• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author

A liberal defence of populism

Commentaries predicting the “end of liberalism” or the ascendancy of a “dark era” of illiberalism now constitute a growth industry. “Liberalism,” writes one pundit, “is now in trouble.”(1) “Is this the beginning of the end of liberal democracy?” asks another.(2) Others opine that “Liberalism Isn’t Working.”(3) Laments about the fall of liberalism are often coupled with ominous warning about the rise of the dark forces of illiberalism. I have stopped counting the articles and essays that characterize the outcome of an election or referendum that they don’t like, as a “revolt against liberalism.”(4)

Nervousness about the precarious status of liberalism is invariably coupled these days with alarmist accounts about the supposed threat posed by hordes of authoritarian populist movements. Indeed, anti-populist political commentators appear to be obsessed with the inter-related issues of the crisis of liberalism and the threat posed by populism to the liberal world order. There is a veritable moral panic directed at the danger of populism and the threat it poses to free and open societies.

In Europe, in particular, anti-populist discourse often evokes memories of the final days of the Weimar Republic. Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission (EC), appears to believe that the fight against populism is akin to a holy war. When Juncker declared that “we have to fight nationalism” and “block the avenue of populism,” he frequently evokes memories associated with the good fight against fascism.(5) Even religious figures have internalized the populism-as-fascism cultural script. Pope Francis has not yet issued a papal bull against populism, but he has warned that populism could lead to the election of “saviours” who are similar to Hitler.

Nor is the meme exclusive to Europe. Madeleine Albright is writing a book on “fascism,” which she sees rising against liberalism in the West. As with much of this narrative on both sides of the Atlantic, the words “populist,” “fascist,” “illiberal,” and “anti-democratic” are essentially interchangeable.

At times the invective hurled at so-called populist movements and governments exposes a palpable sense of incomprehension toward its target. Take some of the criticisms levelled at Hungary, which is arguably the European anti-populist’s worst nightmare. Writing in Prospect, Nick Cohen has no doubt that Hungary is run by a malevolent tyrant. But he is also aware that the reality of everyday life in Hungary contradicts his depiction of a populist nightmare:

“Yet, unlike the dictatorships of the 20th century, the classic authoritarian regimes of the 21st do not feel like tyrannies. Budapest is a modern European capital. Environmentally conscious citizens can cycle, walk and run far easier than in London or Edinburgh. The tourist traps are full. Cruise boats sail the Danube. As for the oppressive state, I barely saw a police officer in two weeks.”(6)

Cohen grudgingly concedes that the government of Victor Orbán is relatively popular and is likely to win the Hungarian general election to be held next year. This is so not because these elections will be unfairly fixed, but because “the left is divided” and “its factions appear to hate each other more than they hate Orbán and in any case have their own history of corruption and incompetence to live down.” It seems that Cohen’s problem with Orbán, as with some other so-called populist politicians, is that they are too popular.

The current form of the anti-populism narrative constitutes a sublimated critique of popular sovereignty and democratic decision-making. In recent years sections of the Western political class have been disconcerted by the outcome of elections and referenda. In some cases, these elites’ disappointment with their capacity to motivate and influence the electorate has crystallized into an anti-democratic sensibility toward public life. For example, James Traub, an American critic of the “illiberal democracy” prevailing in Hungary, sounds distinctly illiberal in his condemnation of the people who voted for causes he dislikes. In an essay titled, “It’s Time for the Elites to Rise Up Against the Ignorant Masses,” Traub asserts that developments such as Britain’s vote for Brexit indicate that the “political schism of our time” is not between the Left and the Right but between “the sane vs. the mindless angry.”(7) He regards the “ignorant masses” as his moral inferiors who need to be re-educated by the enlightened elites:

“Did I say ‘ignorant’? Yes, I did. It is necessary to say that people are deluded and that the task of leadership is to un-delude them.”(8)

The conviction that people who support the “wrong” kind of political movements are ignorant and stupid allows Traub to adopt the paternalistic tone typically associated with the authoritarian elitism he decries.

The intemperate language adopted by anti-populist polemicists is underwritten by a disturbing tendency to regard democracy as a mixed blessing. They don’t simply blame people for voting the wrong way or voting against their interests but also accuse sections of the electorate of lacking the moral and intellectual resources necessary for acting as responsible citizens. Such pessimistic assessments of the capacity of the people to vote the right way has led to the questioning of the value of democracy itself.(9) It seems that some anti-populists are far more interested in de-legitimizing the moral status of their opponents than in attempting to understand their own responsibility for the setbacks liberalism has suffered.

