The Resurgence of Illiberalism


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July 18, 2021

The Resurgence of Illiberalism

Dark Times, But Not Apocalypse

  • AUR
  • democarcy
  • Hungary
  • Illiberalism
  • Liberalism
  • Romania
Book Cover: The End of the Liberal Mind

Book Cover: The End of the Liberal Mind

This is a substantial collection of essays, including liberal, conservative and left-wing perspectives on the rise of illiberal populism as exemplified by the Polish Law and Justice Party (PiS). By focusing on Poland, the volume represents a theoretical contribution to general studies of populist and illiberal threats to democracies that simultaneously helps experts and non-experts understand the situation in Poland. As an East European scholar and women’s rights promoter who has been active in local events displaying solidarity with Polish women, and who cares about the region and the EU more generally, I believe the book could not be more timely.In her fine Introduction, co-editor Karolin Wigura considers the particular challenges to democracy presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, and concludes ominously: “Like 20th-century disasters, the pandemic has the potential to put the future of democracy in the backseat while we struggle to face the coming cataclysm. Our victory over the threat of annihilation cannot come at the cost of democracy’s annihilation.”The challenge Wigura poses is real.  But I think it is important not to exaggerate the danger.  In what follows I will expand on this theme, maintaining that while we surely face dark times, there is an important difference between dark times and apocalypse. I do not mean to imply that Wigura’s overall argument is apocalyptic. To the contrary, her general approach, also the general approach of the volume, is soberly analytical, and I fully agree with what she says: “to develop effective political methods for fighting illiberal populists, however, we must first fully understand the deep reasons for their success” (Wigura, 2020, p. 154). The pandemic crisis has revealed the deep vulnerabilities of contemporary liberal democracies, which suffer from a range of problems, from neglected and underfinanced political priorities to lack of trust in political institutions and the spread of online disinformation and conspiracy theories. These vulnerabilities are visible and quantifiable, and they afflict the entire spectrum of liberal democracies, from established ones in North America and Western Europe to newer ones in Central and Eastern Europe and Latin America.

As a scholar and as a citizen, I take seriously the threats posed by illiberal populist movements and parties to the civil rights and liberties that are central to contemporary democracies; the power and popular appeal of their rhetoric; and the way this power is amplified through the use of social media and by transnational networks.  At the same time, as a scholar and as an activist, I think it is important to refuse to credit these movements with the degree of power that they claim, and to understand their roots but also their limits and vulnerabilities. 

Historically speaking, populism is not a newcomer on the political scene, nor are different threats to our democracies, irrespective whether they are full or flawed democracies. A sense of historical proportion is important. Years ago, in the early 2000’s, Ian Hali and Megali Perrault identified various East European political parties as populist and identified a number of criteria that showed a tendency towards neopopulism (Cioflâncă, 2002, p.199). Democratic backsliding and illiberal political parties or initiatives are not new in Europe. But neither is resistance to these tendencies. And from an empirical-analytic perspective, we can identify a consistent opposition to illiberal populism wherever it appears. Even in today’s dark times, even under strict regulations, despite the closure of the public space during the pandemic, citizens continue to find ways to engage in collective action and have their voices heard.  I am referring in particular to Poland, now, and to the current protests against the decision of the Tribunal Court on abortion, in which the Law and Justice party (PiS) faces a significant parliamentary and extra-parliamentary opposition to its vision of a homogenous society. 

Poland is not an isolated case.

