liberal democracy’s distinction as the most enduring regime model in the transatlantic realm appears genuinely endangered.

The illiberal and nativist responses arrived, like clockwork, after the deep recession and financial crisis of nearly a decade ago. Similar to the stress tests that regulators imposed upon national economic giants during the long recovery from the financial crisis, the political stress test has revealed both resilience and vulnerability. This has translated into international fecklessness: Slow and indecisive responses to coups in Egypt and Turkeyvii; declining allies’ requests for military aidviii. When a bank failed the test, regulators would begin the process of “winding down” its obligations to stakeholders — not an option for nation-states.

Essays on the fate of liberal democracy often include a Groundhog Day disclaimer acknowledging the tradition of forecasting long winters and the liberalism’s retreat. Fifteen years ago, Fareed Zakaria dedicated a book to the phenomenon of democratically elected regimes that were “routinely ignoring constitutional limits on their power.” In How Democracies Perish (1983) philosopher Jean-François Revelix argued that democracy was “under worldwide attack as never before.” A decade before that, the Trilateral Commission met amid widespread urban rioting, constitutional crises and political extremism. Military rule, or the credible threat of a coup d’etat, weighed upon one of every four future EU Treaty signatories. Taking stock of the general crisis of capitalism in the early 1970s, commissioners compared the era’s mood to “that of the early nineteen-twenties” Zbig Brzezinski wrote in his preface.

Is something different this time around, or are we passing through the Cassandra half of the carousel ride that follows Pollyanna? One new reason for alarm is that compared to one generation ago, far right parties have tripled their presence in European parliaments. Their stock has risen sharply since the last financial crisis, doubling their electorate in Finland, France, Netherlands, Portugal, Sweden and the UK. Ominously, nearly one hundred parliamentary representatives of a ”Germany first” party crossed the thresholds of the old Reichstag building in Fall 2017 — for the first time since January 1933. Another related novelty is that Islamic extremism had little draw for European Muslims until recently, and in 2012 the number of homegrown jihadi terrorists could be counted on two hands. Since 2013, hundreds of native-born European citizens have been involved with murderous attacks in cities including London, Paris, Madrid, Nice, Berlin, thousands of others made their way to the Syrian-Iraqi war zone and thousands more are under surveillance as potentially violent extremists.

Amid signs that the system’s ability to correct its own excesses is breaking down, this accumulation has caused the customarily stoic to wobble. The words dangerous and crisis appear thousands of times in the current wave of books and essays, reflecting widespread concern that institutional guardrails are insufficient to prevent a plunge into the abyssxi. Two Harvard scholars published How Democracies Die in which they warn of a system “constantly on the brink of crisis” (pag. 212) where partisan rivalry descends into mutual intolerancexi. Look closely for Weimar Germany, The Economist wrote in March 2018, “and the real resonances and its true warning signs start to appear.”

The Long Decade

This essay proposes an alternative interpretation of the populist surge. The relevant period is not the 1920s, but rather the interwar years between the fall of the Berlin Wall and destruction of the Twin Towers. The long decade from 11/9 to 9/11 (1989-2001) was notoriously immune to the usual liberal democratic crisis in self-confidence. Western leaders brimmed with optimism in a fast-changing world, from Helmut Kohl’s promise of blooming landscapes across Germany and the EU-12’s pledge to ever-closer union at Maastricht, to NATO’s triumphant expansion eastward and the World Cup championship team that seemed to seal Black and Arabs within contemporary French identity.

The self-assurance allowed for other kinds of introspection, and the generational transition gave impetus to revisit 20th century historical ambiguities from WWII and the colonial era. Two national discussions were finally taking place. First, negotiating the Far Right’s reentry into politics while reflecting and deliberating on its complicity and collaboration in past war crimes. Second, defining citizenship, belonging and nationhood in light of the demographic transformation from postwar migration. The war on terror and the financial crisis distorted and delayed these national conversations. The Far Right pivoted from a defensive crouch to its preferred stance defending nation, economy and culture against foreign encroachment. The integration of Muslims and the negotiation of organized Islam’s recognition as a local religion was replaced by a single-minded focus on combating religious extremism.