What is more, there is a kind of parallax problem peeping through some of this criticism. In Western Europe there is a liberalism to defend, however anti-democratic and elitist it has become in some instances. But in most of central and Eastern Europe there isn’t. In Hungary, for example, there are almost no genuine liberals to revolt against. Nearly the same is true in Poland, and even in the Czech Republic. To greater or lesser degrees, these societies never produced the broad middle class bastions of liberal democracy, so their political economies have never exhibited the same structure as those of Britain, France, the Netherlands, and so on. As a result, it makes very little sense to use terms like populist and illiberal, as though they applied identically to all European societies.

Populism and Legitimacy

Many of the movements that are described as populist or as illiberal constitute a reaction to the anti-political, technocratic version of liberalism that emerged in recent decades, especially in Europe.(10) This version of liberalism is characteristically illiberal in the original sense of the term, and it is certainly anti-democratic. The disdain of contemporary advocates of liberalism toward democracy—at least when it fails to produce the “right” results—is one of the most awkward yet rarely noted features of public life in 21st-century Western societies.

Not that this is new. Postwar European elites were fairly suspicious of “too much” democracy, because they feared that mob-driven, weak parliamentary democracies were capable of producing monsters like Mussolini and Hitler. The American Founders, not least James Madison, created a host of mediations between a plebiscitory form of democracy and the republican form they sought: the Federal system, the Supreme Court, and the Senate, whose members were originally elected by state legislatures.

So it really comes down to judgments about the most prudent balance between the means of popular sovereignty and checks on mob rule, and some believe, not without reason, that the scales have tipped too far in the latter direction. For example, though worried about the declining influence of liberalism, Sohrab Ahmari has drawn attention to the narrow-minded, counter-majoritarian, and instrumentalist orientation of many self-styled liberals toward democracy. After noting that the “liberal mainstream” often pursues its “own agenda rather than the interests of the voters they are supposed to serve,” Ahmari added that, “on both sides of the Atlantic, mainstream parties have been too ready to short circuit the democratic process when they fear it won’t produce the desired liberal outcomes.”(11)

Ahmari rightly observed that counter-majoritarian technocratic governance has provoked a significant “illiberal” backlash:

“From Obama’s executive order on immigration, to the imposition of gay marriage by judicial fiat, to the EU’s attempts to punish voters in Poland and elsewhere for electing the wrong kind of government, to the efforts by European and American transnationalists to ‘download’ liberal norms into national legal systems, liberal disdain for self-government is bolstering illiberals.”(12)

Other observers share Ahmari’s diagnosis of the problem of “undemocratic liberalism,” and its responsibility for provoking a populist reaction. Though hostile toward contemporary populism, the political scientist Cas Mudde has recognized that it constitutes an “illiberal democratic” response to “undemocratic liberalism.” He wrote, quite accurately, that populism “criticizes the exclusion of important issues from the political agenda by the elites and calls for their repoliticization.”(13) Indeed, the phenomenon that Mudde describes as “undemocratic liberalism” is no less illiberal than those accused of threatening liberal values.

Though there are many causes and issues that motivate citizens to support movements described as populist, their estrangement from non-responsive and unresponsive technocratic institutions is surely one of them. Writing of the “demotic source” of appeal of leaders like Orbán, the political scientist Jeffrey C. Isaac contends that a “great many right and left populists do ‘play on the register’ of democratic values, and challenge real deficiencies of liberal democracy.”(14)

This sentiment is particularly striking in Europe, where popular opinion is often sharply at odds with the attitudes of the so-called liberal political elites. A Chatham House study of ten European Union (EU) countries indicated that “there is simmering discontent within the public, large sections of whom view the EU in negative terms, want to see it return some powers to member states.” The report The Future of Europe: Comparing Public and Elite Attitudes pointed out that only 34 percent of the public believes that they have benefitted from the European Union, compared to 71 percent of the elites.(15)