In Romania, my home, 2018 brought a referendum seeking to enforce the definition of marriage in the Constitution as the union between a man and a woman. Despite powerful support coming from the Romanian Orthodox Church and from an alliance between three major political parties and the Coalition for The Protection of the Family (CpF), the referendum failed. I take seriously the fact the CpF created a public space that normalizes and furthers illiberal tendencies and beliefs in Romania. It is also true that the 2020 parliamentary elections brought a new radical right wing political party into the Parliament. All is not well for democracy in Romania, a topic to which I will return below. There is cause for worry. Yet I also remind myself that the referendum was not validated, due to a low turnout of voters; that a strong countermovement opposed the referendum; and that different groups within civil society—LGBTQ, human rights, women’s rights—embraced solidarity and collective action. Similarly, in the U.S. Trump represented real danger. But he was also a catalyst for strong civil society resistance movements that culminated in 2018 with the highest number of women ever elected to the House of Representatives. And in the 2020 presidential elections Trump was defeated. Here too, Trump did not go quietly, and Trumpism remains a specter haunting both society and politics. But he is now out of office and in the opposition, and this matters.   

What I am saying is that it is important to balance gains and losses in the complex societies we live in, to endorse a strategy of eyes wide open to various sorts of threats and to understand their root causes that are also harnessed by failures of liberal democracies. At the same time, irrespective of serious threats posed by illiberal politicians and movements many times endorsed by media outlets and corporations, democratic antibodies always appear that open doors for glimpses of hope. In spite of Brexit, and the weakening of the European institutional scaffolding and mechanisms to address national illiberal crisis, democratic culture and democratic civic virtues continue to function as control instruments that bring temperance to illiberal political parties, decisions and politicians. For decades, European societies have built structures, rules, democratic culture. Even if open to reforms and criticism, this construction may have stronger pillars than many nowadays might think given the support that Orban and Kaczyński surely have. Still, the European project has not been rejected by a majority of Polish citizens. And if the EU has seen the rise of illiberal parties and governments, it has also seen the flourishing of alternative political projects, such as Green parties, that represent a very different agenda and political style.   

Illiberal populism is a political project that has achieved some success in some places. But it is not the end of history. As Rafael Matyia states in the volume: “Surfing a wave of new emotions visible to the naked eye, politicians are developing a plethora of projects. Their durability and the scale of their concomitant changes will depend not only on societal factors but also on their viability, the degree of resistance they meet in institutions and among elites, and the political aptitude of the opposition” (Matyja, 2020, p 41-42).

Every chapter in The End of the Liberal Mind identifies dangers but also possibilities, and makes clear that liberal democracy is hardly at an end. In what follows, I will focus especially on the chapters by Maciej Gdula and Tomasz Sawczuk, because they offer valuable insights that seem especially relevant to political developments in Romania as well as Poland. 

Both Gdula and Sawczuk raise serious questions about the source of strength of non-liberal, rightwing parties like PiS in liberal democracies. While some commentators regard populism as a phenomenon that emerges from the suffering and hardships of contemporary capitalism and neoliberal reforms, Gdula notes that “populists” rise to power was directly preceded by a decade of the greatest prosperity in Poland since 1989” (Gdula, 2020, p. 94). But, as Wigura writes in her conclusive remarks, “something must have been missing from those surveys, however, if that same satisfied society in 2015 elected Jarosław Kaczyński’s Law & Justice party (PiS), whose campaign slogans included ‘Poland in ruins’”(Wigura, 2020, p. 151).  In short, the success of right-wing populists eludes simple explanations.

Tomasz Sawczuk does not ignore the economic dimension. But he centers his chapter on the ideological success of PiS in promulgating a new public narrative: “a critique of the symbolic and material dimensions of the Third Republic,” that depicted liberal political elites as “subservient to foreign interests and oblivious to the needs of excluded social groups that benefited least from Poland’s economic transition” (Sawczuk, 2020, p.136). This narrative was reinforced “by criticism of the country’s social inequality, which became increasingly salient in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, and whose delayed arrival in Poland coincided with debates occasioned by the 25th anniversary of the Third Republic in 2014” (Sawczuk, 2020, p.136). 

