Epigone scholarship

Our editor, Katarzyna Krzyżanowska, reviews a book by Aviezer Tucker “Democracy Against Liberalism” published by Polity Press, 2020


Populism is a troubling phenomenon, but so are the books on this topic. In the face of an abundance of types of populism, categorisation of populist misdeeds, and diversity of methodological analytical approaches, one has to be really brave and original to publish yet another book on populism. Some interesting questions regarding populism can still be posed: Bojan Bugaric and Mark Tushnet ask in their recent book if populism can be reconciled with constitutionalism; the very same Bugaric, together with Mitchell Orenstein, searches for the roots of the populist turn in Central-Eastern Europe in neoliberal politics; Petr Agha convincingly displays how populist discourse disciplines the CEE countries. If populism remains an interesting topic to delve into, it is because of the research questions posed by the authors, or the methods applied, which are always contextualized within the pre-existing broad discourse on populism. As Aziz Z Huq argued very recently in the International Journal of Constitutional Law (ICON), the theories of populism unfold “in active correspondence with, or perhaps parasitic dependency upon, more empirically infused disciplinary contributions.” The mere fact of focusing on topical problem does not render a book important — just as writing a poem about love is not necessarily a true masterpiece.

Foundational biases

Alas, Aviezer Tucker follows the beaten track. In his book, populism is presented as just an amalgam of the features detested by neoliberal scholars – those who merge liberal constitutional democracy with capitalism.

Even though he claims to have developed a novel conceptual framework of populism, drawing upon an ancient definition of absolutist democracy, its explanatory power — in itself very limited — is further weakened by undisclosed preconceptions. 

Most importantly, Tucker claims that populism is “the rule of political passions”. All his further troubling and unfounded arguments stem from this thesis, because passions seem to be attributed only to the group Tucker calls the “masses”. Moreover, today’s democracies are endowed with institutional checks and balances, which makes Tucker’s comparison between constitutional liberal democracies and ancient democracy at the least not sufficiently elaborated. As noted by Samantha Rose Hill, according to Hannah Arendt we cannot look to the past to find analogies for the present, but can only engage in “pearl diving” to bring to the surface “rich and strange gems that might offer some illumination”. Tucker’s analogies do not help us understand the troubles with today’s democracies. His generalizations are based on poorly conducted desk review (which is almost non-existent) and stem from an analysis of a few “usual suspects” only: Poland, Hungary, Israel under Netanyahu, Modi’s India and – of course – Donald Trump. Therefore, he carelessly equates two different categories of analysis: states and would-be autocrats.

Rather than a book on populism, it is a performance of neoliberal biases, both frustrating and painful to read.

In a sense, it does not matter what kind of solution to reinvigorate liberal democracy the author proposes if his initial premises are misled: can we achieve a goal when our map is not accurate?

Even if populism is founded on strong political passions, Tucker only connects it with “bad” passions: “fear, anger, hate, anxiety”. In this way, populism is once again a destructive force, but somehow it is inherent to only a part of the people. It seems that populist people are presented as if they are  different anthropologically – as if their fate were already decided and fulfilled through lower qualities and lack of education, which precludes them from taking wise political decisions. All these people want is to have instant money transfers and they lack reflection upon the younger generation; they share the emotivist idea of truth, and lack historical reflexivity. The problem of the people approving and supporting policies that academics contend to be authoritarian (for instance, the policies introduced in Hungary during the pandemic, which did not undermine democracy according to a recent study) is resolved by Tucker by simply deeming these people inferior to others. 

Moreover, the level of the analysis stops with the economic analysis of group interests: it is true that every social group does have some interests in the political bargain, but it is also true that people are individuals who cherish ideals and sometimes try to act according to them. From Tucker’s analysis we can detect that no group, and no individual, do not have a right to govern, as each of them has their own interests and will protect them no matter what. This analysis does not lead us to the answer to the question of how to determine the best policies for the society, and what should be the relation between the government and the people etc. 

Tucker writes in a very condescending way about the populist leaders, claiming that they “need not know their mother tongue fluently, and certainly not literally,” and that they detest intellectuals and admire rich plutocrats. Does this not sound like the rhetoric of an old exclusivist neoliberal scholar? If he discusses the younger generation, why does he not include political and social issues dear to its heart, like climate change or gender inequalities? Tucker writes, in an utterly unconvincing way, that “the passions of the populists are stronger than those of liberals” – but why is that? Are we not equals that share similar traits and are vulnerable to similar vices?

The logical problem arises as well that, if Tucker acknowledges that neo-illiberal politics started in Hungary and Poland after the elections in 2010 and 2015, then where were all the silent or non-existent populist people beforehand? What happened to the people who allegedly succumbed to their passions all of a sudden?