In Europe, and particularly within the European Union, counter-majoritarian governance has become deeply entrenched. This development is not surprising since, as already noted, the legacy of two world wars had left the political classes of Western Europe apprehensive about the dynamics of mass politics. Such concerns led them to adopt institutional and constitutional arrangements designed to insulate them from the volatility of public opinion and the pressure of the masses. As Jan-Werner Müller observed, “insulation from popular pressures and, more broadly, a deep distrust of popular sovereignty, underlay not just the beginnings of European integration, but the political reconstruction of Western Europe after 1945 in general.”(16) The architects of the European Union were not simply suspicious of popular sovereignty as a pragmatic matter, as Müller explained, but “also had deep reservations about the idea of parliamentary sovereignty.”(17)

The postwar constitutional settlements sought to limit the role of parliament through assigning significant power to the judiciary and newly constructed constitutional courts. Bureaucratic institutions also gained significant influence, especially through the medium of the European unification. The establishment of the European Economic Council (EEC) in 1958 followed by the launching of the European Union itself in 1993 continued with the tradition of depoliticizing contentious issues and adopting a form of technocratic governance.

In recent decades, the advocates of European unity have explicitly sought to depoliticize national sovereignty as well, and to constrain democracy as a means to that end. Their arguments were invariably conveyed through the claim that in a modern globalized world, national parliaments and constituencies are ill suited for dealing with the complex challenges of governance, many of which transcend borders and are global in character. From this perspective, pragmatic considerations inexorably led to the replacement of the demos with the wise counsel of the technocrat.

Distrust of the people and of parliamentary sovereignty was reinforced by the concern that, on its own, liberal democracy lacks the normative foundation to inspire the loyalty and affection of ordinary citizens. The transnational orientation of EU political culture is designed to avoid engagement with the electorate insofar as possible, and to convince citizens to adopt views that are generally unpopular in wider society. It relies on the authority of transnational or international institutions to side step having to win arguments on contentious issues.

One reason the West European political establishment is prepared to endow the European Court of Human Rights with a quasi-sacred authority is to ensure that fundamental questions touching on moral norms are taken out of the realm of politics. The outsourcing of moral and political authority to an apparently independent institution like the Court of Human Rights or the Constitutional Court is symptomatic of the difficulty that postwar liberal democracy has in dealing honestly within the realm of values.

The institutionalization of anti-majoritarian practices is accepted as sound practice by partisans of the European Union. In addition to depoliticizing decision-making through the use of courts, the supporters of the federalist project in Europe rely on expert technocratic authority to assume responsibility for policymaking. Andrew Moravcsik has outlined the justification for this procedure:

“The apparently ‘counter-majoritarian’ tendency of the EU political institutions insulated from direct democratic contestation arises out of factors that themselves have normative integrity, notably efforts to compensate for the ignorance and nonparticipation of citizens, to make terrible commitments to rights enforcement, and to offset the power of special interests.”(18)

From this standpoint, the existence of popular sovereignty serves to distort the running of EU institutions and so counter-majoritarian institutions are deemed necessary to tame the electorate.

The anti-populist narrative—at least in the European context—constitutes a response to popular pressure. Since such pressure implicitly calls into question the accountability of the European Union’s institutions, they threaten to expose their shallow base of democratic legitimacy. As the Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev observed, at the “heart of the conflict” is “the clash between liberal rationalism embodied by EU institutions and the populist revolt against the unaccountability of the elites.”(19) In the context of European political life, hostility toward the unaccountability of the elites frequently assumes the form of Euroskepticism, and has earned over the years the sobriquet of “the democracy deficit.” The response of EU propagandists to Euroskepticism has been to condemn it as ipso facto xenophobic, racist, and a threat to peace and stability.

The European Union’s uncompromising anti-populism is at least in part stirred by an apprehension toward the reliability of national electorates. That is why Jürgen Habermas, one the most fervent intellectual advocates of the European Union, could so casually write off national electorates as “the preserve of right-wing nationalism” and condemn them as “the caricature of national macrosubjects shutting themselves off from each other.”(20) This typically contemptuous reaction runs parallel to a deep reluctance to engage in a battle to win the hearts and minds of the public. They find it easier to blame the ignorance and prejudices of the people than to acknowledge their own difficulty in elaborating a compelling normative foundation for their political project.