While attentive to the power of PiS framing, Sawczuk also identifies inner weaknesses of post-1989 Polish liberalism—its anti-political character, ideological conservatism, and free-market dogmatism— and states that “throughout the history of the Third Republic, liberalism has developed in opposition to democratic politics” (Sawczuk, 2020, p. 139). In Poland, as in other Central and East European countries, conservative liberals and economic libertarians have dominated public life and policy making. The meaning of solidarity was perverted, as it was “expressed through gestures of lordly generosity to the helpless” (Sawczuk, 2020, p. 139). In Poland, social policy was framed “in terms of alms” and taxation was framed as punishment.

Sawczuk argues that for Poland the ”top political concerns ought to be the future of capitalism, the environmental crisis, technological advances, and tangible dimensions of civil rights and liberties in a transforming world” (Sawczuk, 2020, p. 143). He adds that liberal conservatism “has nothing to contribute on these issues and in practice, it has ceded the field to PiS without a fight” (Sawczuk, 2020, p. 143). What he observes about Poland is also true of Romania, where the same narrative of social benefits as alms dominates political and media discourse. It started in 2010 with the neoliberal austerity measures instituted by Traian Băsescu and Boc Government, and is today systematically rearticulated by right wing politicians and backed by media campaigns. Sexual and reproductive rights are also a major topic of concern in Romania, given it has the highest fertility rate in the EU among girls who have not even reached the age of 14. And attempts to include sexual education in the curriculum have been blocked by conservative politicians and civic mobilizations.  

Maciej Gdula also focuses on questions of framing, discussing the transformation of the Polish public sphere mainstream media institutions by the rise of new digital technologies. Within a single year (April 2016-April 18), writes Gdula, “all nine of the country’s biggest papers” experienced major losses of circulation. These changes came with deep cuts of newsroom budgets and jobs, reduction of the breadth and scope of the papers’ coverage and increased competition for readers and viewers. And this, “in turn, accelerated the shift toward producing content focused on conflict, scandal, and entertainment” (Gdula, 2020, p.96). Moving online means that media follows the logic of the Internet—a logic that poses dangers to democratic politics, as I will explain below.  Gdula points out that Kaczyński has been especially successful in marketing his politics, especially targeting rural populations who feel alienated and dispossessed and are looking for some “elite” to blame. As Gdula argues, “neo-authoritarianism” is “a political strategy of acquiring agency in a world that is increasingly unpredictable and unstable. It offers a sense of control over reality. The good news is: if this is only a political phenomenon, it can be counteracted through politics as well” (Gdula, 2020, p. 117).

I agree with Gdula. The “neo-authoritarian” message can and must be counteracted politically, through argument and through organizing. Wigura also agrees, and expands on this theme in her concluding essay, “Emotions and the Illiberal Shift.” At the same time, while affect and emotion is surely essential to democratic politics, I believe that Wigura goes too far when she declares “what we need today is a passionate, rather than cool, defense of liberalism” (Wigura, 2020, p. 160). Perhaps I am simply more cynical than she is. But on the face of it, the appeal to “passion” concerns me. On the one hand, I worry whether this approach is too “therapeutic” to reach many of the constituencies that need to be reached. 

On the other hand, the appeal to passion itself sends shivers down my spine especially given the problematic role of emotions in populist communication, and perhaps especially the ways that emotionality is both gendered and often promoted to short-circuit real political disagreements that need to be aired and debated. 

Wigura raises deeply important questions, which demand more attention than I can give them here. But my own thinking is indebted to the work of Iris Marion Young, who argued that democracy must emphasize ideals of inclusion, political equality, reasonableness, and publicity, and that “democratic process is primarily a discussion of problems, conflicts, and claims of need or interest” (Young, 2000, p. 17, 22). 

