The Socio-Economics of Illiberalism: Culture and Economy Are Not Alternative Explanations

by Gábor Scheiring

Few concepts experienced such a colossal rise in popularity in academia in recent years as illiberalism, primarily referring to non-violent forms of democratic backsliding. The Covid-19 pandemic has opened up further avenues for authoritarian centralization of power. As illiberalism has gained a foothold not only in new democracies throughout the global semi-periphery but also in countries with a veritable history of democracy, the literature has moved from institutional analysis towards identifying the role of illiberal strategies, cultural legacies, and economic polarization. However, the scholarship is divided into “culturalist” and “political-economic” camps, which tend to see culture and the economy as alternative explanations. In this essay, I argue that the most fruitful way to approach illiberalism’s socio-economic foundations is to treat culture and economy as relationally, dynamically interlinked factors that act in tandem to produce opportunity structures strategically exploited by illiberal agents. 

What is illiberalism?

Zakaria (1997) argued that illiberals do not wave an anti-democratic flag or use force to overthrow democratic governments. Most often, democracy weakens from within through the actions of elected leaders seeking to “aggrandize their executive power” and “strategically manipulate” elections (Bermeo 2016). This is how democracy got weaker in Turkey, Poland, Hungary, and the U.S. under Trump. Illiberal states preserve the façade of democracy, hiding a competitive authoritarian regime in the background (Levitsky and Way 2002). 

Illiberalism is thus a form of political practice, best understood in relation to Robert Dahl’s definition of democracy. Dahl (1971) defined the ideal type of a multipolar, pluralist, constitutional democratic society as a polyarchy. Illiberalism is a divergence from this ideal type of polyarchy—a set of political practices of government and social relations in the economy and culture, comprising a divergence from the norms and practices of pluralist, constitutional democratic governance, leading to hybrid or openly authoritarian regimes.

The benefit of this definition is that it allows us to identify when illiberals break with constitutional norms or violate social, economic, or cultural pluralism, without presupposing that this anti-democratic move would necessarily entail anti-liberal economic policies. Although business groups in some cases mobilize against illiberal forces (Kinderman 2020), illiberal regimes sometimes employ a strong state to pursue parts of liberalism’s contested economic agenda by, for example, implementing unpopular social and economic policies to create or strengthen markets (Hendrikse 2018). Singapore, a prime example of an illiberal regime, combines a high degree of economic liberalism with rational planning, economic nationalism, and repressed democracy. Nevertheless, Singapore is one of the most critical hubs of the global liberal world order in Southeast Asia. In other cases, illiberal regimes follow anti-market policies, such as Venezuela under Maduro and Chavez. The bottom line is that illiberalism is best understood not from the ideological content of specific policies but by looking at it in relation to the pluralist democratic society as a specific political practice of democratic backsliding.

Focusing on institutions and agency

This definition of illiberalism highlights the centrality of institutions and agency. The focus on these dimensions is rooted in the paradigmatic shift in much of the social sciences around the 1980s. Previous research on democracy was dominated by structuralist approaches — modernization theory, dependency theory, neo-Marxian class-compromise theories of democracy — but these lost their attractiveness as agency-centered theories became popular. 

Initially, this shift of attention to agency and institutions was liberating. It drew attention to the possibility of establishing democracies in countries at various stages of economic development in various segments of the world economy with different internal social structures. All a country needed to embark on democratization was the right type of politicians building the right institutions (Rustow 1970, Carothers 2002). However, the rise of illiberalism in diverse countries — countries that were committed to the blueprint derived from this literature and advocated by international institutions — led to doubts about the sufficiency of institutions for democratic stability. 

East-Central Europe offers some of the most paradigmatic cases of democratic backsliding, highlighting the weakness of the institutionalist approach. For two decades after the fall of socialism, countries such as Poland and Hungary were treated as exemplary cases of democracy building. They erected a comprehensive set of institutions that were supposed to protect liberal democracy, including strong constitutional courts, competing independent institutions, a multipolar parliamentary democracy, and constitutionally protected rights. Joining the European Union was supposed to be the final institutional step, locking in liberal democracy. Even as late as 2010, academic journals were publishing studies arguing that democratic backsliding was unlikely given these institutional guarantees (e.g., Levitz and Pop-Eleches 2010).

However, we know very well that history took a different turn. Most researchers have now recognized that institutions are not enough to safeguard democracy. Some institutions previously believed to be bolster democracy, such as social media, were hijacked to propagate illiberalism. Even civil society ceased to be seen as an unequivocally positive force, as scholars recognized the role of deeply embedded authoritarian right-wing social organizations in propagating autocratization (Berman 1997, Greskovits 2020). Some have pointed out that in East-Central Europe, the institutions of liberal democracy proved to be weaker than expected because they were created from the top in a technocratic way without meaningful public participation (Blokker 2013). Researchers have also analyzed why the EU could so far do little to prevent democratic backsliding (Pech and Scheppele 2017). For instance, Germany’s conservative elites, German industrial capital, and Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz have many shared interests as Hungary acts as a cheap assembly plant for German manufacturing; thus, the European People’s Party, under the influence of the German CDU, protected Orbán for a decade (Scheiring 2020c).