The Two Faces of Illiberalism

Back in 1997, when Fareed Zakaria penned his influential essay, “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy,” most commentators could not have known that, less than a decade later, some political leaders would self-consciously praise the virtues of illiberal democracy.(21) The Western media was shocked when, in July 2014, Victor Orbán explicitly embraced illiberal democracy as his ideal. Since that moment, Orbán has been frequently cited as the exemplar of illiberal populism. Yet in the contemporary era, critics of illiberalism often evince attitudes that are very similar to those they attribute to their opponents. As Ahmari observed in response to conflicts surrounding cultural values and identity politics, “often various illiberalisms are locked in combat against one another.”(22) Many critics of illiberal democracy appear to be unaware of the fact that some of their views have little in common with the tradition of classical liberalism.

Historically, liberalism has been in the forefront of expanding the domain of freedom and tolerance. As Steven Holmes observed in his important study, The Anatomy of Antiliberalism, religious toleration and freedom of discussion are two of the “core practices” of liberalism.(23) Yet in recent times self-declared liberals have found it difficult to be tolerant of religion and sometimes write off fellow citizens who espouse a strong sense of faith as prejudiced fundamentalists. Moreover, hostility to populism and illiberal democracy is rarely coupled with a positive affirmation of freedom and liberty.

As Holmes noted, “That public disagreement is a creative force may have been the most novel and radical principle of liberal politics.”(24) Certainly on this point, self-described 21st-century liberals have often been found wanting. Throughout the Western world they have been actively engaged in lobbying for laws that limit freedom of speech and of expression. The new genre of European “hate laws,” which criminalizes the voicing of hate, is the outcome of political campaigning for such an expressive law by activists associated with leftist causes.

However, it is within the system of higher education that the paternalistic and authoritarian temper of 21st-century liberalism is most evident, even in the United States. In universities liberalism has developed authoritarian tendencies that express themselves in the policing of speech and through social engineering initiatives directed at pressurising people to alter their views and attitudes.(25) Demonstrators in American universities carrying placards stating “Free Speech Is Hate Speech” illustrate the low regard sections of the academic community have for this precious freedom. It is a sign of the times that liberal commentators can depict free speech as a political weapon used by right-wing extremists.(26) That the valuation of free speech is frequently called into question on the campuses of ostensibly liberal universities indicates that, almost imperceptibly, the liberal value of tolerance has mutated into the illiberal advocacy of censorship.

The main difference between the two faces of illiberalism is that, unlike the unacknowledged illiberalism of activists demanding that new undergraduates attend anti-bias or diversity workshops, Orbán explicitly justified his version. The concept of illiberal democracy he outlined in July 2014 is congruent with the Burkean version of conservative thought. An emphasis on the maintenance of an organic relationship with a community’s traditions was a central theme in Burke’s idealization of a contract linking the generations as well as the living community of the moment. Orbán nationalism is essentially conservative, communitarian, nationalist, and Christian, and it stands in explicit opposition to what, in his view, is liberalism’s failure to affirm the values that underpin family, community, and national life. His speech defined the objective of his government as a determination to

“harmonize the relationship between the interests and achievement of individuals—that needs to be acknowledged—with interests and achievements of the community, and the nation. . . . The Hungarian nation is not a simple sum of individuals, but a community that needs to be organized, strengthened and developed, and in this sense, the new state that we are building is an illiberal state, a non-liberal state. It does not deny foundational values of liberalism, of freedom, etc. But it does not make this ideology a central element of state organization, but applies a specific, national, particular approach in its stead.”(27)

In other words, Orbán advocates a conservative communitarian conception of the state. By publicly flaunting his view he communicated the simple message that he was an unashamed nationalist in his cultural outlook and above all a Hungarian. If this view wins elections, what is there that is undemocratic about it? For that matter, what is populist about it? Are critics simply conflating the mean of “popular” with “populist” without bothering to define the latter?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “illiberal” can mean both an opposition to liberal opinions in politics and “not generous in respect to the opinions, rights, or liberty of others; narrow-minded, bigoted.” Illiberalism in this latter sense can translate to ethnic chauvinism, but it can also accurately describe the attitudes of many anti-populist critics of illiberal democracy. This suggests, among other things, that some critics of populism and of Hungarian conservative nationalism are simply unaware of their own illiberal attitudes and assumptions. One of the most unattractive features such illiberal liberals are their frequent displays of paternalism. Without much reflection, they assume that they possess the right to impose their attitudes and views on those who do not share them.