Muscular liberals are this generation’s neoconservatives: former liberals mugged by reality and who subsequently “grew a backbone.” Muscular Liberalism is emerging as the catchphrase of choice to fight back against the Far Right and Islamic extremism. To resist “the coming dark age,” think tank scholar James Kirchik calls for “a renewal of the Muscular liberal center.” A German Marshall Fund report recommended that moderate parties reclaim voters from the nativist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), for example, “by campaigning as guardians of the ‘German interest’ with tighter asylum law and a hard line on Euro-area issues.” Some academics argue that nativist parties defend “many (though not all) liberal-democratic values.” An opinion piece in the Financial Times recommended “a muscular liberal fightback” that “rebuilds the relationship with large portions of the electorate [and] no longer dismisses those who take pride in their country.” The parties generally deem national culture to be under assault, and their messages have nationalist undertones that go beyond everyday patriotism and the rule of law. The UK’s Chief Inspector for Schools told principals to promote “muscular liberalism” against ”those who actively undermine fundamental British values or equalities law” — which she blamed on “passive liberalism that says ‘anything goes.’

Becoming Liberal

The choice may not between muscular liberalism and a mythical multicultural or passive model, however. Treating the present day as an unprecedented slide towards illiberalism implies there was a time when liberal democracy was more robust and better at self-correcting. It dominated the last century not because liberal democrats perfectly practiced what they preached, but by dint of a superior economic model and military strength. From the median citizen’s perspective, lived experience democracy in the US and Europe has always been a work-in-progress. Political representation and participation expanded in fits and starts.

At worst (excluding wartime), democratic states in the transatlantic alliance officially sanctioned sexism, colonialism and racism — leaving millions trodden underfoot or institutionally excluded from political decisions affecting their lives. Well into the 21st century, the rule of law systematically failed to shield large numbers of women and minors from physical violence. For many, the sky is not falling; the clouds are parting — but not uniformly. Exceptional treatment is at the root of alienation and second-class feeling of some Muslims and Right-Wingers. Democratic institutions had illiberal dimensions well before two million refugees arrived via the Balkans and Mediterranean, and before terrorists struck central Paris.

The post-WWII suppression of the Far Right vote, for example, was accomplished with a host of arguably illiberal mechanisms: parliamentary thresholds, electoral majoritarianism, party bans, plus censorship and speech restrictions. Political theorist Gerard Alexander wrote in the mid-’00s that the world’s most advanced democracies were experiencing “the greatest erosion of democratic practices.” Measures suppressing the far right, he argued, were creating a “serious distortion and impoverishment of political debate.”

Installing guardrails on West German democracy made sense in its geopolitical context and insured the allied democracies against disaster. So did tipping the scales against Communists in Italy — where the Fascist party was prohibited — and in favor of Christian Democrats in West Germany, where the Communist party was banned. The fall of the Berlin Wall released Communists from the state of exception, but not so the extreme right. The 20th century continued to cast an illiberal pall over 21st century politics. In France, mainstream parties benefitted from electoral gerrymandering to keep the Front National out of the National Assembly since the mid-1980s. This splintered the nationalist vote and left 10 million voters represented by a handful of seats in parliament.

Another way in which liberal democracy was eroded, by analogy, affected European Muslims. Despite historic ties to the old European empires, followed by migration and community expansion, early 21st century Islam and Muslims were not treated as “native” to the body politic. Tangled up in domestic identity politics and geopolitics, this has taken and will take generations for civil, political and religious rights to be fully extended. Like the Far Right, Muslim communities have languished in a state of exception, where constitutional logic and the usual arithmetic of democracy are suspended. How else could the voice of a minority population of millions be virtually absent from National Assembly debate in France for decades? In 1990s Germany, strict citizenship rules suspended millions of native-born foreigners in an indefinite position of “taxation without representation.” In Italy, citizenship rights have been withheld from hundreds of thousands born to legal residents. Driven by a security agenda since 9/11, the domestication of Islam has remained stalled in political-bureaucratic limbo. That amounts to illiberal treatment of religion once Muslims became predominantly citizens.

In William Galstonxii’s view, “Populists seek to drive a wedge between democracy and liberalism” (“The Populist Challenge to Liberal Democracy” Journal of Democracy, April 2018). The converse may also be true, namely that liberals are comfortable violating democratic principles when seeking to keep far-right populists or Islamists at bay. The excluded groups — the Far Right and citizens of Muslim background — have been left to stew outside the national postwar narrative. The democratic theorist Nancy Bormeo identified modern types of democratic backsliding, including coups that promise to restore democracy; “executive aggrandizement” and electoral manipulations. In addition to such outright reversals, backsliding may also include the absence of incorporation, i.e. the ground lost while society keeps evolving and legal obstacles to participation remain. When the state of exception affecting their interests never lapses — even in the absence of genuine emergency — then muscular liberalism can appear one-sided.

