Owning the Libs: Explaining the Rise of Illiberal Populism After the End of History

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban speaks during Fidesz party campaign rally. Photo credit: Laszlo Balogh/Getty Images

The Light that Failed: Why the West is Losing the Fight for Democracy (2020)
by Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes
Pegasus Books, 246 pp., $26.95

After the collapse of Soviet-style communism in 1989-1991, analysts infamously declared liberal democracy would sweep the world as the self-evident and sole system to organize human affairs. By now, however, it is almost an intellectual cliché to offer a critique of the End of History thesis.[i] Evidenced by the rise of Jair Bolsanaro, Victor Orbán, Donald Trump and other illiberal populists, the thirty years since the end of the Cold War has been anything but a victory lap for liberalism. It is clear that something went terribly wrong, but what?

In Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes’ new book, The Light that Failed: Why the West is Losing the Fight for Democracy, the scholars offer a fresh, albeit speculative, rejection of Francis Fukuyama’s infamous claim/hypothesis/argument. The rise of the widespread anti-liberal movement taking root in Eastern and Central Europe, according to the authors, is a direct result of the “lack of political and ideological alternatives” offered to them after the collapse of Soviet-style communism at the end of the Cold War. Krastev and Holmes’ argue that newly independent states are being forced to adopt what they dub the Imitation Imperative: post-Soviet countries perceive that they are being subjected to a humiliating system of moral hierarchy that forces them to copy Western-style liberal democracy. Anti-Brussels, and more broadly anti-Western, sentiment can therefore be attributed to a visceral rejection of this forced march to foreign ideas of prosperity.

Krastev and Holmes’ analysis of the geopolitical deterioration of liberalism is notable in that it deploys the same reasoning as Arlie Russell Hochschild’s illuminating Strangers in Their Own Land (2016). Hochschild,a Berkeley-raised sociologist, immersed herself in the heart of Tea Party America to understand how the populist right captured the hearts and minds of so many Americans.In a disarming act of empathy, she offers a metaphor as explanation: in the line for the American Dream, White, working-class, Christians, despite patiently waiting, feel as though they have been skipped. Liberal elites, in contempt of “real Americans”, have placed undeserving immigrants and minorities before them, implying a moral hierarchy has been installed that relegates White Americans to the back of the line. In their view, an ultimatum was presented: abandon your identity or be left behind. However misguided, manipulated, and outright false these attitudes are, they are the ones Donald Trump exploited to win the White House in 2016. Just like this perceived ultimatum forced on working-class, White Americans by liberal elites, many former Soviet states feel as though they must sacrifice their national traditions and pride for Western-blessed political and economic systems.

In a radical departure from conventional analysis to explain the failure of liberal democracy to catch on in the post-Soviet world, Krastev and Holmes assert that the answer is not found in political or economic theory, but political psychology. This intellectual lens allows the authors to draw on themes less tangible, such as feelings of alienation, disillusionment, and collective trauma, that offer a more incisive, and often empathetic, explanation of the emotional pull towards illiberal populism. An example can be found in Krastev and Holmes’ comparison of “borrowing” and “imitating” Western forms of liberal democracy: in China, Deng Xiaoping and Xi Jinping have borrowedWestern modes of economic production while remaining true to a distinct national code of morals and underlying philosophy of governance. Post-Soviet countries, in contrast, feel as though they are being forced to imitate both Western political conventions and ways of life. In other words, China can borrow Western means and maintain distinct ends, while Central and Eastern European countries feel as though they are being forced to imitate both Western means and ends. Krastev and Holmes’ argue this imperative to imitate both methods of governance and national belief systems engender not only existential shame and humiliation, but “explosive upheaval” in the form of illiberal populist nationalism. As Krastev and Holmes’ point out, the spirit of indignation and revolution once mobilized in the yearning for liberalism during Soviet domination is now mobilized against another perceived domination: that of the overbearing and condescending universalism of Western political ideals originating from Brussels.

