Playing Hardball: Political-Ethical Challenges of Illiberal Regimes

In this conversation with Kasia Krzyżanowska, Zoltán Gábor Szűcs discusses his newest book Political ethics in illiberal regimes. A realist interpretation. He explains the internal logic of an illiberal regime, the importance of studying its ethics, discusses the role of the policy experts, civil servants and judges in illiberal regimes, and elaborates on the problem of playing hardball by illiberal politicians.

Zoltán Gábor Szűcs — associate professor at Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest and a research fellow at Centre for Social Sciences, Budapest, publishing on realist political theory (e. g. political obligation, political failure, regime theory, utopia and political theory).

Kasia Krzyżanowska: Some people may assume that your book offers a set of civic guidelines for people aiming to oppose the politics of illiberal regimes in an effective way, guidelines that perhaps are somehow comparable to those formulated by the likes of Timothy Snyder. People making this comparison might be surprised when they open your book, which is a rather abstract exercise reflecting on how people experience an illiberal regime. To whom you are addressing your book, and what were your main inspirations for writing it?

Zoltán Gábor Szűcs: Let’s start with the distinction between civic guidelines and an abstract exercise in reflecting on people’s experience. Even though I think that this book is abstract, it is not lacking in compassion. I had very personal motivations for writing this book (I wrote about my motivations extensively in the preface). I returned to this problem in the conclusion, and I sincerely admit that this book was not intended to be a manual for dismantling illiberal regimes. But of course, I also expressed some regret about this because I think it would be a very worthwhile enterprise, but I didn’t know how to do that. I had a different kind of ambition. 

One part of this ambition was to stop for a moment and think about certain themes that are largely neglected, overlooked, or undervalued in the extant literature on illiberal regimes. That is why I focused on the political ethical experience of people living in illiberal regimes.

I’m pretty sure that most people are not confronted with political ethical conflicts, questions or challenges raised by the fact that they are living in a regime that is not justifiable in terms of some coherent ethical theory, even if they are actually committed to those principles. 

They are confronted with challenges because they are living in a regime that is, on the one hand, very nasty, corrupt, sometimes very nauseating. But on the other hand, it successfully provides its subjects with plenty of political ethical reasons for coming to terms with the survival of the regime. This ambivalent feeling was the central challenge for me. 

I think it can be interesting for academics, comparative politics scholars and political theorists, especially those who are interested in the moralism-realism debate. In this book, I offer a specific interpretation of this debate and a particular answer to the problems stated there. But I also think that it can be interesting for non-academic people, if they have time and patience for a very abstract discussion of problems that might be closer to their own everyday problems than most of what they will find in comparative politics literature or in normative political theory. My hope is that there are a lot of people who may find this book of interest for one reason or another.

Let us discuss the definition of an illiberal regime. The term has been functioning in the political sciences for a long time. You respectfully reject the normative foundations of how comparative politics understands this much discussed term, and you offer a specific, realist approach towards illiberal regimes that is not based on meeting or violating universal moral requirements, as the other approaches tend to do. Your approach offers a perspective that recognizes concrete challenges raised by the circumstances of politics, as you name it, where an illiberal regime plays hardball.

Could you briefly say in a few words, why do you reject other approaches, for example, the one presented by Marlen Laruelle who understands illiberalism as a specific ideology?

Let me start with a very simple, not definition, but a statement of the central element of my approach. I think that illiberal regimes are political enterprises, they are about grabbing and keeping political power.

This is not unheard of in the literature. I was inspired by Andreas Schedler, and Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. I think they were very innovative when they started to understand that there is an interesting phenomenon behind the democratic façade of a lot of seemingly democratic regimes. Behind the façade there is a completely different kind of logic. This realization was the main inspiration for me.