Permanent Emergency

Walter Benjamin’s aphorism that “the state of emergency in which we live is not the exception but the rule” remains aptxiii. The obstacles and thresholds to participation excluding some are the flip side of guardrails containing others. As World War II recedes, and as citizenship of origin fades, younger generations require different handling. With the passage of generations, European citizens began to dominate the Islamist terrorist cells. Until now, foreigner law was a powerful counter-terrorism tool: Cases were easily solved with deportations — a charter seat is cheaper than surveillance. But natural-born citizens cannot be arbitrarily held or deported.

The 1990s public debate about targeted assassinations and extrajudicial killings seems quaint in view of the populating of Guantanamo Bay, the occupation of Iraq and the use of drone missile strikes by democratic militaries against their own citizens. All were signals of a waning commitment to due process from democratically-elected authorities under public pressure to end attacks. By 2016, the Council of Europe warned that counterterrorism measures were imposing “disproportionate restrictions” with diminishing “democratic controlsxiv.”

In France, President Emanuel Macron lifted the two-year old State of Emergency instituted by his predecessor François Hollande after the November 2015 attacks. Hollande wanted to codify what he called “civilian rule in crisis mode,” and he ordered airstrikes that killed French citizens in Syria in early 2017. Coming into power later that summer, the Edouard government has retained deterrent measures including harsh penalties for material or moral support. One woman was sentenced to two years imprisonment for wiring money to her Jihadi son. Hundreds of cases a month were brought against individuals for being “terrorist apologistsxv,” and thousands of warrantless raids and house arrestsxvi were carried out while under emergency rule. In 2018, the closure of mosques on technicalities persisted, as did contrôles au faciès, house arrest and the preemptive seizure of passports — as well as a heavy military presence in cities.

Germany is another fortified democracy with frequent elections and a cautious parliamentary system anchored in liberal alliances. The political elite responsible for Reunification also brought asylum flows, currency change, Europeanization, Turkish-German citizens, Greek bailouts, Salafist street proselytism, foreign fighters in Syria, refugee attacks in Cologne, terrorism in Berlin. Taboos and collective feelings of guilt began to fall with the Unification and refugee crisis that led to the abolition of a constitutional right to asylum. The unprecedented number of asylum applicants starting in 2015 were the sour cherry on top: in 2017, Germany processed over 500,000 cases — five times as many applicants as Greece and Italy combined, and twice the total of all other EU countries.

Only the AfD challenges all of the above. Since 1990, East Germany had twice the share of extreme right vote of West Germany. Neo-Nationalist extremism had always come from the country’s newest Länder, on the Czech and Polish borders, and amongst Aussiedler. The swell of support for AfD added a new constituency from the Southwest — the déçus of the GroKo. It is a merger with the Neue Länder in their more Central European vision of nationality and borders. In 2017, Every single one of the country’s 299 electoral districts shifted right. Germany lost the distinction of being the only European country without a far-right party representative in October 2017 when the AfD entered the Bundestag with nearly 13% of the national vote. Two million votes — nearly one-third the AfD’s total — came from the Merkel majority, and the decisive amount that got them into the Bundestag came from mobilizing 1.5 million “non-voters.” In a February 2018 poll, Alternative for Germany landed in second place, ahead of the Social Democratic Party. The period opened and closed with refugee flows and arson attacks. Whereas the victims of arson attacks in 1990 were refugees, in 2018 they are citizens. In 1990 it was local inhabitants cheering on the blaze. By the end, those fanning the flames were Bundestag deputies, not skinhead bystanders.

The Italian party system collapsed in 1992-4, replaced by “new, fragile, and unstable parties.” The new generation of voters rejected not only the old Christian Democrats and ex-Communists, but also the heroes of the supposed transition to a new political order — from Silvio Berlusconi to Antonio di Pietro, who were prophets of a false renewal. The children raised in the “new” system have spoken. Only the northern Lega and internet-driven Five Start Movement (M5S) survived because they are both un-moored from the old Partitocrazia. The pro-direct democracy party attracted voters disillusioned with the parties of the seconda repubblica (1994 – ). Its highest share came from the youngest voting demographic, I.e. 44% or three times the next closest (PD). M5S poses as a savior through teledemocracy: it was explicitly created to end the ologopoly and resolve parliament’s representation problemxvii with direct democracy, via its web platform: “Rousseau.”