One of the more fascinating insights that the authors make is the fundamental inapplicability of the German model of national economic and political renewal after the Second World War to newly independent Central and Eastern European countries after the Cold War. In the case of Germany, prosperity came at the price of deep national shame and atonement for the sins of Nazism. It was the very rejection of nationalism that allowed liberalism to flourish and for the country to become one of the most prosperous in Europe today. Additionally, the horrors of the Yugoslav wars led European Union liberals to further denounce ethnic and national nativism as impediments to democracy, human rights, and prosperity. In the case of Hungary, Poland, Romania, and other former Warsaw Pact countries, though, it was the embrace and very spirit of nationalism that guided them from Soviet occupation to independence. It is not surprising, then, that populist and reactionary leaders have found success in these countries. As Krastev and Holmes write, “From the viewpoint of those voters with intense nationalist emotions and attachments, post-national ‘constitutional patriotism’ seems to be a new ‘German ideology’ designed to belittle the eastern periphery of Europe and govern the whole of Europe in the interests of Berlin.” For Poles and Hungarians proud of their national histories, it is easy to see how they could more easily align with a Jarosław Kaczyński or a Victor Orbán than an unelected EU supranational administration.

Putin’s Russia is a different story. While Hungary dealt with the Imitation Imperative and China selectively borrowed from Western-style liberalism, Russia mirrors the West, according to Krastev and Holmes. Russia’s revisionist, cynical, and negative foreign policy has been the subject of numerous reports, books, and articles since their war with Georgia in 2008. Rarely, though, has a more damning analysis of Putin’s attempts to undermine the liberal world order been put to paper. In Krastev and Holmes’ view, Vladimir Putin has no other strategic goal than to watch Western liberalism disintegrate, just as his prized former U.S.S.R. did at the hands of the West thirty years earlier. Geographically mutilated, faced with a precipitous drop in national population, and emotionally dazed, Russia ended the twentieth century and entered the twenty-first destabilized and demoralized. After simulating democracy as a technology for consolidating power, Krastev and Holmes argue, Putin then fixed his sight on his true goal: unmasking Western powers (specifically the United States) as the hypocrites he believes they are. It is worth quoting the authors here at length:

“What sets foreign-policy mimicry apart is arguably the way it is designed to show the
absurdity of the original. By clothing its own violent actions in an idealistic rhetoric borrowed verbatim from the US, Moscow aims to unmask the Age of Imitation as an Age of Western Hypocrisy. Vaunted Western values, such as the self-determination of peoples, are simply Western interests in disguise. The implication is that the entire post-Second World War international system will collapse if other nations start imitating the real West.”[ii]

According to Krastev and Holmes, Central and Eastern Europe’s rejection of the Imitation Imperative, Russia’s cynical mirroring of Western liberalism, and China’s strategic borrowing of liberal modes of economic production spell the end of the Age of Imitation. Where, then, do we go from here? In the authors’ view, the end of the Cold War did not mean only the end of communism, but also the end of a liberalism that had to constantly compete with communism. With the loss of its peer competitor, liberalism ironically lost its imperative for improvement and, as Krastev and Holmes write, “fell in love with itself and lost its way.” In the true spirit of liberalism, though, the authors maintain hope: perhaps in a world with numerous competing modes of governance (Chinese authoritarian capitalism, Russian nihilism, Hungarian reactionary populism, Trumpian ethnonationalism), liberalism will reform itself, demonstrating its capacity as “the political idea most at home in the twenty-first century.”

For liberalism to regain its allure, however, its proponents have some serious work to do. The election of Donald Trump in the United States is no aberration, no sudden deviation from the norm. It is, rather, a manifestation of the millions of Americans marginalized by a broken health care system, a crumbling national infrastructure, rampant income inequality, and stagnant wages. Far from a shining city on a hilltop, the United States is quickly becoming what Russia would have the world believe it is: “just as screwed up as the rest of us.” While American exceptionalism is indeed a supercilious claim, its mission of liberal democracy is one worth saving.


[i] Fukuyama, Francis. “The End of History?” The National Interest, no. 16 (1989): 3-18.

[ii] P. 125

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