Challenges of democracy in Romania: illiberal discourses, movements and parties

In a study of insurgent conservatism, Diana Mărgărit concludes that “over the past ten years, the Romanian public space has witnessed unprecedented upheavals spearheaded by insurgent conservatism. Against the background of a compromised political class, increasingly gaping economic disparities in society and a decline in social cohesion, as well as a wave of international sympathy for the agenda of the Right – antisecular, anti-immigration, anti-progressive – civil society activism has metamorphosed into a response by citizens to frustrations and dissatisfaction acutely felt in their daily lives” (Mărgărit, 2019, p.13). In a 2020 article on national mobilizations against so-called “gender ideology,” I highlighted that illiberalism has already moved beyond rhetoric or civic unrest, and has entered the realm of political representation. Members of the Parliament continue to advance their illiberal agenda, pushing Romania closer to Hungary and Poland on gender equality and sexual politics. Just this past June (2020), a legislative initiative aiming to ban gender studies and any reference to gender identity as different from biological sex passed the Romanian Parliament. It faced strong opposition from academia*, women’s and feminist rights NGOs, LGBTQ organizations and other associations. But it passed nonetheless. Fortunately, the Constitutional Court of Romania has annulled the law.

The December 2020 Romanian parliamentary elections opened doors for an ultranationalist, religious, radical right wing party, an illiberal political structure whose victory took political commentators and journalists by surprise. The Alliance for the Union of Romanians (Alianţa pentru Unirea Românilor/AUR)—founded on the national day of Romania, December 1, 2019—is the fourth political force in the Parliament.  AUR capitalized on anti-lockdown sentiments, on substantial mistakes of the Ludovic Orbans’ government. In some ways like PiS, it campaigned on the basis of polarizing discourses of corruption-anticorruption, framing older political parties as corrupt and unresponsive to citizen demands. Feeding on an overall climate of distrust in political parties, AUR is a mixture of various groups, among them supporters of insurgent conservatism, conspiracy theorists, unionists (supporters of the union between Romania and Republic of Moldova), and sympathizers of the interwar legionary movement, the Iron Guard.** Its leading figures regularly have voiced xenophobic, racist and sexist comments, and there is an ongoing among Romanian intellectuals about whether the AUR should be understood through the lens of fascism or as a more conventional radical right party. 

As a parliamentary party, the AUR and its leaders capitalize over public dissent or tragedies that bring public opinion to a boiling point. When a UEFA Romanian referee was accused of racist language, the AUR stood in solidarity with the referee. When a wildfire at a public hospital killed several patients, the AUR organized a demonstration asking for the resignation of the Minister of Health. While it is a parliamentary political party with specific political instruments at its disposal, the AUR often resorts to repertoires of action proper to social movements, such as protests and mass rallies.*** These actions resemble those of Kaczyński. And as Tomasz Sawczuk notices “a Machiavellian politician, therefore, is necessarily an opportunist: he exploits opportunities to strengthen his position and further his agenda” (Sawczuk, 2020, p.  131).     

The black swan narrative for the victory of illiberal populism that dominated explanations for the political success of Jarosław Kaczyński and the Law and Justice Party (PiS) also resonate with certain Romanian efforts to explain the unexpected success of the AUR, which seemed to some like it had appeared out of the blue. AUR success was also explained as an effect of the poor electoral turnout due to the pandemic, thereby blaming “electoral technicalities.” Yet the AUR’s 2020 electoral success is hardly a black swan. The proliferation of irrational beliefs; the use of computational propaganda that intensifies emotions at lightning speed through the expansion of digital media; public disaffection with corrupt parties and a desperate need for new political structures; the politics of a naturally anti-establishment diaspora facing a clash of civilizations; and the illiberal context created by CpF (the Coalition for Protection of the Family) and its initiative to alter Romanian Constitution—these are some of the explanations that may be advanced for the electoral success of AUR. A clearer picture of the causal dynamics awaits more solid data and further empirical inquiry. But what is beyond doubt is that the political profile and agenda of AUR resembles Kaczyński’s PiS in Poland and Orban’s Fidesz in Hungary.   