But still, I thought that even these works rest on the understanding of the political regimes that some people would call a moralistic approach. For me, the best possible way to describe this approach is the justificatory model. The basic logic underlying these approaches is that we have a set of democratic principles, values or norms, and we assume that these things are mutually supporting, even if they sometimes might be in conflict with each other. But from a higher level, we can find some balance between them where we can explain why we should offer a certain solution to their conflict. Practically, we have a coherent theory of democracy. Even though in the democratic theory literature you will find a lot of different claims about democracies, but when it comes to the comparative political literature, you will be surprised how similarly they understand democracies. They classify all the other regimes in terms of liberal democracies and their deviations from liberal democratic regimes. It means that all the other regimes are defined negatively in comparison to liberal democracies. For someone committed to liberal democratic principles, it seems to be intuitively right, in the sense that it captures something important for me and for all those people who are committed to these principles. 

But on the other hand, it seems to miss a very large part of the story. What they seem to miss is that there is a normative problem which all regimes try, and succeed to solve, and it is that they try to create some acceptable political order for their subjects. They necessarily have to provide their subjects political ethical reasons for compliance. They cannot coerce them into compliance in the long run, they have to explain themselves to these people. It means that all stable political regimes are actually successful at solving a basic political problem here. It also means that all these regimes, in their own way, will carry some political ethical weight. They will have some kind of ethical seriousness, explaining why people may find them, if not very appealing or the best possible way to live, but a livable place — not necessarily very nice, but a place where they can live and which they can tolerate for some time.

This basic distinction between moral justifiability and these regimes’ capability of successfully solving this basic political problem is what distinguishes my approach from how the comparative political literature usually understands these regimes. 

For me, an illiberal regime has a certain ethical seriousness despite all its deviations from liberal democratic forms, because they can provide people with plenty of reasons to come to terms with the survival of the regime. 

Of course, this is still not the whole picture. We can have a lot of other things to say about whether we would like to live in an illiberal regime. A lot of people wouldn’t like to live there, and I completely understand them. I would prefer to live in a liberal democratic regime, and I don’t think that this is just a subjective thing, there are very good reasons not to like illiberal regimes. But I’m still saying that these are different issues. This book was written to identify a largely neglected aspect of political ethics: the political ethics of living in a stable political regime that successfully solves this basic challenge for its survival.

What does it mean that illiberal regime plays hardball? 

Of course, hardball plays an important part in the political ethics of illiberal regimes. I didn’t discover anything new about this, I just learned from the literature — I just tried to make sense of the experience of people living in illiberal regimes that politics is hardball. I felt that there is something qualitatively different about the experience of living in illiberal regimes. 

There is a sinister undertone in illiberal regimes that is almost completely missing from the political ethical experience of living in liberal regimes — that is, the fact that every election is about the survival of the regime. 

In a liberal democratic regime people just assume that elections are about having a mandate for governing the country for some time. But in illiberal regimes, each and every election is about the survival of the regime.

In the book, I tried to explain playing hardball by identifying five different elements of the political ethics of the illiberal regime. I call them principles of action. One is an assumption that these regimes take their democratic aspect quite seriously. They really think that their power and legitimacy come from the acceptance of the people, and it is expressed somehow through the political machinery. It is not an autocratic power in the original sense of autocracy, it is dependent on the approval of people.

The second is a competitive element. This is not necessarily democratic, but obviously illiberal regimes see politics as competition for power. Of course, you can say that that politics is always about some kind of competition, but I think that within illiberal regimes, competition is accepted as a reality, something that is not just a threat to the survival of the regime, but a normal part of everyday politics. In that, of course, illiberal regimes are still similar to liberal democratic regimes. Thirdly, they take electoral politics quite seriously — they really think that winning the competition and popular support should be secured through electoral success. So illiberal politicians play hardball, they try to manipulate electoral politics, but still they take electoral politics quite seriously. It will impose some constraints on what they think they can do and what they shouldn’t.

The fourth element is the idea that in order to win elections, you could use everything in your possession. If you can control the media, if you can channel EU resources into your political machinery, then this is something that you should do because you have the opportunity and you would be just stupid not to do that.

And the fifth element. In the book, I sometimes call an illiberal regime  a tyrannical democracy. There is a conviction in illiberal regimes that political competition has a very serious existential element that is almost always absent from liberal democratic politics. It regards not just the career of politicians, but also the survival of the regime. That is why I said earlier that it always has a sinister undertone because illiberal regimes make people fight for political success as if they fought for their lives.

