The latest fad word among the pundit classes is illiberalism. Illiberalism is organized resistance to free, open, and independent institutions.
For example, illiberals oppose a free press, independent courts, an independent civil service and military, independent law enforcement, democratic elections, and democratic legislatures. Predictably, most pundits and politicians try to portray illiberalism as a disease of the left or the right.
In reality, left and right are equally susceptible to illiberal thought and behavior. For example, many leftist intellectuals and journalists in the United States demand the media and internet platforms censor individuals they dislike.
Notably, platforms such as Twitter (TWTR) and Facebook (FB) block access to former President Donald J. Trump (R-Florida).
In the United States, some large corporations; including Alphabet (GOOGL) owner of Google and YouTube, are among the biggest practitioners of illiberalism. For instance, Statista estimates YouTube removed 11.402 million videos by “automatic flagging” in the second quarter of 2021. YouTube employees manually removed another 552,062 videos in the second quarter of 2021.
The number of videos removed by YouTube’s automatic flagging fell to 3.754 million in the fourth quarter of 2021. The number of manually removed YouTube videos fell to 302,524 in the fourth quarter of 2021.
Normalization of Illiberalism
Interestingly, Trump himself is both a victim and practitioner of illiberalism. Trump attacks journalists, refuses to accept the results of free elections, encourages violence and oppression, and supports efforts to suppress votes.
However, as some conservative critics, such as Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R), correctly note leftist politicians, such as Stacy Abrams (D-Georgia), display the the same illiberal behaviors. For instance, Abrams refuses to accept the results of the 2018 Georgia governor’s election, just as Trump refuses to accept the results of the 2020 US presidential election.
Predictably, progressives and Democrats who attack Trump lionize Abrams. Just as Trump admirers attack Abrams.
What is Illiberalism?
Hence, illiberalism has become normalized on both right and left but what is it? My best description of illiberalism is the normalization of antidemocratic behavior.
Sometimes, antidemocratic ideologies such as racism, Fascism, Leninism, royalism, Social Darwinism, militarism, nationalism, Communism, libertarianism, technocracy, and anarchism motivate illiberalism. However, most American liberals, such as Abrams and Trump, are not antidemocratic.
Indeed both Trump and Abrams claim to be democrats and populists. Instead, Trump and Abrams adopt illiberal behaviors because our system rewards them. Trump became president and leader of the Republican Party and Abrams is one of the most influential figures in the Democratic Party.
Similarly, pundits praise large corporations, such as Alphabet (GOOGL) for censoring speech and people they dislike. As critics, such as Krystal Ball, note many of the Old Media’s demands for censorship are self serving. Old media pundits and networks are trying to suppress newer and more popular competitors such as podcaster Joe Rogan.
A similar normalization of illiberal behavior occurs on college campuses where authorities and organizations punish students and faculty for certain speech and behavior. The true purpose of campus illiberalism is to increase the power and influence of specific institutions, organizations, and groups not to protect the powerless its practitioners claim.
One problem is that the media ignores many illiberal behaviors while focusing on a few excesses.
For example, the pundit classes ignore US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s (D-California) rule changes. Those changes limit debate and make it difficult for the minority party to criticize or discuss legislation, the Associated Press observes.
“It is all designed to take away the voice of 48% of this House chamber,” said House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, (R-Louisiana) of Pelosi’s efforts. The motivation for Pelosi is clear: power. I contend Pelosi has become the boss of the US House of Representatives. Pelosi runs the House as Boss Tweed ran Tammany Hall in 19th century New York.
Disgustingly, Republican leaders, such as US House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-California), offer only shallow criticism of Pelosi’s illiberal behavior. I think McCarthy wants to leave Pelosi’s system intact so he can use it as US Speaker of the House.
How Illiberalism Works
Hence, the greatest danger from illiberalism is its ability to corrupt individuals ranging from college students to the US Speaker of the House. Notably, Forbes claims Pelosi had a personal fortune of $135 million in 2022.
Frighteningly, our media ignores some of the worst excesses of illiberalism, such as Pelosi’s Boss system, while spreading hysterical stories about some mild examples of illiberal behavior such as Trump’s election lies. One motivation for the double standard is the hope Pelosi will share some of her wealth with the hypocritical critics.
Even people who dislike illiberalism love the wealth and power it gives them. To elaborate, illiberalism operates on a reward and punishment system. Illiberalism punishes critics and dissenters, yet it rewards those who go along with money and power. Even people who dislike illiberalism love the wealth and power it gives them.
