The Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban’s party won another parliamentary majority in last weekend’s election. An authoritarian populist, Orban boasts that he favors “illiberal democracy.” But what is a liberal democracy?

We may distinguish three meanings of “liberal democracy.” The first one and perhaps the most popular, is empty. It assumes that “democracy” and “liberal” (the latter in the American sense of progressive-dirigiste) are synonymous with “good.” In this perspective, it is conceived as a system that produces the results that its defender—usually an American “liberal”—favors. But except if all voters are identical, this chameleon system is contradictory: liberal democracy does not make sense and cannot work if it is taken by every citizen to guarantee decisions that will implement his own preferences and values.

That sort of “liberal democracy,” it should be noted, is espoused by small gangs of wokes, social justice warriors, and gender-obssessed activists. That these ideologues are generally rich and pampered only adds to the comedy. They make liberal democracy look like a decadent system, which populists like Orban and Putin feel justified to attack on that very basis. But it is also true that the Western establishment often takes “liberal democracy” in a similar mushy sense.

A more serious conception of liberal democracy is a democracy that is constrained in its scope so that a majority (or minority) of voters cannot undermine the rights or liberties that are dear to others. “Liberal” qualifies “democracy”; it is not a pleonastic embellishment. A liberal democracy is a limited democracy or, synonymously, a constitutional democracy; it is the ideal of most classical liberals. One version (defended by William Riker among others) takes the form of a humble political system where elections simply allow voters to reject their political leaders and replace them with new ones. It does not claim to define truth or justice.

A third sort of liberal democracy, which may also be viewed as a special case of the second, is a political regime ultimately based on unanimity, that is, where every individual has a veto on government decisions—a very strong constraint. Although the formula may seem difficult to conceive, it has been brilliantly defended by James Buchanan, the 1986 laureate of the Nobel Prize in economics. The basic idea is that all individuals can agree on general or constitutional rules of state action, as opposed to ad hoc interventions; and that simple or qualified majorities may, at the post-constitutional stage, make decisions in compliance with the higher constitutional rules. The system is not contradictory because what every individual gets is the respect of the rules that he has virtually bargained for with other citizens and accepted as generally in his own interest. The power of political majorities remains strictly limited. (See Buchanan’s book with Gordon Tullock, The Calculus of Consent [1962] [Liberty Fund, 1998]; and one of Buchanan’s last books, Why I, Too, Am Not a Conservative [Edward Elgar, 2006].)

“Illiberal democracy”, the opposite of “liberal democracy,” thus means any majoritarian democracy that is not limited and can abrogate somebody’s rights without his consent. A strongman democracy or populist democracy is the most representative specimen of the genre. A populist democracy is nearly inevitably a strongman democracy: since “the people” doesn’t exist except as a set of individuals with different preferences and values, it has to be embodied in a strong ruler who can easily enforce his will (see my “The Impossibility of Populism,” The Independent Review 26:1 [Summer 2021]). A populist ruler is necessarily an authoritarian.

Orban is such a ruler. The Financial Times notes (see respectively “Viktor Orban Wins New Term as Hungary’s Prime Minister but OSCE Critisises Campaign,” Financial Times, April 3, 2022; and “Crushing victory gives Viktor Orban scope to tighten grip on Hungary,” April 5):

Orban … has extended control over most walks of life on the way to forming a self-styled “illiberal democracy” in which checks and balances have been weakened and the premier’s associates have become the business elite.

Orban has established tight administrative and ideological control over much of the media, higher education and cultural institutions.

Putin was among the first to congratulate Orban on his electoral victory. Columnist Gideon Rachman further explains (“Orban’s Victory Sends a Warning to the West,” Financial Times, April 4, 2022):

In the past, Orban has praised Putin for “making Russia great again”. He held a jovial meeting with the Russian president in Moscow, shortly before the invasion of Ukraine.

Donald Trump is another Orban fan. Earlier this year, the former US president endorsed the Hungarian leader’s re-election bid, calling him a “strong leader” who has done a “powerful and wonderful job”. …

But Orban has rigged the political system in his favour for more than a decade. The courts have been packed, the civil service purged and the electoral system gerrymandered.

Above all, there has been an assault on media freedom. Peter Marki-Zay, the Hungarian opposition leader, was given all of five minutes airtime on state television—during the entire election campaign.