This is how I see illiberal regimes shape the normative context for political agency.

In illiberal regimes this is fundamentally different from how liberal democracies shape the normative context and it offers a specific way of understanding politics for their subjects.

How to discern if an illiberal regime does not merely play hardball politics anymore, but cheats, uses not overt but massive political violence? Where to draw the line that separates those two regimes, the liberal one and autocratic and totalitarian one? When does it transform into the other one?

I think that there are two seemingly completely different answers to this question. The first answer comes from comparative politics literature. From my perspective, they seem very good at drawing these lines and explaining the difference between cheating and hardball. Empirically speaking, this is possible and there are ways to identify what makes the difference between these two cases. I also think that fifteen-twenty years ago, this was an essentially vital question. Back in those days, illiberal regimes were hiding, and they tried to mask themselves as liberal democracies. It was an urgent task to identify all those elements in their politics that would show their real nature. By now we live in a different world and these regimes start to be more explicit their own distinctive nature. 

The problem of telling the difference between an illiberal regime and democracy, and also between an illiberal regime and some more openly autocratic regime is not that interesting anymore. Now all these questions are discussed openly and some of them were already settled in very persuasive ways. If we take a look at the democracy reports of the V-dem project, for example, they show us very convincing arguments and very convincing data. From my perspective, this is a question that can be answered more or less conclusively.

There is another possible answer, and my book is written to answer this question in this way. It matters that there is a difference between cheating and playing hardball, that there is a difference between overt and massive political violence. But the exact way of how it matters should be addressed differently. In the second sense, what really matters is that illiberal regimes are built on the assumption that there is a meaningful difference between cheating and playing hardball. It means that those who are in power have to respect these distinctions. Of course, they will push the boundaries, but still, they have to take it into account when they plan their next move; and when they don’t respect it, then they show us something important about what is going on. 

On the other side, this is something that is promised to the subjects of these regimes.

If they see the signs of unashamed cheating in elections, or they experience massive political violence, then they have to start asking some very uneasy questions of themselves about the regime in which they live. 

Similarly, people living in liberal democratic regimes have to start asking very uneasy questions about the regimes in which they live under certain circumstances. These are parallel situations. But of course, the boundaries to be crossed are different because illiberal regimes play by a different rulebook than liberal democratic regimes.

What do you make of the thread in studies of illiberal regimes and in the public sphere that compares the leaders of – let us call them – unmoored democracies to fascists? The moral appeal of such comparisons can, of course, be high and they are undoubtedly very self-righteous. What is wrong with them in your perspective? What would an ethics of regime comparison look like and are we in need of a new ethics of this kind?

To be honest, I’m a nominalist when it comes to using labels. I have no principled objection against using the label “fascist”, if you define the term as carefully as possible. My own personal understanding of fascism is much more historicist than of those who try to use this label in a contemporary context. For me, fascism is about massive political violence and the open dismantling of the entire liberal democratic political machinery. It doesn’t seem to be a very fruitful analogy. But I can imagine other usages of the term that might reveal certain interesting aspects of illiberal politics. I wouldn’t say that this is fundamentally wrong, I’m just saying that from more historicist viewpoint, this doesn’t seem very convincing. 

I have no objection against using terms that might have a strong moral appeal. This book is a realist interpretation of the problems of illiberal regimes, but that realism is not a rejection of the appeal of moral problems or moral issues. It is about the rejection of a certain peculiar understanding of the role of moral concepts and moral theorizing. Actual political ethics should be more about value pluralism, moral dilemmas and compromises. We don’t need a coherent moral theory that underlies our entire understanding of illiberal regimes, because political ethics should not rest on a unified theory of anything — the reality comprises a lot of different values and a lot of different problems. It’s important that this is not a relativist approach. I’m not saying that illiberal regimes are morally equivalent of liberal democracies, I’m really not saying that. I’m just saying that 

there is no one, unitary, unified, coherent solution to the political ethical problems of living in illiberal regimes or even fighting against these regimes. 

