Can Europe Make It?

Key to democratic resilience? Unmask authoritarian challengers, without fuelling polarization

Moderate illiberals have to be targeted with a smart mix of strategies that delegitimizes illiberal behaviour and depolarizes at the same time.

Anna Lührmann
Anna Lührmann
4 December 2019
Nigel Farage and Green Party MP Caroline Lucas at the Channel 4 Brexit debate, November 2018.
Aaron Chown/PA. All rights reserved.

Across Europe, illiberals and authoritarians are putting democracy at risk. These challengers use two strategies to gain support. First, they claim to be democratically legitimate. Second, they polarize societies to create a false, binary choice. In order to stop them, democrats need to counter both.

Let’s start with the good news. Despite this mounting challenge, democracy in Europe is going strong. In most European countries, democratic institutions remain stable. Europe has the highest regional average level of liberal democracy in the world, according to data from the Varieties of Democracy Institute (V-Dem).

However, in four out of 30 European countries – Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland – illiberals have succeeded in weakening liberal democratic institutions significantly. Moreover, illiberal and authoritarian-leaning parties are on the rise in almost all European countries, threatening democratic institutions and norms.

Legitimation and polarization

Modern challengers to democracy are not as coarse and open about their far-right ideology as their predecessors in the far-right parties of the 1990s. They skilfully build a strategy around claiming democratic legitimacy, while they create and exploit societal polarization.

Despite their claim to democratic legitimacy, illiberals challenge the liberal norms and institutions that make a democracy meaningful and lasting such as civil liberties, the rule of law, and the separation of powers. The most radical illiberals – authoritarians – openly threaten their opponents and democratic institutions. Illiberal parties are undemocratic, because democracy cannot survive without such liberal safeguards.

Furthermore, Illiberals divide society into their supporters and their enemies. Such polarization is toxic because, unlike normal debates about policy preferences, it derails any trusting interaction between citizens with different views.

Citizens that lack trust in other citizens and in the political process are more likely to support policies which challenge the rules and institutions that guarantee an impartial and fair political contest.

Toxic polarization fuels the rise of illiberals, enabling them to shield their supporters from information that challenges their propaganda. Citizens that lack trust in other citizens and in the political process are more likely to support policies which challenge the rules and institutions that guarantee an impartial and fair political contest. Democrats react fiercely to such violations of democratic norms, which again pushes illiberals to stand closer together. In order to stop anti-democratic illiberals, democrats need to swiftly break this vicious circle.

Democrats need to prioritize building-up the resilience of European democracies to the illiberal challenge and be more strategic about what they do. Stigmatization is not enough. In particular, democrats should develop innovative ideas that make democracy more attractive for moderate supporters of illiberal groups and “fence-sitters”. In most countries, illiberals are minorities. But once they grow larger and more influential, they are difficult to keep at bay.

Unmasking authoritarians

Illiberal populist parties – such as AfD in Germany and Sverigedemokraterna in Sweden – invest a lot in their democratic façade while downplaying authoritarian aspirations within their ranks. This is what makes them so dangerous. Outspoken authoritarians are typically unable to gain power in a democracy.

Democrats should therefore unmask authoritarians and combat illegal behavior – such as incitement to violence – with robust law enforcement strategies. Fissures and divisions within illiberal groups will weaken them.

Citizens who understand how democracy works, and who feel they can make a difference by engaging in a legitimate way, are less likely to support illiberal ideologies and parties. Democrats need to reinvigorate the debate about why a lasting and meaningful democracy needs liberal safeguards and invest more effort in spreading the word about the benefits of democracy and liberalism – in particular among those citizens susceptible to illiberal agitation.

Civic education needs greater emphasis in schools, civil society and public space.

Civic education needs greater emphasis in schools, civil society and public space. Activities should not only aim at fostering democratic values and norms but also at knowledge about how to get involved in the democratic process.

The polarization trap

Illiberal populists benefit from toxic societal polarization, which pushes moderates and “fence-sitters” into their arms. Robust strategies of delegitimization – party bans, exclusion, demonization – risk fostering polarization. They should only be applied to radical illiberals/authoritarians and used sparsely.

Moderate illiberals have to be targeted with a smart mix of strategies that delegitimizes illiberal behaviour and depolarizes at the same time.

In particular, the effective use of language and rhetoric is key to a successful response strategy. Heated attacks on illiberals may help to mobilize democrats but are less effective in attracting moderate illiberals to switch sides. Democrats should think more carefully about how to talk about illiberals in a way that helps to win back moderate illiberals and deter fence-sitters from joining them. Fascists have to be called out and stigmatized, but such labels have to be used with caution.

The strategic aim should be to keep channels of communication with moderate illiberals open and use those channels to spread democratic ideas and values. Democratically-minded journalists can use these channels to contextualize illiberal ideas and unmask radical illiberals. Online, we need innovative strategies to enter illiberal echo chambers.

Civil society groups should deliberate with moderately illiberal members and mobilize – in a civilized manner – against radical illiberals. At the same time, hate speech should neither be ignored nor normalized, but targeted more vehemently by law enforcement agencies.

Confront illiberal populist parties with 'radical politeness'

Illiberal parties are not “normal” democratic parties and should not be treated as such. Thus, forming a coalition should be off the table for all democrats.

At the same time, just ignoring them is not likely to work – particularly if they have gained momentum. Rather, they need to be confronted and challenged. This includes criticizing policy ideas and unmasking radical illiberals within their ranks.

In doing so, democratic politicians need to remember that the target group of their interactions with illiberal parties are not the illiberal politician themselves, but their more moderate or potential supporters. “Radical politeness” promises to be more effective to this end than aggressive exclusion.

This piece was prepared for the Berlin Democracy Conference 2019, where leading academics and practitioners on the topic of democratic resilience came together. The Varieties of Democracy Institute (V-Dem) convened the event together with the Social Science Center Berlin (WZB) and the Open Society Foundation (OSF). More information and videos are available here.

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