In France and Germany, Emanuel Macron and Angela Merkel bought time by forming a de facto Popular Front — what Italians used to call an arco costituzionale — and dividing ministries between right and left in alliance against the far-right. In early 21st century, the Far-Right has scored one-off victories but has not proven itself Koalitionsfähig in France, Germany or the UK. Italian President, who must decide whether the recently elected Chamber of Deputies is governable, may attempt to build a similar Grand Coalition against M5S.

On the other hand, what better example of disregard for the electorate than being governed by opposing minority parties with a pastiche of policies most voters just rejected at the polls? It is a confiscation of votes, and a recipe for cynicism and apathy from good faith political opposition, reducing democratic politics to rearranging deck chairs or fiddling amidst calamity. When the Hungarian Prime Minister speaks admiringly of illiberal democracy because it spares everyone the “constantly ongoing wrangling,” he is channelling Carl Schmitt, whose Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy (1923) remains mordant and relevant. Schmitt compared the charade of parliamentary debate to “painting the radiator with red flames” to simulate a hearth. Instead of creating “Rousseau’s society” of equals, Schmitt wrote that parliamentary democracy simply “exposes new divisions to view.”

Parliaments are still undergoing a necessary correction. Nervous laughter filled the hall of France’s Assemblée Nationale after the Freudian slip of a member of the majority, who opened her remarks with “Mesdames et messieurs les retraités…” (instead of deputés) — Retired Ladies and Gentlemen — in other words, not much gets done around here. If parliament’s basic function is not improved, then dramatically less deliberative forums — such as the Five Star Movement’s website — may be the next likely stop of vox populi.

Populists in power, meanwhile, tend to fizzle. Why not let them demonstrate their incompetence, and let the sunlight disinfect, as political scientist Ralf Dahrendorf might say: “The advantage they hold against democrats in electoral campaigns has been long spent by the time they land in the minister’s seat. Populists are frequently unfit to govern.” Whether their mantra is Islam is the Solution or Government is the Problem, recent experience suggests they will be unable to deliver. Institutional checks and balances were designed with would-be tyrants in mind, and a well-designed system can withstand the challenge and the verbal abuse, and.

Arriving at the statute of limitations for existing prohibitions, it becomes apparent that the resolution of a large part of the illiberal dilemma passes through the institutional-political inclusion of these two groups. Climbing down from emergency law does not imply condoning or endorsing, only ending the exceptions for Right-Wing and Muslim groups. Since part of the state of emergency is censorship of expression, this entails enlarging what Germans call “the realm of the sayable.” These sentiments resonated with voters across the political spectrum, but remained unspoken, except on the extreme margins. It is fodder for misunderstanding, as Gerard Alexander pointed out, if certain sensitivities are observed while others are trampled, and symptomatic of powerful mythologies that undermine confidence in government.

The longstanding democratic deficit has understandable historical roots but it took a toll. The political culture of postwar Europe contained other catch-22’s. Alexander sounded a pessimistic note about the dangers posed by European laws forbidding certain kinds of speech, incitement and historical denial. He found “an insidious chilling of political debate.” That periodically boiled over, such as when a prominent Social Democratic politician sold 1.5 million books by channelling the theme of race suicide (Germany Does Away with Itself). The SPD’s decision not to expel him may have been an effort to prevent non-P.C. talk from being monopolized by the political extremes. As the Bavarian State Library judged enough time to have passed to allow its copyright on Mein Kampf to lapse, perhaps the same is true for a full gamut of political mobilization that falls within the constitutional realm.

If Islam is not historically an integral part of France and Great Britain that was a conscious decision: it could have been. Illiberal interventionist foreign policy by the liberalizing democratizing states between 1850-1950 — i.e., colonialism in the Muslim majority world — helped create the problem of what is today called “radical” Islam. First it had to raze what was there before, in pursuit of short-term goal to defeat the old Ottoman Caliphate. The Western powers interfered with Islamic religious networks by influencing leadership struggles wherever they could — not least in Mecca (1916), Jerusalem (1918) and Afghanistan (1979) — until various foreign policy tradeoffs came crashing down in 2001. As Pakistani General at the Munich Security Conference reminded the assembled that “the Frankenstein was actually created by the liberal free world, with willing, but myopic cooperation from our side.” Germany’s prolonged stubbornness with regard to citizenship, and its slowness to create local and national alternatives to imams and mosques imported wholesale from the countries of origin.