For me, it’s not a problem if you use morally loaded categories, as long as you are analytically clear and you use your concepts in a way that is accessible to others and the debate remains within the boundaries of a reasonable debate. Of course, just throwing morally loaded words at each other is not a very fruitful discussion. I’m not saying that we should try to be morally impartial observers of these regimes. Quite the contrary. My book has a liberal democratic standpoint. My main problem is that from this commitment doesn’t lead an easy road towards dismantling illiberal regimes.

There is something else that we need, and that is an understanding of the circumstances of politics, and to understand how we can change those circumstances or how we should offer a more appealing political answer to those circumstances, and thereby changing the assumptions or the circumstances supporting the survival of the regime.

Let us move to the political and ethical demands of living in an illiberal regime. Do the incumbents and the opposition politicians end up playing by the comparable techniques of hardball politics?

In the second part of the book, I try to show that there are political ethics of illiberal regimes that assign certain demands to political offices. If you haveor you are seeking to be elected to some office, you will have a very complicated set of political and ethical challenges. One set of these demands is directly related to the constitutional purpose of this office. It means that even if you are fighting against the regime, or you are part of the regime — a supporter — your moves will have some room of maneuvering, a freedom of action within certain boundaries, of course, because as an elected magistrate you are supposed to have some freedom to do certain things. You are not just a speaking tool for the regime, you can do a lot of things, but still you can contribute to the survival of the regime. In this respect, you can even be in opposition and still contribute to the stability of the regime.

The other set of demands is related to the fact that as an office holder you have to interact with a lot of other people. Based on the political science literature, I call these the demands of linkage — you are not living a solitary life but your activity will be linked to other people. These demands need to be reconciled with the demands of the constitutional purpose of the regime, and the constitutional purpose of that office is to contribute to the survival of the regime. As long as these two kinds of demands can be reconciled, you will be able to ask favors, use your power to influence decisions, et cetera.

And there is a third set of demands. These demands are related to the fact that we need integrity. It means that you cannot do everything without having to pay some price for your decisions. There will be consequences of your decisions on, for example, your ability to sleep well at night, or to think highly about yourself.

Being a politician in an illiberal regime is always a balancing act. There is no one answer to the question of how to be a good politician, but there are many ways that will actually contribute to the survival of the regime. 

Given the fact that this entire regime has a tyrannical element, and the idea that every competition has the potential to undermine the stability of the regime,  politics will always look like hardball. And of course, you will be expected to be tough and ruthless in some sense. I tried to show how this might be a problem and how this might make a lot of people’s lives very, very uncomfortable. 

I have a big regret, because I didn’t read Joshua Cherniss’s great book on twentieth century liberalism, Liberalism in Dark Times, which is about what he calls the liberal predicament. The question in an era of ruthlessness — the big challenge for liberal intellectuals and politicians — is what can be done if you  have principled objections against ruthlessness in politics. Your opponents are ruthless, so what to do? How to respond to this challenge, how much ruthlessness can be integrated into your own politics without seriously compromising your political ethics and personal integrity? It is a wonderfully written book, but I didn’t read it before finishing my manuscript — . Hence my regret: Cherniss’s book perfectly captures the basic problem of my book, but I didn’t know about it and I didn’t have the proper way to express it. 

This is exactly my problem: from the perspective of the regime, toughness is necessary, but from the perspective of the author of this book, there must be very, very serious limitations on being tough. I really don’t have an answer to how to do it, and the protagonists of Josh’s book didn’t have a single answer to this problem either. The problem itself is much more interesting than the answers to it — I cannot really tell you how much toughness can be excused. But I think that this is one of the biggest challenges of the political-ethical experience of living in illiberal regimes, that you just cannot sleep too well.

Let me ask about the group of people who are, I think the closest to our jobs, the policy expert, the scholars. How difficult or easy is it for incumbent illiberal politicians to ignore the policy experts and challenge their epistemic authority? And what is at stake for the policy experts if they dare to disagree with governmental claims in their area of expertise?

This is the topic of the fifth chapter of the book in which I discuss three types of offices: the policy experts, the civil servants, and the judges. They all share one problem — they all understand themselves as having an independent source of authority that is not related to the fundamental source of authority of illiberal regimes, which is popular support. They are supposed to have a unique access to the knowledge of how to serve the common good as civil servants, or how to provide useful advice to policymakers on the basis of their epistemic authority, or how to administer justice based on some impartial interpretation of the law, and do something that in each case that might cause a serious trouble for those in power. 

