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In your research on Central Europe, you criticized the way in which scholars have assumed, based on rational and historical institutionalist arguments, that the region would democratize. Have we missed some cultural features that explain the current revival of a form of conservatism? How should we reframe our perceptions to capture the region’s illiberal turn?

In the article you mention, my co-author James Dawson and I set out with a strong sense that the increasingly clear patterns of democratic backsliding and democratic deterioration in Central Europe called for a rethinking of approaches to the region. Not only did democracy in Central Europe look a lot less successful than had been assumed in the early-mid 2000s, but it was the region’s democratic frontrunners—like Hungary and Poland—that were leading the way in backsliding, and with parties once considered, including by me, as mainstream center-right.

We felt that explanations stressing the fading-out of EU conditionality or the rise of populism as a response to economic crisis—which turned on the failure of liberal and democratic institutions to properly constrain or “lock in”—offered a rather threadbare explanation. So we wanted to push the debate by stepping back to ask some fundamental questions about institutions.

There was certainly a “cultural” element to our work. We drew on James’s very fine book, Cultures of Democracy, which makes a powerful argument for a more fine-grained, bottom-up, and discursively rooted understanding of democratic development in the region.

But in the end, we were drawn to the framework of “discursive institutionalism” developed by Vivien Schmidt, whose efforts to understand how actors, institutions, and discourses are enmeshed we found attractive. We wanted a more nuanced approach than just retelling the old story of liberal institutions overwhelmed by illiberal cultures in new form or mapping a kaleidoscope of shifting discourses.

We did think that the resilience of traditions of cultural conservatism and economic illiberalism had been overlooked—especially in terms of these traditions’ impact on pro-European mainstream liberal actors considered the engine for democratic change. 

We did think that the resilience of traditions of cultural conservatism and economic illiberalism had been overlooked—especially in terms of these traditions’ impact on pro-European mainstream liberal actors considered the engine for democratic change. 

But the main thing missing from the discussion was not cultural features, but the reflexivity and “discursive agency” of political actors—that is, their ability to think and rethink their identities and position within institutions, foregrounding illiberal ideas that were once just in the background, and in so doing to change the nature of institutions. 

You have particularly explored the case of Czechia. How do you see the interaction between some forms of cultural conservatism—to a smaller extent than in neighboring Poland—and the technocratic culture and new oligarchic structures that emerged in the country? Can we describe ANO as a combination of populism and technocratism?

ANO has been quite widely analyzed as a “technocratic populist” party, and scholars such as Chris Bickerton and Daniele Caramani have noted the blend of technocratic and populist appeals made by some new anti-establishment parties elsewhere. Technocrats picked to head up caretaker governments but who then developed political ambitions, like Jan Fischer in the Czech Republic or Mario Monti in Italy, have made similar pitches.

Both populists and technocrats think in terms of a single clear public interest and are impatient with the normal processes of party-political competition, coalition-building, and deal-making that liberal-democratic politics can’t really do without. 

When Babiš has tried to define himself and his vision, he has presented himself in the mold of the technocratic populist, a non-political doer who takes on the old establishment and offers practical solutions based on business acumen and managerial expertise.

But there are multiple readings of ANO and Babiš. Others want to cast him as a lighter, more pragmatic version of the illiberal national-populists seen in Hungary and Poland. Both have elements of truth. Babiš is a political shape shifter who can talk the language of the apolitical manager, pro-European liberal, or “Czech Trump” fending off EU interference and migration, as the occasion requires.

That said, I don’t think there’s a particularly strong or stable connection between cultural conservatism and ANO—or between cultural conservatism and the type of oligarchical milieu that Babiš hails from. As Andrew Roberts’ pioneering investigation of Czech billionaires found, the country’s super-rich are fiscally conservative, but otherwise have no distinct political leanings—beyond perhaps a concern to preserve their economic power.

And as I discovered in my early work on Czech right-wing politics, in contrast to Hungary or Poland, conservative traditions in Czechia are diffuse, now ranging from, say, the small, moderate Christian Democratic party to more assertively anti-liberal nationalist groups and subcultures—reaching from groups which see themselves as right-wing and anti-communist to currents in the Social Democratic Party and in the hardline Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia.

In contrast to Hungary or Poland, conservative traditions in Czechia are diffuse, now ranging from, say, the small, moderate Christian Democratic party to more assertively anti-liberal nationalist groups and subcultures

Babiš has been sympathetically regarded by illiberal populists, who see him as a kindred spirit. He is also allied with President Zeman, whose anti-migrant and anti-Islamic illiberalism are more rooted in a conservative form of Czech nationalism. 