Such paternalism, which used to go under the phrase “consciousness raising” during the heydays of Sixties protest culture, is all too visible in universities in the Anglo-American world. In some universities students are expected to participate in diversity awareness classes and to adopt the values these classes promote regardless of their own inclinations. Such illiberal paternalism is bad enough within the confines of a university. It becomes far more troublesome when similar arguments are used to instruct people in other societies—such as in Eastern Europe—about what values they must adopt if they are to be considered mature Europeans.

A Distorted View of Populism

Twenty-first century liberals often regard the “forces of populism” as their bitter foe. Yet, as already suggested, it is far from evident what they mean by the term. The application of a single term to account for movements of the far left, far right, those without any clear ideological attachments, the governments of Venezuela, Turkey, Russia, Poland, and Hungary all together, lacks even a hint of conceptual clarity. Populism is increasingly used as a moral category, not an analytic one, in order to condemn and devalue its targets. For all practical purposes, “populists” are bad people with wrong ideas. Krastev raises an important question when he asks, “Who decides which policies are ‘populist’ and which are ‘sound’?”(28) He knows the answer: For the time being, at least, the decision rests entirely with a coterie of influential anti-populists.

It was not always so. In the past, populism served as a form of self-designation knowingly applied to describe themselves. During the 19th century, for example, the Narodniks in Russia, like the People’s Party in the United States, took pride in their populist outlook. In the 21st century, anti-populists define the term exclusively as one applied to their opponents. One sees this in the fact that the academic literature on populism is typically hostile to its subject matter and often projects values and attitudes on movements that its members would not recognize as their own. For example, Ruth Wodak’s The Politics of Fear associates “EU-scepticism” with a “chauvinist, nativist view of ‘the people’ and with an extreme right-wing orientation.”(29) This coupling of extreme right-wing inclinations with Euroskepticism no doubt owes its origin to a genuine incomprehension of the phenomenon, but it also distorts a reality where the aspiration for democracy and solidarity has disillusioned millions of people with the European Union.

In the 21st century, the main distinguishing feature of movements labelled populist is their tendency to challenge the cultural values espoused by the political establishment. As the political theorist Margaret Canovan points out, unlike so-called social movements, populism does not merely challenge the holder of power but also “elite values.” Therefore, its hostility is also directed at “opinion formers and the media.”(30) Often the challenge posed by populist movements to elite values is expressed through their reluctance to abandon customs and traditions that elites have discarded: sentiments described by the use of that confusing term “nostalgia.”

Many of the reactions and attitudes associated with populism constitute a common quest for gaining meaning through forging of pre-political solidarity can often express itself in affirming traditional family and community life, and in the solidarity that arises within faith communities. This attempt to re-appropriate the moral in this manner abrades directly against the grain of the cultural norms that prevail in the West.

Hungary and the Problem of Political Language

In reviewing the controversy surrounding populism, I found reliance on conventional political vocabulary more of a hindrance than a help.

In the setting of Hungary, political debate is often described as a clash between the right-wing populist government of Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz and his “Leftist” and “Liberal” opponents. Whatever these labels mean now in the Hungarian context has little in common with the classical usage of these terms.

The political outlook of Fidesz is best described as a synthesis of conservative nationalism and Christian-Democracy. Insofar as it seeks to address the people of Hungary, its politics contains an important plebeian dimension. However, it does not share the hostility and suspicion that classical populism directs toward elites. Fidesz criticizes neoliberal and EU elites, not native Hungarian ones. As one of Fidesz’s academic critics concedes, “even in its most populist phase the party refrained from condemning the entire elite and elements of elitist conservatism have never completely disappeared from the party’s discourse.”(31) Within the Hungarian vernacular Fidesz is best described as a polgári party. In Hungarian the word polgári encompasses civil, citizen, and bourgeois; it is the middle-class bourgeois-citizen that constitutes the imagined audience of Fidesz.

One possible reason that foreign critics often fail to characterize the politics of the Hungarian government accurately is that they rarely encounter traditional conservatives in their own societies. Most parties associated with conservatism in Western Europe—British Tories or German Christian Democrats, for example—are estranged from the traditional values of their movement. In the 1970s they still self-consciously promoted traditional conservative values and frequently argued for going back to basics—meaning to uphold the traditional family, affirm religious morality and loyalty to nation. As a result of setbacks suffered in the Transatlantic culture wars, West European conservatives became hesitant to argue for traditional values.(32) Periodic attempts to relaunch the conservative project have often concluded with the plea to get rid of the old ideological baggage and to “modernize.”