But for me, the most disturbing part of the story is that illiberal regimes are not totalitarian regimes.

In totalitarian regimes, and many other closed autocracies, political leaders like to believe that their authority has no limitations and that they know everything. 

There are so many stories about Stalin, one day writing a philosophical text, the other day making judgments about how to design a new tank, then criticizing theatrical performances. Having this universal authority covers not just political authority, but also epistemic authority and aesthetic authority, and every other part of life.

Illiberal regimes are fundamentally different from this totalitarian understanding of authority — there is room for policy experts, civil servants, judges, there is a place for them under the sun in illiberal regimes. But because they have something that those in power do not have direct access to, they are a potential threat to the regime. The incumbents try to integrate and use them as a power resource. When they give good advice, illiberal politicians try to accept that advice. When they make some politically not very advantageous advice, illiberal politicians try to blame them for certain difficulties, but still rely on them because they think that the experts can give factually correct advice. Of course, sometimes illiberal politicians will think that the political costs would be just too high for them to listen to the advice of policy experts, so in that case, they will treat them very harshly.

This is something fundamentally different from all those debates about expertise in liberal democracies — there is a debate whether epistemic authority should matter in democratic decision-making. There are very mundane debates about this, especially in relation to COVID. But there are also very abstract philosophical discussions, like the epistocracy debate that concerns the question whether experts should rule instead of elected politicians. Even if you ignore the epistemic authority of the experts, you still have to accept that those people know something. 

In an illiberal regime, sometimes you can accept experts’ advice, sometimes you can ignore it, but the mere fact of having an independent source of authority is a huge political problem, not just a matter of fact, but an ever threatening thing that has the potential of subverting the regime. 

The other side of the coin is that for a policy expert, this always will be an existential problem. The experts will always know that they cannot say, or they can say, but it’s not up to them to decide whether what they are saying is just a professional piece of advice or a political problem — it will always be a political problem. They are vulnerable in this respect, much more vulnerable than in a liberal democracy. 

I don’t try to idolize liberal democracies; I’m just saying that there is a distinct logic even if there are sometimes very similar issues. I’m not even saying that in liberal democracies you cannot find illiberal voices — of course you can find them, but still, the regime’s logic will be different from the logic of illiberal regimes. The big question is this existential state that comes from the fact that an independent source of authority is always a political challenge for both sides. 

You mentioned in your response another office — judges and the administration of justice. Seemingly, there are two competing visions of the judiciary in an illiberal system: on the one hand, judges legitimise the regime by effective adjudication, securing the regime’s stability. On the other, judges might pose a challenge to the regime when deciding over controversial and notorious political cases. You state that the discretion of judges in such cases constitutes the most effective constraint on illiberal power while civil activism has only the “potential to undermine” an illiberal regime. Could you elaborate on why you ascribe this force to the judges and not the citizens?

Honestly, I’m not sure if I agree with your reading, but it’s an interesting point, and thank you for coming up with it. From my perspective, the problem of the judges is the same as the problem of policy experts — they have, or they claim to have, some more or less independent source of authority. What is distinct from the problem of epistemic authority is that judges can appeal to moral principles and jurisprudence. But unfortunately for them, there is also a body of law that is created by political institutions, so they are vulnerable in a way as policy experts are not. 

One of my most shocking experiences is of living in Hungary in the last twelve or thirteen years, was that I grew up in a country where the Constitutional Court was widely respected, and my lawyer friends were deeply convinced that constitutional courts are extremely powerful institutions, are the bulwark of democracy against any anti-democratic enterprises but, inn the first two or three years of the Orbán regime, the Constitutional Court fell victim to a war of attrition in just three or four steps. The regime completely changed the rules of the game and it was very interesting to listen to the conversations of lawyers who before this conflict were deeply convinced that the Constitutional Court would always prevail. It is a sacrosanct institution and it’s rights should be inviolable, and then it was completely changed. I see that there were similar experiences for people living in Poland and other parts of the world where the illusion associated with constitutional courts was brutally destroyed for these people.

