Six Appraisals of the Illiberal Mind


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July 18, 2021

Six Appraisals of the Illiberal Mind

  • Democracy
  • Hungary
  • Illiberalism
  • Liberalism
  • Poland
Book Cover: The End of the Liberal Mind

Book Cover: The End of the Liberal Mind

The recent history of Hungarian-Polish relations reveals two opposite processes in the troubled chronicles of democracy in Central Europe. In the 1980s, the founders of the Hungarian democratic opposition were inspired by Polish dissidents and travelled to Poland to learn the tactics of underground activism from the Solidarity movement. This grassroots transfer in the service of building up liberal democracy was contrasted in the 2010s by an inverse process of top-level borrowing that resulted in the gradual breaking down of democracy. The government ruled by Jarosław Kaczyński’s Law and Justice party (PiS) diligently emulated Viktor Orbán’s illiberal model by capturing state media, politically subjugating the court system, cracking down on the civic sector, waging a rhetorical war with Brussels and a cultural war at home. The current autocratic affinity between the two former political dissidents has led to a dispiriting antidemocratic convergence in Central Europe.

Understanding the illiberal transformative processes within these two countries has relevance beyond the region itself. The authors collected in the volume The End of the Liberal Mind: Poland’s New Politics – namely, Karolina Wigura, Jarosław Kuisz, Rafał Matyja, Stefan Sękowski, Maciej Gdula, Tomasz Sawczuk – see Poland as a political laboratory and examine illiberalism as an alarming experiment that holds lessons for the rest of Europe and the world. As Wigura notes in her introduction, the local political disruptions analyzed in the book are structural and indicate a general crisis of liberal democracy. Using a variety of approaches, the six authors give their diagnoses of this crisis and outline pathways towards overcoming the illiberal deadlock.

Each account starts by scrutinizing Poland’s “old politics,” to identify the pathologies of the country’s post-1989 political culture and to contextualize PiS’s epochal electoral victory in 2015. Stefan Sękowski’s contribution sheds light on key distortions of “really existing” liberal democracy in postcommunist Poland, traits recognizable throughout the Central European region and beyond. He points to the “progressing codependence between the legislative and executive branches, as well as power centers outside the politically and constitutionally mandated system” as causing the undermining of the rule of law already under the governance of Donald Tusk’s Civic Platform (PO) between 2007 and 2014. Moreover, this concentration of power made parliamentary debate an empty ritual and the deliberative process superfluous. Rafał Matyja criticizes the protracted and toxic PO vs. PiS duopoly that created the conditions of the deep polarization that plagues Poland today. He reminds readers how, for more than a decade, the two parties built their electoral success on the perpetuation of an all-consuming bitter conflict, exploiting real or imagined divisions in Polish society, in ways reminiscent of the U.S. context.

Similarly damning is the insight that liberal governance, as it was presented and implemented by its Polish guardians, alienated a significant number of citizens. The liberal meta-narrative, anchored in symbolic conclusions like the fall of communism in 1989 and the joining of the EU in 2004, seemed to suggest not just the end of history, but of politics as well – thereby ceasing to be progressive or inspiring. Tomasz Sawczuk identifies this anti-political stance as one of the greatest weaknesses of liberal politics in his country, giving as illustration Civic Platform’s 2010 slogan for municipal election (“Let’s not ‘do politics.’ Let’s build bridges, sports grounds, and schools.”) Devoid of civic engagement, governance had become a distant, non-transparent, and unimaginative machine, entrenching in citizens the “belief that the state was external to society.” For a variety of social, cultural, and economic reasons – which have accumulated throughout the past decades and which cannot be reduced to single-factor explanations – many Poles (and Hungarians, Americans, etc.) did not share this complacent and celebratory liberal disposition. Feeling unrepresented and unable to articulate their political needs, they were ready to question the legitimacy of the entire liberal paradigm. 