In contrast to Western conservatives, Hungary’s Fidesz party is unapologetically traditional. Its celebration of religion, the traditional family, and national patriotism echoes the narrative that West European conservative parties actively promoted as late as the 1970s. That is why—unlike Western conservative parties—they are unashamedly right of center.

The application of the terms Left and Liberal to capture the outlook of the Hungarian opposition is even more confusing. Liberalism has always been conspicuously weak in Eastern Europe. In Hungary, liberalism was confined to a relatively small coterie of Budapest-based publicists and activists. Both before and after the Soviet takeover of Hungary, parties of the Left and the Right tended to embrace state-directed social and economic policies. In the absence of a confident and economically secure middle class, the dominant forces of state socialism and conservative nationalism easily marginalized liberalism.

Ever since the transition from the Soviet client regime in Hungary to an independent sovereign nation during 1989-90, parties described as liberal or left wing have adopted policies and practices that in the British context could be described as a synthesis of Thatcherite and Blairite politics. Almost overnight, members of the previous governing Communist Party re-emerged as unapologetic free-marketeers. Socialist politicians and governments presided over economic shock therapy that led to the privatization of the economy, mass unemployment, and the dismantling of the old Hungarian welfare state. These can be reasonably described as leftists or liberals?

The defining feature of those who are described or self-identify as liberals in Hungary is their uncritical internalization of the technocratic and elitist worldview of mainstream EU politics. They often vent their anger and frustration with the Órbán government by sending petitions and open letters demanding help from EU leaders. Unable or unwilling to engage with their fellow citizens, they look to “international opinion” to put pressure on the government. Their weary sense of impotence often leads them to lash out at those whom they label “populists.” They find it easier to blame their opponents for manipulating the masses than to acknowledge their own failure to engage with the public.

A No-Fear Zone for Liberalism

What unites the different European movements labelled populist is their rejection of the transnational elite culture of our time. Despite the attempt to represent populist movements as a distinct political species, they have little in common other than their hostility to the ideals and the political practices of technocratic governance. Even the Brexit leave campaign was motivated by a variety of different ideals and political aspirations, only bound together by a shared rejection of the values of the EU oligarchy. If there is a common goal that unites a Brexit voter and a supporter of Podemos in Spain, it is an aspiration for organic community solidarity.

Throughout the Western world, many people feel alienated and estranged from their governments and institutions. They feel patronized by technocrats, and they have become skeptical toward putative truths communicated by professional politicians and experts. Many representatives of the cultural elite claim that the people no longer care about the truth, but the real truth is simpler: They don’t care about their version of the truth. So when the French celebrity philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy declared that people have “lost interest in whether politicians tell the truth,” he was really describing an electorate that no longer shares his values. The people whom Levy patronized feel that their habits, customs, and traditions are constantly being ridiculed by an oligarchy that acts as if it has a right to dictate how people should lead their lives and behave toward each other. Consequently, many people, uncertain about their capacity to conduct their everyday affairs in accordance with their own inclinations, are drawn to movements that promise to take them seriously.

Of course, the people speak with different voices, are motivated by diverse concerns, and are drawn toward a variety of heterogeneous solutions. Many of the reactions and attitudes associated with populism constitute what Hannah Arendt described as a search for pre-political authority.(33) The common quest for gaining meaning through pre-political solidarity can express itself in many ways. That is why populist aspirations can lead people, in the quest for social solidarity, to embrace contradictory political standpoints—from a desire for more social justice and equality to anti-immigrant chauvinism.

In the long run, the relative authority of the competing cultural and political influences will determine the outcome of the anti-technocratic populist movement. In the short run, through its challenge to the values and the language of technocratic governance, populist sentiments can help to create the conditions for the re-politicization of public life, reviving a culture of political participation and democratic debate. Instead of perceiving this development as a problem, those of genuine liberal inclination should embrace it as an opportunity. They should be willing to create a no-fear zone to engage with those they label as populists.