The Rewards of Illiberalism
One problem I have with illiberalism’s critics is that they focus their critiques on the punishments, such as Twitter’s censorship, while ignoring the rewards I think the rewards of illiberalism are far more dangerous than its punishments.
Illiberalism is popular and powerful in many countries because of its ability to reward its practitioners. For example, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his friends the oligarchs, or Nancy Pelosi and her friends in Congress.
I contend Pelosi is far more illiberal than Trump and far more dangerous. I think Pelosi’s illiberalism is dangerous and destructive because it could endure long after she is gone. To explain, there are dozens of US Representatives of both parties who are eager to replace Boss Pelosi.
Sometimes, illiberalism’s rewards are financial, as in Pelosi’s case, other times they are emotional. For example the surge of ego and pride a petty college bureaucrat, or student, feels when she makes a tenured professor squirm with allegations of “speech code” violations. Or the massive boost in reputation a journalist or social media influencer gets when he accuses a celebrity of racism or sexism.
In both cases, the accusers transform themselves into crusaders fighting for a noble cause. The cause might be false or questionable, but it makes the accuser feel good and gives him or her a boost in power which is the point. Moreover, clever practitioners of such accusations can often leverage their charges into better jobs, bigger reputations, or new income streams.
Meanwhile, companies such as Alphabet (GOOG) reap the rewards of favorable media coverage and political patronage for suppressing dissent. For example, Boss Pelosi could be more likely to hand Alphabet a government contract ,or kill an antitrust investigation, if YouTube removes videos exposing her husband’s stock trading.
The bottom line is that in America today, illiberalism pays. As long as illiberalism pays it will endure.
Varieties of Illiberalism
I think there are three varieties of illiberalism we need to contend with. Those varieties are behavioral illiberalism, structural illiberalism, and ideological illiberalism.
Ideological Illiberalism comprises thoughts and ideas that justify and glorify illiberal behavior. For example, Christian Nationalist, Hindu Nationalist, or Islamist beliefs that claim a dictatorial leader is necessary to protect the true faith. In the United States, some Evangelical Christians believe Trump is that leader, while Indian Hindu Nationalists put their faith in Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Similarly, racists believe that a strong leader or illiberal government is necessary to maintain the proper racial order. Likewise, some nationalists believe they need a strongman to protect the nation. Additionally, some capitalists believe they a need a strong leader to protect capitalism from the rabble or Communism.
On the left, illiberals claim they need a strong leader or illiberal government to protect minorities or women from the ignorant mob. Notably, many American progressives think censorship and illiberal government are needed to contain or suppress racism.
Disturbingly, a growing number of American progressives think an FDR style strongman is necessary to implement their political agenda. Franklin D. Roosevelt (D-New York) was the president who put Japanese Americans into concentration camps to protect them from imaginary lynch mobs. Hence, the resurgence of FDR cult on the left so should scare all Americans.
The ultimate expressions of illiberalism are ideologies such as fascism, Communism, monarchism, technocracy, and Leninism. All these ideologies postulate illiberal government is necessary for the survival and progress of civilization.
Behavioral Illiberalism is a culture that rewards and normalizes illiberal behaviors. For example, the political cultures in the United States House of Representatives and the Republican Party. Similar cultures exist on many college campuses, at media outlets such as CNN, Fox News, and The New York Times, and in some large corporations such as Twitter (TWTR) and Alphabet (GOOGL).
Structural illiberalism comprises systems or institutions that encourage and reward illiberal behavior. For example, the US House of Representatives or the US Presidency.
A classic example of structural illiberalism is systems that transfer decision making from democratic legislatures to unelected bureaucrats or officials. For example the US Congress’s practice of transferring economic decision making to the Federal Reserve, outsourcing foreign policy to the White House or the Pentagon, and turning many policy decisions over to the Courts. This structural illiberalism allows some unelected individuals such as US Supreme Court Justices, or bureaucrats such as Dr. Anthony Fauci, to accumulate enormous amounts of power, with no oversight.
Structural illiberalism provides a sideways method of enacting unpopular policies. Congressional Republicans, for example, fear the political backlash from an abortion ban or unregulated campaign donations. Instead, they appoint US Supreme Court Justices and federal justices who are apt to approve such measures. Similarly Democrats to mandate masks and vaccines through Dr. Fauci and other public health officials rather than a Congressional vote.
Illiberalism is the greatest threat to democracy in today’s world. Unfortunately, illiberalism is poorly understood and often misinterpreted. Until we properly understand illiberalism we will never grasp the threat it poses to our freedom.