News & Ideas  -  Reflections on Illiberalism


As part of the Kettering Foundation’s ongoing research, our staff and allied organizations gather for monthly Dayton Days research sessions to reflect on the ideas guiding our work and to share new insights. Conceptual thinkers from outside the foundation join us to talk about their work and provoke our thinking.

In September 2022, we invited Marlene Laruelle, director and research professor at the Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies (IERES) at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affair, to join us. We asked, what have been the key characteristics and driving factors of illiberal movements? To what extent do they share common ideologies and tactics with movements threatening democracy in the United States?

Giorgia Meloni’s recent electoral success, making her the prime minister of Italy while her party has vivid roots in neofascism, reminds us—as if it were necessary—that illiberal forces continue to conquer a growing part of the European political landscape. Naïve hopes that the united front against Russia’s war in Ukraine would reinvigorate liberal values do not seem to be in tune with reality: the far-right Swedish Democrats are also on the threshold of forming the next government in Stockholm, and in the US, Trumpism has become a brand that will survive whatever the political future of Donald Trump may be.

While most of the academic literature discusses these evolutions under the concept of populism, I prefer to use the notion of illiberalism. There has been a danger of overusing populism as a derogatory term, while it has often been a genuine democratic force that has given the floor to citizens who often, otherwise, would not be engaged in politics, and it has been historically beneficial in improving equality and pluralism (that is, in democratizing our societies). For me, the problem today is not the rise of a “populism” as a rhetorical tool of us-versus-them, or a thin ideology that pits the “real people” against the elite, but the fact that “liberalism” (in all its many definitions) does not appear any longer as the obvious, consensus choice for our politics in democratic societies.

Historically, liberalism has taken different forms and contents depending on the period or the region in question and can be seen through different lenses: there are political, economic, cultural, and geopolitical liberalisms (plural, I insist). One broad, encompassing definition of liberalism would be the belief that progress for our societies goes together with broader inclusion and acknowledgement of the plurality of opinions. This minimal definition of liberalism is today challenged by many forces, both in the Northern Hemisphere as well as in the Global South, which I define as illiberal. Under this conceptual label, one can find political regimes, political leaders, and intellectuals, as well as grassroots constituencies, for whom liberalism no longer appears as obvious, or for whom it is even obviously the wrong solution.

Economic neoliberalism has likely been the main force responsible for the rise of illiberalism, as it has accelerated socioeconomic and cultural inequalities, both on the international scene as well as within nations. It appears now intrinsically coupled with a rejection of cultural liberalism (in the sense of giving rights to minorities) and polarizing views on society (the US-originated “culture wars” framework). These challenges to liberalism are supported and amplified by media ecosystems for which financial profitability is now largely based on giving the floor to what divides, not what unites, and a polity, coupled with our increasingly hectic everyday modern lives and the supposed need for instant gratification that makes democratic mechanisms, which can be slow to ensure the airing of a plurality of opinions, look outdated or ill-equipped for today’s challenges. While illiberalism is a worldwide phenomenon (of course, with different ideological coloring depending on the region of the world), there are also growing transnational connections of human beings, funds, subject matter, and strategies that travel across borders and reinforce the current dynamics, even if the main push factors are homegrown.

I do not think we can answer these challenges without recognizing that, even if illiberal political arrangements can be opportunistic tools when left in the hands of politicians, grassroots grievances are nonetheless often genuine and should be addressed. We need to accept as legitimate some criticisms of liberalism as it exists today to rescue the core principles of universalism, equality, and pluralism.

This means recognizing that we have returned to a time when politics is conflictual and rebellious, and it will be the new normal. In such a context, many initiatives emanating from civil society can still be taken up to avoid increased polarization: we need to ensure that media literacy becomes part of any child’s basic school curriculum, that we re-create spaces for dialog between polarized groups, and that we reinvent ways to engage communities prone to resentment.