Addressing the consequences of this history requires making other choices about the concrete alternatives to a vacuum. If “none of the above” is attractive, then paradoxically, some form of state support is the only liberal solution. That is a bridge too far for many proponents of muscular liberalism, who do not favor affirmative action to level the playing field. Quick to ban funding and refuse imams, but slow to arrive at a constructive corollary such as supporting local training institutions or importing sufficient numbers of accredited religious professionals. Muscular Liberals do not always grasp that the extremism problem was due not immigrants’ “culture of origin” but rather its absence that allowed transplantation of Salafism and other intolerant forms of religion.

In some ways, politics is catching up with society: the justice system and the party system are more responsive. Generational change is once again bringing in once-excluded groups — in the early 20th century, it incorporated women, immigrants, communists — and now, millions of Muslims and far-right voters. It sends a curious message to declare a “crisis” when parties follow the rules of the representative parliamentary system and succeed. Without an equal stake in public institutions for both of these currently excluded groups, governments will continue to encounter a legitimacy problem. It will also be harder for moderates to win internal arguments with extremists who direct their invective at the regime. These countries do need a dose of liberalism, but the remedy will not please most Muscular Liberals. In order for democratic systems need to be able to demonstrate their universal appeal, there will need to be fewer restrictions on Right-Wing parties and more support for organized Islamxvii.


i Poland, Hungary, German (AfD 2nd place survey February 2018), Italy (M5S, first place legislatives, March 2018)

iiSome leaders, like the Hungarian Prime Minister, have unabashedly praised illiberal democracy because it spares everyone the “constantly ongoing wrangling.”

iii Peter Sloterdijk, “Der Mensch, das Stammeswesen,” NZZ, 27 January 2018

iv Rassemblement National, Alternative für Deutschland and Movimento 5 Stelle

v National Endowment for Democracy (NED).

vi As Obama administration official and Brookings senior fellow Amanda Sloat has written, “The United States and the EU were slow in condemning the putsch” against Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and ultimately “were seen as condemning more strongly the government’s response to the coup than the coup itself.” The same could be said for President Mohammed Morsi and the rise of President Al-Sisi, when United States foreign policy circles focused on Brotherhood provocations rather than the repressive crackdown.

vii In the words of Zbigniew Brzezinski, the “vitality of our political systems is a central precondition for the shaping of a stable international order.”

  • “The EU, rise of postcolonial powers and liberal world order”pp.85-86, Transatlantic Academy, 2013;
  •  Barry R. Posen, “The Rise of Illiberal Hegemony,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2018, p.22
  •  Charles A. Kupchan, “The Clash of Exceptionalisms,” Foreign Affairs, March/April, pp.143-5
  • Barry R. Posen, “The Rise of Illiberal Hegemony,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2018, p.22

viii William Byron, Transl. of Jean-François Revel, Comment les démocraties finissent,

ix Yascha Mounk’s People vs Democracy.

x Ziblatt and Levitsky.

xi William A. Galston, “The Populist Challenge to Liberal Democracy,” Journal of Democracy, April 2018

xii Bauman, Zygmunt. (2002). “Reconnaissance wars of the Planetary Frontierland. (State of Emergency)”. Theory, Culture & Society, 19(4), 81-90, Giorgio Agamben “Une guerre contre l’Europe” Propos recueillis par Tiziana Mian [07 avril 2003]

xiii Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe ; “FIGHT AGAINST TERRORISM: STATE OF EMERGENCY MUST BE ‘SHORT AS POSSIBLE’ IN TIME AND SPACE.” States News Service, 27 Jan. 2016. Academic OneFile, Accessed 13 Feb. 2018.

xivPaye, J. (2017). Sovereignty and the state of emergency: France and the United States. Monthly Review, 68(8), 1-11.

xv (Human Rights Watch 2016); Witold Mucha. (2017). POLARIZATION, STIGMATIZATION, RADICALIZATION. COUNTERTERRORISM AND HOMELAND SECURITY IN FRANCE AND GERMANY. Journal for Deradicalization, (10), 230-254.

xvi Gianfranco Pasquino, The Democratic Disconnect, GMF pp.40-41.

xviiIn the early 1980s, all of Western Europe was fully democratic for the first time since 1922 — Greece, Portugal and Spain were the recent additions.


This essay was written for presentation at the Brookings Institution conference on “The Anatomy of Illiberal States” held in April 2018. The author is grateful to Torrey Taussig, Alina Polyakova and Andrew Moffatt for helpful feedback.



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