At the same time, the rise of AUR, and the more general drift of even more established Romanian political parties towards illiberalism, cannot be understood outside of the cynical political calculus of the “traditional family” movement against “gender ideology” led by the CpF,  which used a citizens’ initiative to enforce a heterosexual understanding of marriage as a way to advance a broadly conservative agenda on women’s rights and on civil rights. The almost three million signatures supporting the referendum needed political representation. And so there was a perfect synergy with the AUR. As far back as 2016 an odd alliance was forged between The National Liberal Party, The Social Democratic Party, The Alliance of Liberal and Democrats and The Coalition for The Protection of the Family to support the marriage amendment to the Constitution. The referendum was also officially supported by the Orthodox Church, perhaps the most important conservative institution in the country. The momentum created by the referendum is what helped the AUR gain political support.

 The AUR, founded on the four pillars of “family, motherland, faith and freedom”,  is the only political party that includes opposition to “gender ideology” in its platform. As I write this essay in February 2021, the presidency of the Chamber of Deputies Equal Opportunities Commission between Women and Men has been assigned to the AUR—a group that, ironically or perversely, is dedicated to the denial of equal opportunity between women and men! Opposition against gender equality is a key ideological space for illiberal political projects. Andrea Pető considers that “the 21st century Central European illiberal transformation is a process deeply reliant on gender politics.” And it is so as we have seen in Poland, Hungary, Romania. 

Political parties and media scrutiny: two important (i)lliberal actors

While reading and reflecting on the chapters, some questions concerning media and political parties complicated the landscape of illiberal democracies. How will mainstream political parties react to both populist illiberal political parties and deeper illiberal tendencies? What strategies of engagement will Romanian parliamentary political parties adopt in regards to AUR? Will these strategies be different whether a party is in opposition or exercising power? What is the role of digital media in harnessing illiberalism and of affective politics of digital media? How should we interact with big companies such as Facebook in a world that keeps going online and is more entrapped in echo chambers, while algorithms contribute to the radicalization of conflict and polarization? The vulnerabilities of mainstream media and the explosion of unregulated social media fueled illiberal populist discourses, political initiatives and political parties. However, the media are both an independent and a dependent variable in this democratic development.

I revisited Fareed Zakaria’s influential writing “The future of freedom. Illiberal democracy at home and abroad” to find a smart way out and I came across Dewey’s words that “the cure for the ailments of democracy is more democracy.” It is both wise and a factual necessity to worry about the rise of illiberal political parties and politicians and on the “whys.” I believe this to be a path worth taking if we want to live in a democracy. Defeating or silencing illiberal parties or movements is not enough. The illiberal politics and policies they advance will persist unless we understand and address the broader causes that enable their rise and demand accountability. This is one important conclusion of the book. I have argued—and I leave it to the readers to judge—we need to acknowledge that illiberalism is a political project, not the apocalypse (read: invincible) and we need to secure and strengthen democracy. 


* I am grateful for the amazing national and international solidarity and support of scholars, researchers, universities that signed our Amicus Curiae sent to Constitutional Court of Romania. Read more here and here and here.

** One of the party leaders, Claudiu Târziu has promoted the legionary movement in the webpage of Rost online publication  and also an important figure in the 2018 campaign of the ‘Coalition for the Family’. 

*** Other parties have appropriated repertoires of protest movement, Union Save Romania party for example in the former parliamentary legislature.


  1. Cioflâncă, Adrian, 2002, “Tentații neopopuliste în Europa de Est,” in Zub, Alexandru, Cioflâncă, Adrian (eds.), Globalism și dileme identitare : perspective românești, Alexandru Ioan Cuza University Publishing House, Iași. 
  2. Mărgărit, Diana, 2020, Conservatorismul insurgent din România, Friedrich-EbertStiftung România, Bucureşti.
  3. Young, Iris Marion, 2000, Inclusion and Democracy, Oxford University Press.
  4. Zakaria, Fareed, 2007, The future of freedom. Illiberal democracy at home and abroad, W.W. Norton & Company Inc. 
  5. Wigura, Krolina; Kuisz, Karoslaw (eds.), 2020, The end of the Liberal Mind, Kultura Liberalna Foundation. 


Oana Băluță, Bucharest University.


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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