What makes the illiberal turn in both Poland and Hungary remarkable, especially given the popular dissatisfaction with the status quo, is that it was not spearheaded by anti-establishment political adventurers but orchestrated by figures central to the political mainstream. Orbán and Kaczyński had been representatives of a center-right position for decades, yet being also “smooth operators” – according to Matyja – they were “quicker than most to grasp the new emotions in society,” transforming into the pioneers of illiberal populism. Both used the landslide electoral victories of their parties (hailed as a “revolution in the voting booths” by Orbán) to introduce unchecked majority rule, presenting it as a mandate to carry out the “will of the people.” 

The salient and intentional similarities between the Polish and Hungarian contexts are evidenced by the governments’ combative rhetoric, their treatment of the opposition, of the media, and of NGOs. Such illiberal convergence coexists with significant differences as well, seen mainly in foreign policy, where Hungary’s close relations with Putin’s Russia would be unacceptable in Poland. Likewise, in terms of social policy, the welfare populism advanced by PiS can be contrasted to Hungary’s neoliberal (mis)handling of rising inequality and poverty, built on the notion that “those who have nothing are worth just that.” The main correspondence between Central European illiberal regimes lies in their genesis, conceptualized by Matyja as a “symbolic revolution,” whereby populist leaders imposed a “radical restructuring of the political imagination” and a rewriting of the post-1989 liberal narrative. In other words, Orbán and Kaczyński reacted to the mounting crisis of liberal democracy by rejecting it tout court.

Consequently, a recurring question in the volume asks: What did they create instead? Does the radical and controversial shift in Polish and Hungarian political discourse signify a paradigmatic transformation in the substance of governance in these countries – and if so, how to define this new stage? The opinions of the authors differ on whether the PiS government represents a continuation and expansion of the previous pathologies of Central European democratic regimes; or whether it inaugurated a qualitatively different and decidedly non-democratic rule. Sękowski, having articulated a scathing critique of pre-2015 Polish politics, sees no change in the essential coordinates of governance, sarcastically calling Kaczyński “less an authoritarian than a democrat cubed,” operating in an “illiberal and unbalanced” democracy. Matyja reaches a similar conclusion, stating that PiS did not create “an alternative to the Third Polish Republic” but ushered in the “sad decline of its political order, an over-amplification of its mistakes.” Conversely, the other four authors consider the various controversial moves by PiS as anti-democratic, or as the “transfiguration of the Republic of Poland” into new-authoritarianism, to use Gdula’s term.

If Poland is a political laboratory with a relatively novel and ongoing experiment, then Hungary, comparatively, presents a clearer and bleaker case, with the decade-long illiberal experiment resulting in a full-blown institutional and political makeover that alarms some and inspires others. Undoubtedly, Orbán’s regime continues the cynicism and the corruption of preceding Hungarian governments (as many Fidesz voters readily admit, yet still preferring the “devil they know”). But from the very start, his majority-rule government was willing to unapologetically go the proverbial extra mile, crossing into authoritarian territory and exercising power unilaterally. As observers are quick to point out, the regime has not used political violence; however, this unquestionably important qualification should not distract from the fact that the Hungarian government is fostering an atmosphere of intimidation and censorship within all state institutions (most recently, in hospitals), while engaging in constant discursive and economic violence against its own citizens (as seen in the newly adopted anti-LGBTQ law). 

Moreover, the regime is committed to preserving its power through all the technical, administrative, cultural, and social means that its illiberal architects can think up, treating Parliament, the Presidency, and the Constitutional Court as rubber stamps. If Hungary currently looks, walks, and talks like an authoritarian regime, there is a good chance that it is indeed one. Especially under the cover of the pandemic, as the government repeatedly extended the “state of danger,” a special legal order that allows rule by decree. This was used to capture a number of educational and cultural institutions through targeted privatization, with the thinly veiled aim of maintaining influence even if the 2022 elections prove to be unfavorable for them. As a result, the country’s remote-control simulacrum “democracy” has earned the label of “Transitional or Hybrid Regime” from Freedom House, confirming the predictions of political scientists. Whether Poland might be heading in the same direction is still unclear, even as the authors in the present volume are documenting the warning signs. 

