Eastern Europe’s Illiberal Revolution

The Long Road to Democratic Decline

Rally 'round the flag: at a far-right march in Warsaw, November 2017. Agencja Gazeta / Reuters

In 1991, when the West was busy celebrating its victory in the Cold War and the apparent spread of liberal democracy to all corners of the world, the political scientist Samuel Huntington issued a warning against excessive optimism. In an article for the Journal of Democracy titled “Democracy’s Third Wave,” Huntington pointed out that the two previous waves of democratization, from the 1820s to the 1920s and from 1945 to the 1960s, had been followed by “reverse waves,” in which “democratic systems were replaced . . . by historically new forms of authoritarian rule.” A third reverse wave was possible, he suggested, if new authoritarian great powers could demonstrate the continued viability of nondemocratic rule or “if people around the world come to see the United States,” long a beacon of democracy, “as a fading power beset by political stagnation, economic inefficiency, and social chaos.” 

Huntington died in 2008, but had he lived, even he would probably have been surprised to see that liberal democracy is now under threat not only in countries that went through democratic transitions in recent decades, such as Brazil and Turkey, but also in the West’s most established democracies. Authoritarianism, meanwhile, has reemerged in Russia and been strengthened in China, and foreign adventurism and domestic political polarization have dramatically damaged the United States’ global influence and prestige. 

Perhaps the most alarming development has been the change of heart in eastern Europe. Two of the region’s poster children for postcommunist democratization, Hungary and Poland, have seen conservative populists win sweeping electoral victories while demonizing the political opposition, scapegoating minorities, and undermining liberal checks and balances. Other countries in the region, including the Czech Republic and Romania, seem poised to follow. In a speech in 2014, one of the new populists, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, outlined his position on liberalism: “A democracy is not necessarily liberal. Just because something is not liberal, it still can be a democracy.” To maintain global competitiveness, he went on to say, “we have to abandon

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