But perhaps his most important connection is with a small-c conservatism: that of the electorate that ANO now draws on. A catch-all anti-corruption movement appealing to varied social groups when it broke through in 2013, ANO has since acquired an electorate of older, less well-educated, less metropolitan voters who are not only more economically left-leaning but also more culturally conservative and receptive to illiberal populist messages. And if there is the potential for a more stable hybrid of oligarchical and national populism to emerge, it would be here.

You have advocated looking at the Western Balkans as well as Bulgaria to better capture the transformations of Central Europe and maybe nuance pessimistic assessments focused on Hungary and Poland. What lessons can be learned from these other countries in studying the liberal/illiberal paradigm in the region?

This was for slightly different, but related, reasons. In suggesting a focus on Bulgaria, again writing with James Dawson, we wanted to draw attention to the possibility that democratic deterioration in Central Europe need not follow the Hungarian or Polish pattern of an illiberal populist party winning office in watershed elections and then concentrating power by stripping away checks and balances and capturing public institutions and civil society—an over-stretched and over-used template that Licia Cianetti and I subsequently termed the “backsliding paradigm”.

Instead, we wondered about another scenario: one of enduring, but very low-quality democracy where superficially liberal institutions—including lively electoral competition between outwardly mainstream parties and periodic eruptions of civic protest—mask a political system rooted in illiberalism. Both in the political-economy sense of the entrenchment of hollow, deeply corrupt markets and institutions captured by informal power structures. And also in the political-cultural sense, as we felt that liberal mainstream European parties had never been able to move beyond technocratic or economistic forms of liberalism and had subtly—and sometimes not so subtly—accommodated conservative and illiberal discourses. 

We wondered about another scenario: one of enduring, but very low-quality democracy where superficially liberal institutions—including lively electoral competition between outwardly mainstream parties and periodic eruptions of civic protest—mask a political system rooted in illiberalism.

We took Bulgaria, usually framed as a corrupt “laggard” trailing behind more successful Central European states, as a good point of reference for such a potentially different pattern of democratic deterioration.

The point about the Western Balkans, which crops up in a short essay I co-wrote introducing a special issue, was slightly different. Here, I wanted to argue that the unstated threefold division of the post-communist world into distinct sub-regions—a democratic, reforming Central Europe; a struggling and stagnating South-Eastern Europe marked by legacies of war and ethnic conflict; and a “post-Soviet space” of authoritarian or persistently hybrid regimes—that has informed much comparative scholarship could usefully be questioned. 

We didn’t think that a “reconvergence” on some new general model of post-communist governance was under way. But we did feel that some of the theoretical and comparative frameworks developed by scholars studying the former USSR or the Balkans on issues such as oligarchy, informal practices, and state capture could usefully be adapted by researchers trying to get to grips with the new realities in Central Europe

You are currently working on leftist populism in Czechia and Slovakia. Could you explain what you call “illiberal social democracy”? Do you think we need to study left- and right-wing populism in parallel to better comprehend each of them?

This is a piece of work I’m doing as part of the POPREBEL Horizon 2020 project on populism in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) led by my UCL colleagues Jan Kubik and Richard Mole. It was motivated by a concern that, especially in the CEE region, mainstream parties are not simply victims of populist challengers who emerge from the political fringe but could themselves become vehicles for illiberalism and populism. In both Western and Eastern Europe, this is most often seen as a phenomenon of the right. Both Hungary’s Fidesz and Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) were once seen as mainstream regional variants of the conservative center-right, the Swiss People’s Party or the Finns were agrarian parties, the U.S. Republicans have radicalized to an extraordinary degree.

I would probably choose a slightly different term today, but by “illiberal social democracy” I mean currents within the center-left that identify as social democratic but seek to reconcile this identity with forms of social conservatism and traditional nationalism; extend the traditional social democratic critique of economic (neo-)liberalism to social liberalism; and share the perception of Central Europe’s newly conservative nationalists that Western Europe represents not a successful model to be emulated, but a salutary warning of what to avoid. The usual lesson, they argue, is that immigration, multiculturalism, and socially liberal identity politics are to be avoided.