However, while it feels satisfying and justified to label the “new politics” of rogue Central European governments as anti-democratic, a self-reflexive examination of this definitional gesture could bring us closer to understanding the logic of the illiberal mind. Because both the danger and the strength of the radical challenge mounted by illiberal populism against liberal democracy lies in effectively questioning the legitimacy of such “neutral” or “universal” categorizations – and presenting them as self-serving enunciations in a battle of words. In my view, the postmodern glee with which leaders like Orbán brush off the idea of independent epistemic arbiters of democracy, of the rule of law, of wrong and right, is not sufficiently investigated in the book.

As a strange and unacknowledged echo of past leftist critiques, illiberals see liberalism as a “pernicious and efficacious ideology […] that disavows its own interests and violence,” and perpetuates forms of thought that mask the operations of power. In illiberal hands the rejection of what Amanda Anderson calls liberalism’s “structuring illusion” essentially externalizes an entire liberal paradigm as a ploy by “foreign” interests, relativizing all of its truth claims. This crude hermeneutics of suspicion has been deployed as the silver bullet of illiberal political communication (e.g., recall Trump’s response to unfavorable reports as “fake news”). What makes such a radical challenge against the liberal paradigm difficult to counter is the undeniably duplicitous masking rhetoric that self-declared liberal democracies often use to cover up their questionable historical record. At the same time, what makes it also utterly absurd is the notion that Polish, Hungarian, etc., liberalism is the instrument of foreign interests and all those who speak in its name are alien to the nation. 

In true nativist fashion, illiberal populists want to root the source of authenticity and truth in the local and the ethnonational – deifying the “familiar” (swojskość) and turning their backs on the world at large, as Sawczuk observes in his essay. Instead of fawning over foreign liberal tricks, populists propose a homegrown interpretation of democracy and law, presenting it all in an emancipatory and counter-hegemonic light. Contrary to Ivan Krastev’s point, made in the introduction to the volume about rebellious “Eastern Europe” realizing that the “West” remains its only reference point, illiberals in Central Europe rather gladly question all such reference points in their self-centered defiance. 

It was this grand narrative of self-generating and self-sufficient autochthonous governance that was welcomed by many Hungarians and Poles. According to Karolina Wigura, illiberal politicians “identified and articulated the feeling of loss” shared by citizens and translated it into active emotions of “resentment, hate, and the reactive desire to regain control and put up defenses.” While this approach might be useful in conceptualizing the psychological profile of some voters, it offers only a partial explanation for the repeated electoral victories of illiberal populists. Complementing the negative emotions of loss, which created a predisposition to accept the populist message, there needed to also be positive emotions of fulfillment, mobilizing voters to fiercely support the illiberal governments in power. Based on sociological research conducted among PiS voters, Gdula observes that “support for neo-authoritarian politicians comes from the sense of gratification through participation in a political drama choreographed by the leader.” The illiberal show offers something that liberal politics were unable to: the promise of creating new forms of political identification and empowerment, a sense of increased agency and control over reality. The fact that such empowerment is mostly symbolic, built on the humiliation and exclusion of opponents, and results in the elimination of the few existing forms of civic involvement and oversight, does not seem to change the minds of illiberal converts.

How should the crisis of liberal democracy and its – so far successful – illiberal challenge be addressed? Thinking about how to move forward is still very much a work in progress for the authors collected in the volume. What they share is a frustration regarding the rhetoric and performance of the current political opposition in Poland, Wigura calling it “feeble and unimaginative.” Even more critical, Matyja feels that “Poland’s political laboratory has failed to produce a single new idea to oppose populism.” Sawczuk articulates an explanation, stating that mainstream liberalism has nothing to contribute on issues related to the “future of capitalism, the environmental crisis, technological advances, and tangible dimensions of civil rights and liberties in a transforming world.”