According to Tucker, populists produce policies that undermine each other and tend to create and manipulate passions. However, the examples given of populist policies seem to present laudable goals: policies that want to improve public services, reduce taxes (but Tucker does not specify for whom), and keep inflation and the national debt down. Is it really a “self-destructive bonfire of passions”, as Tucker claims? It seems that the notion of a “populist” is once again used to discipline the usual suspects, but using slightly different building blocks: instead of illiberalism, we have absolutism, and instead of a cleavage between the people and elites, there is the notion of being governed by passions. But it is doubtful if such an approach can really move us forward.

The mere fact that illiberalism is equated with absolutism does not give us more insight into “populist reason”, to use Laclau’s phrase.

It is not enough to change the name of illiberalism to absolutism to introduce a new perspective if misdeeds concerning the rule of law conducted by the government of Hungary or Israel or tweets by Donald Trump remain the main building blocks. 

Passion for categorisation 

Tucker, as with many academics, likes categorization which can contain everything but explains little.  His proposal of eight regimes is yet another attempt to contain in a single static enumeration all the contingencies and dynamism of changing contemporary societies. It is an old style of description: instead of process analysis, Tucker proposes to pinpoint essential elements of an ideal type of regime which represents all the varieties that exist in the real world. These categories not only attempt to reflect contemporary states, but also aim to categorize all types of past regimes, including the classic Greek and Roman democracies. As a consequence, we have these regimes encapsulated in an encyclopedic chapter, yet we do not understand how they work. After all, apparently even Tucker himself does not deem this classification useful, as he does not refer to it at all in the following chapters.

This book is replete with misinterpretations and unfounded claims, as well as using the folk meaning of concepts. Tucker contends that the “extreme right-wing is more closely connected ideologically with the failed ideologies of the first half of the twentieth century that young people do not remember, but older Europeans do”. However, he does not explain in what way, and what the concept of the right-wing means for him: Does it encompass all the populists, or only some of them? There are more troubling claims, including that illiberal neoliberalism is possible only in states with weak liberal institutions. But what makes these liberal institutions resilient? How do they become corrupted? Why is populism so bad after all? If “moderate levels of populism can be sustainable”, as Tucker admits, when does it become too costly? For the author, plebiscites are only “useful for manipulating the majority of [a] population by framing questions and offering bivalent choices so there can be only one obvious vote”. If the questions are the sole issue in a plebiscite, then why does Tucker not reflect upon inclusive processes of coming up with proper questions, in which people could actually help to frame the problem?

The book has a serious structural flaw: it is not well organized. The arguments are constantly repeated, and at points the main thread of thought is suddenly abandoned. When discussing institutional offences that alleged populists make, Tucker suddenly starts to compare the illiberals with nationalists from the 19th century. Many arguments are redundant – for instance, Tucker repeatedly describes some elements of the rule of law dismantling, but does not manage to be more specific, and nor does he provide a broader theoretical context explaining why these illiberal moves are bad. In fact, he mingles some theoretically informed arguments with the unbearable moralism of a “true liberal”. As Wolfgang Merkel has recently argued in RevDem, moralization “is a self-righteous stylization of one’s own moral position in order to disparage another moral position.” 

The author’s analysis of the post-communist transformation in the Central and Eastern European countries is puzzling to say the least. Tucker claims that the laws struck down by the Hungarian Constitutional Court between 1990 and 1995 were “often attempts by Communist judges to block [the] transition of Hungary from totalitarianism to liberal democracy by blocking the privatization, restitution and lustration laws”. How can a scholar not acknowledge the fact that the Hungarian Court had an institution of actio popularis –  the right of each individual citizen to initiate abstract review –  thanks to which many important laws were invalidated, including the death penalty or penalties for criticism of public officials? Moreover, actio popularis was a striking example of the court’s openness and inclusiveness rather than a reflection of the consolidation of communist elites, as Tucker (mis)perceives it. Tucker recycles ideas in this book. This is permissible if an author wishes to understand issues for themselves, but it does not make for a meaningful contribution to the literature for others.

“Recycled concepts” have two senses in the context of this book.

Tucker not only discusses political and social phenomena in an unimaginative and cursory way, but also refers mostly to his own earlier works.

Almost 10% of all the references (squeezed onto only four pages) are Tucker’s own books and articles, accompanied by constant short summaries of the arguments made by Levitsky and Ziblatt in their notorious “How Democracies Are Dying”, as well as Ginsburg and Huq’s “How to Save a Constitutional Democracy.” How come these books and articles can now explain such diverse phenomena as the Trump presidency, the populist behavior of Israeli politicians, and understanding political passions? How many more books are yet to come that will display such a self-reassuring attitude from the author? Hopefully, even academic fashions are changing, and this book is an epigone example of the populist genre.

In collaboration with Oliver Garner

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