Although far from typical of the whole of the Czech or Slovak social democratic left, these currents were certainly detectable in the two countries. The shift of Slovakia’s Smer-Social Democracy toward social conservatism and Slovak nationalism was held up by some analysts to be part of the formula that for a long period made the party one of Europe’s most electorally successful socialist or social democratic parties. The best-known intellectual popularizer of the idea of a distinct and more conservative Slovak and Central European model of social democracy is probably the Smer politican Ľuboš Blaha.

By “illiberal social democracy” I mean currents within the center-left that identify as social democratic but seek to reconcile this identity with forms of social conservatism and traditional nationalism

The Czech Social Democrats (ČSSD) have been more divided—and rather less electorally robust—but the party’s former leader, current Czech president Miloš Zeman, defines his politics very much in these terms. He’s capable of lauding the virtues of a supposedly Scandinavian-style, corporatist, high-wage economy and warning against the supposed evils of Swedish-style multiculturalism and openness to newcomers within the same few sentences. Zeman aside, there’s a rather more refined debate about the possible attractions of a non-liberal “conservative socialism” for the Czech left currently playing out under the auspices of the MDA thinktank, which is close to ČSSD. 

I’d certainly suggest that scholars of populism study it in all its variety—and that they remain alive to new and emerging variants of populism and not reduce it to a generic set of “right-wing” positions. However, somewhat contrary to what I expected, the populist framing of politics as “Elite versus People” seems to be incidental to a new politics of anti-liberalism in these currents on the Czech and Slovak left. 

Our Program is called the Illiberalism Studies Program. How do you define illiberal and what do you think this term brings to the debate? Do you think illiberalism is automatically associated with regime-type practices such as authoritarianism, rent-seeking, etc.?

Like a lot of people, I’ve used the term illiberalism occasionally and inconsistently. But I think it’s becoming clear that the concept of illiberalism needs to receive the same kind of intellectual energy and attention currently devoted to the notion of populism. I would make three points.

First, we should perhaps stop using the term simply as a synonym for democratic backsliding or democratic erosion—an “illiberal turn” as the first steps in a gradual process of autocratization, which starts by eating away at the fundamentals of constitutional liberalism, the rule of law, and the more informal accountability mechanisms of free media or civil society.

Second, we need to recognize that critiques of other forms of liberalism—whether economic, socio-cultural, or constitutional liberalism—are very often part and parcel of pluralistic democratic politics. The two key pillars of Western Europe’s post-1945 democratic settlement, social democracy and Christian democracy, are qualified critiques of liberal economics and liberal societies. And in most democracies the balance and boundaries between the majoritarian popular sovereignty and liberal elements of liberal democracy are subject to ongoing contestation and debate. There’s also a place, albeit a contested one, in democracy for technocratic, managerial forms of power.

What seems to be different about the forms of illiberal politics that concern us is the extent to which—and the intensity with which—they are assertively anti-liberal, as well as their ability to capture and subvert liberal institutions and ideas. There seems to be widespread agreement that a populist construction of politics “thickened”—to borrow the term of Jan Kubik and Marta Kotwas—with anti-liberal ideas centering on national identity, religious belief, morality, or community are most corrosive, polarizing, and potentially dangerous for democracy.

Third, this suggests to me that, paradoxically, defenders and promoters of liberal values in Central and Eastern Europe and elsewhere need to think not simply about sources of short-term civic resistance and democratic resilience, or the medium- and long-term prospects of a resurgence of political liberalism, but also about how—and in what political forms—non-liberal, illiberal, or anti-liberal small-c conservatisms can be (re-)integrated into workable and safer democratic settlements.

Defenders and promoters of liberal values [need] to think [about] how—and in what political forms—non-liberal, illiberal, or anti-liberal small-c conservatisms can be (re-)integrated intCaramani o workable and safer democratic settlements.


Seán Hanley is an Associate Professor in Politics at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies in London having previously worked at Brunel University, West London. He has a broad interest in the comparative  development of political parties and democracy in Europe, as well as in-depth expertise and a longstanding interest in the politics of the Czech Republic. As well as publishing in academic journals, he also regularly contributes shorter pieces of comment and analysis on Central and East European for sites such as Social Europe, Policy Network, EUROPP, HNDialog and the SSEES Research Blog, as well as writing an occasional personal academic blog Dr Sean’s Diary. He tweets @drseanhanley.

illiberalism.org

illiberalism.org

The Illiberalism Studies Program studies the different faces of illiberal politics and thought in today’s world, taking into account the diversity of their cultural context, their intellectual genealogy, the sociology of their popular support, and their implications on the international scene.