Nonetheless, a recurring idea in the essays is to look to Poland’s youth for hope of transcending the polarization between the illiberal government and its matching opposition. Sękowski calls for a “change of the guard – primarily in mentality,” because in his view the older generation that “remembers the Polish People’s Republic look at the future through the lens of ‘us’ versus ‘them.’” Likewise, Matyja expects Poles in their twenties and thirties to step into the political ring, to “counter the weakness of today’s political elites […] and undertake a serious revision of history and our national Imaginarium,” seeing this as the only possibility for the “qualitative transformation of the present party political contest.” While projecting boundless democratic energies and a transformational potential onto the generations that were born after 1989 and were socialized in a democratic country is entirely understandable, the automatism implied in the prognosed change remains questionable.

In both Poland and Hungary, surveys about the political engagement of youth show an ambivalent picture that should tame ambitious expectations – yet another Central European convergence. It is worth recalling that in the 2015 elections the right-wing message of PiS was by far the most popular choice for first-time voters in Poland. According to a 2020 survey, sympathies have shifted since then, with 30% in the 18-24 age bracket declaring that they held left-wing views (up from 17% in 2019) and 23% identifying as centrists. Whether these results signal an upcoming political transformation is at least questioned by the fact that only 18% of young people have a strong or very strong interest in politics. 

The situation in Hungary is perhaps even more open-ended when it comes to counting on the youth as a decisive factor in future elections. A 2020 online survey focusing on the age-group 16-29 found a puzzling tendency: a low level of interest in politics and public affairs (17% very interested, 38% not or not at all) and a high level of dissatisfaction with the current political situation and the government (higher than 60%). Research conducted among Hungarian college students in 2019 found that the governing Fidesz party was tied in popularity (16%) with the Momentum Movement, a recently formed centrist-liberal party that has pronouncedly young members and leaders. Within the more generally ambivalent political scene, there were also luminously positive examples, like the protest of the students from the University of Theatre and Film Arts (SZFE) against the government’s infringement on university autonomy, giving the country and, hopefully, its youth a remarkable lesson in democratic energy and principles.

A more promising idea put forward in the volume is to address illiberalism by reimagining liberal politics in a way that could both inspire and involve citizens, young and old. Gdula rightly points out that new alternatives cannot be merely reactive, focusing “exclusively on mobilizing voters through fear of losing democracy and freedom.” Matyja emphasizes that a new agenda must come from outside the present political party system, “proposed by social movements, non-governmental organizations, or independent think tanks.” Sawczuk calls for a “better narrative about the goals of our progress,” one that upholds the accomplishments of the “first stable incarnation of liberal democracy in Poland” but moves beyond the complacency of mainstream liberalism. 

Perhaps most articulate about the ways to think forward, Gdula and Sawczuk seem to agree that the answer must involve improving the quality of civic participation in politics and broadening the sphere of public dialogue. The former stresses that the combativeness of illiberals should be offset by politics built on recognition and cooperation, aiming to create a form of engagement that “ties self-agency to responsibility for others and social solidarity.” The latter proposes a more self-aware Polish liberalism, one that is ready to abandon some of its conventional features, like the blind commitment to free-market dogmatism and the dependence on the Catholic Church for support. Instead, it should have a conversational tone, working towards a “democratic ideal that envisions members of a political community who develop the rules of its operation by expressing their needs,” and be guided by pragmatism, “solving local problems, addressing citizens’ everyday needs […] to achieve a more just social order.”

Despite the title of the volume, what the authors seem to be suggesting is that attention should shift from lamenting the “end of the liberal mind” in Central Europe to preparing its comprehensive transformation. This would not be the first self-critical and self-correcting phase in the long history of liberalism that – to return to Anderson once more – can be read as a continuous “situated response” to ethical, philosophical, and historical challenges. For those committed to the unfinished process of liberal democracy, the response to the rule of illiberal populists should not be a return to old answers, but a creative rediscovery of the willingness to learn and to change.


Szabolcs László, Indiana University, Bloomington


The piece is part of the Democracy Seminar Thinking About The Crisis of Liberal Democracy Through a Polish Lens: A Symposium on The End of the Liberal Mind: Poland’s New Politics.


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