That is why I’m not quite sure if I really think that the judges are the most powerful bulwarks against illiberal regimes. They have a very interesting resource, exactly because they make decisions that would affect politics in important ways, and their working cannot be really under the full control of the regime without transforming the very nature of the regime. 

In this negative sense, they are very powerful even in illiberal regimes. This view is compatible with both approaches that you just mentioned, that yes, they can contribute to the stability of the regime, and they can also cause serious problems for the regime. 

But if there is one thing I’m pretty sure about the book is that in the sixth chapter I argue that citizens are in a unique position within illiberal regimes. You can call it a design flaw or an inherent weakness of the regime. I learned that the thermal exhaust port is the weak spot, the design flaw put deliberately into the Death Star in Star Wars. I think the office of citizens plays this specific role for illiberal regimes —  an illiberal regime makes no sense without popular support expressed through electoral success. Real electoral success is not just some kind of referendum masked as a multiparty election, but a real political competition, real success without extensive cheating and other problems. This makes these regimes vulnerable to challenges coming from citizens.

I explain in the book why the three faces of citizenship cause this problem for illiberal regimes. 

I think even totalitarian regimes, as every political regime, is dependent in some sense on popular support because you cannot really speak about political rule without some acquiescence to the terms of the regime. But totalitarian regimes are not really dependent on popular support  the same way as illiberal regimes. This makes illiberal regimes much more similar to liberal democratic regimes, and, in some sense, even more vulnerable to the lack of popular support than liberal democratic regimes.

Liberal democracies acknowledge a lot of different kinds of sources of authority, while illiberal regimes are resting on the assumption that you need electoral success to survive, and nothing else really matters. 

The key both to the survival of these regimes and to dismantling them is exactly the fact that they extremely depend on electoral success and popular support.

My last question regards the effective tools of criticizing illiberal regimes. Just recently, in the American context, there was a small debate around the uselessness of exposing some right-wing political claims as hypocritical, since such a charge hides other, more structural inequalities and disguises them as an individual or group problem rather than a social one. Pointing to hypocrisy does not change things. Why would pointing out moral inconsistencies or employing a moral language be futile or even counter-productive in an illiberal regime?

From the viewpoint of my book, there is no one specific solution to the political-ethical challenges of illiberal regimes — that’s a big problem. If you think that something is wrong with debunking the incoherencies, hypocrisies and other elements of illiberal discourse or illiberal politics, it is because  you don’t really need to know that they are incoherent, or that they are not telling the truth. There are so many ways of telling that these regimes are not the best possible ways of living — you can say that even if you are not a liberal democrat. You don’t need political theory to debunk these regimes, and of course, you don’t need the criticism pointing out that they are not sincere, that they are not truthful, that they are including some factual errors. All these things might well be true, but they are not addressing the real problem. 

The real problem is the stability of these regimes. Under specific circumstances, they are offering acceptable solutions to the big questions of politics: how to provide a more or less livable framework for social cooperation, and this is the problem. I don’t really see any direct link between debunking the illiberal lies and offering some more appealing alternative to them. I’m not saying that you cannot do that as part of your answer to these regimes, but that it does not suffice. 

I have this feeling that there can be a lot of scenarios for these regimes to collapse, or for the opponents of these regimes to defeat them so it is not hopeless to challenge them, but we have to accept that these regimes are more or less stable and we should hope for some external intervention to overthrow these regimes.

The default position is that politics for the opponents of these regimes will necessarily be an uphill battle. It will mean that a lot of things will be in favor of the incumbents, and against those who are the opponents of the regime. A viable strategy can include debunking lies. But I have some experience with political or civil activism — I had the disappointing experience that people just don’t have enough human resources to address all those problems that should be addressed. Sometimes I have a feeling that if a particular claim was a lie, then it’d be really nice to know, but I already knew it and maybe it may not be a very good idea to spend too much time and resources to point out the obvious. That is why I’m a bit skeptical about doing this.

The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

In collaboration with Karen Culver and Lucie Hunter.

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