The liberal ideals of freedom, tolerance, respect or the rule of law and democratic decision-making need to be expressed in language that resonates with the contemporary imagination. The liberal affirmation of the individual need not contradict the populist aspiration for solidarity. The cultural validation for individual rights and autonomy is a precondition for solidarity in a democratic society. This point needs to be emphasised in conversations between liberals and populists in search of their voice. Liberals need to encourage the crystallization of the current populist impulse into a political movement that infuses the aspiration for solidarity with the ideals of popular sovereignty, consent, and an uncompromising commitment to liberty. But to realize that objective, liberals must learn to empathize, articulate, and, when necessary, challenge the aspirations of the demos.

1)Samuel Bowles “The End of Liberalism,” Boston Globe June 10, 2017.

2)Toby Young, “Is this the beginning of the end of liberal democracy,” Spectator, November 21, 2015.

3)James Traub, “Liberalism Isn’t Working,” Foreign Policy, July 7, 2016

4)See, for example, “Brexit was a revolt against liberalism. We’ve entered a new political era,” Guardian, September 15, 2016.

5)Cited in Michael Savage, “Borders are worst invention ever, declares Juncker,” The Times (London), August 23, 2016.

6)Nick Cohen, “Tyranny’s new trick: in Hungary, a government wages war on liberalism,” Prospect, November 14, 2017.

7)Traub, “It’s Time for the Elites to Rise Up Against the Ignorant Masses,” Foreign Policy, June 28, 2016.

8)Traub, “It’s Time for the Elites to Rise Up Against the Ignorant Masses.”

9)See, for example, Jason Brennan, Against Democracy (Princeton University Press, 2016).

10)This argument is further developed in Furedi, Populism and the European Culture Wars: The Conflict of Values Between Hungary and the EU (Routledge, 2017).

11)Ahmari, “Illiberalism: The Worldwide Crisis,” Commentary, June, 16, 2016.

12)Ahmari, “Illiberalism.”

13)Cas Mudde, “The Problem with Populism,” Guardian, February 17, 2015,

14)See Jeffrey C. Isaac, “Is There Illiberal Democracy?” Eurozine, August 9, 2017.

15)See Thomas Raines, Matthew Goodwin, and David Cutts, “The Future of Europe: Comparing Public and Elite Attitudes,” Chatham House, June 20, 2017.

16)Müller, “Beyond Militant Democracy,” New Left Review (January/February 2012).

17)Müller, “Safeguarding Democracy Inside the EU Brussels and the Future of Liberal Order,” Transatlantic Academy Paper Series, February 20, 2013. Italics added.

18)Cited in James Heartfield, The European Union and the End of Politics (Zero Books, 2012).

19)Krastev, “The Strange Death of the Liberal Consensus,” Journal of Democracy (October 2007).

20)Habermas, “Europe’s Post-Democracy Era,” Guardian, November 10, 2011.

21)Zakaria, “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy,” Foreign Affairs (November/December, 1997).

22)Ahmari, “Illiberalism.”

23)Holmes, The Anatomy of Antiliberalism, (Harvard University Press, 1993), p.3.

24)Holmes, The Anatomy of Antiliberalism, p.4.

25)For a discussion of these trends in higher education, see Furedi, What’s Happened to the University: A Sociological Exploration of Its Infantilisation (Routledge, 2016).

26)See Jennifer Delton, “When ‘Free Speech’ Becomes a Political Weapon,” Washington Post, August 22, 2017.

27)Full text of Viktor Orbán’s speech at Băile Tuşnad (Tusnádfürdő) of July 26, 2014.

28)Krastev, “The Strange Death of the Liberal Consensus.”

29)Wodak, The Politics of Fear: What Right-Wing Populist Discourses Mean (Sage, 2015), pp. 41–3, 54–5.

30)Canovan, “Trust the people! Populism and the Two Faces of Democracy,” Political Studies (March 1999), pp. 2–16.

31)Zsolt Enyedi, “Plebeians, Citoyens, and Aristocrats or Where Is the Bottom of Bottom-up? The Case of Hungary” in Hanspeter Kriesi and Takis Pappas, eds., European Populism in the Shadow of the Great Recession: Studies in European Political Science (ECPR Press 2015).

32)I discuss the defeat of conservative values in the culture war in chapter six of Furedi, First World War: Still No End In Sight (Bloomsbury, 2014).

33)Arendt, “What Is Authority?” in Between Past and Future: Six Exercises in Political Thought (Viking, 1961). “What Is Authority?” was written in 1954.

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