Many proponents of the institutional approach have started to blame bad politicians for destroying good institutions. A characteristic trope of the literature highlights anti-liberal politicians’ role in breaking with the norms of liberal democracy and institutionalizing illiberal regimes. If “good politicians” were needed to follow “good governance,” which was supposed to lead to “good institutions,” then it must be “bad politicians” that derailed the end of history: “Bad actors can undo even the best-designed institutions,” but if this is the case, “Maybe institutions do not matter, after all” (Fukuyama 2012). Of course, political agency and institutional failure are crucial for the rise of illiberalism, but we need to know how particular opportunity structures develop that allow illiberal politics to flourish. 

Culture or/and economy

The inadequacy of overly institutionalist and agency-centered approaches has led several researchers to focus on the social determinants of illiberalism. However, this literature is also confronting limitations. Studies that investigate underlying socio-economic factors tend to pit cultural and economic explanations against each other. A characteristic version of this research has highlighted the role of anti-liberal cultural legacies. In analyses of the rise of illiberalism in the West, this explanation most prominently takes the form of the “cultural backlash” argument. For instance, Norris and Inglehart (2019) explicitly contrast cultural explanations of illiberalism with economic ones and argue that the current cultural backlash against self-expressive, cosmopolitan-liberal values is the most critical factor behind the contemporary authoritarian populist turn.

In post-socialist Eastern Europe, the culturalist explanations point to the role of anti-liberal cultural legacies inherited from state-socialist times (Pop-Eleches and Tucker 2011). These legacies certainly help illiberal politicians build powerful narratives that resonate with the masses. However, culture is fragmented and in itself does not explain the success of the illiberal breakthrough in the region. Empirical evidence suggests that the overwhelming majority of voters lacked an appetite for authoritarianism and supported democracy both in Hungary and Poland just a few years before the recent illiberal breakthrough (Tworzecki 2019). 

On the other end of the spectrum, economic explanations tend to downplay the role of culture. One way to frame the economic argument is to say that the losers of modernization have a higher proclivity to support illiberal political forces. This approach to the socio-economic foundations of illiberalism tends to be more prominent among those who are skeptical about economic explanations. This body of literature would measure the losers of modernization in terms of economic deprivation, i.e., the lack of adequate financial resources or jobs measured. This type of research would often find that these variables are not particularly strong predictors of illiberal voting (e.g., Norris and Inglehart 2019, Oesch 2008), which then generates a misleading debate over whether “the poor” support populists or not.

For example, the debate about the economic foundations of Trumpism is rife with this misunderstanding that econonomic determinants of illiberalism could be reduced to material deprivation. Showing that the Republicans were underrepresented among low-income voters in 2016 and 2020, some analysts conclude that class does not explain Trumpism (e.g., Slate 2016). Some would add that because Trumpism entails policies that tend to redistribute resources from low-income to high-income citizens, support among lower-income citizens for Trump must be a sign of a dysfunctional, irrational working-class culture fueled by racial resentment (Metzl 2019). Robert Wuthnow’s research about the left-behind — impressive and important in many ways — concludes, for example, that rural America’s fury stems less from economic concerns than from the cultural distance to Washington and coastal liberalism (Wuthnow 2018).

A fundamental problem of this debate is that analysts often neglect the implications of analyzing levels as opposed to analyzing change. Cultural legacy-oriented explanations are better at showing why things are the way they are. Political behavior has several slow-moving components. A large number of voters will vote for the same party throughout their lives. Everyone with a moderate interest in politics knows which American states are considered fairly stable, whether they are solidly Republican, Democrat, or battleground states. Looking at average levels of social or economic determinants of political preferences highlights the long-standing embeddedness of the Republican party in rural states and among the wealthy. However, analytically, it is a different question to ask what explains the change from one election to the next: what are the key ingredients of Trump’s 2016 success on the margin? Cultural approaches struggle to explain this kind of change. In contrast, a recent stream of political economy scholarship has shown that working-class voters left behind in deindustrialized areas exposed to global trade are more likely to swing to support populist parties (Autor et al. 2020; Guiso et al. 2017; O’Reilly et al. 2017; Colantone and Stanig 2018b).

Another problem with a debate that pits culture against economy is that economic determinants are often defined narrowly, using readily available survey items or aggregate national statistics. This might be misleading, as these measures do not capture the complex lived experiences of economic dislocations. For example, some argue that economic factors cannot explain the success of authoritarian populism in Poland because the country is economically one of the most successful transition countries, with rapidly growing GDP per capita since the early 1990s. However, these aggregate measures hide increasing polarization and, for some, precarity. 

A much more fruitful way to conceptualize the economic foundations of illiberalism is to look at it through the lens of socio-economic disintegration (e.g., Gidron and Hall 2019), in which culture and economy are inextricably entwined. Disintegration might entail regional and vertical income polarization, deindustrialization, jobless growth, financial or job precarity, or various measures of the lived experience of economy, such as impacts on health. A recent stream of studies has started to use health as a “canary in the coal mine,” arguing that it is a powerful indicator of the lived experience of economic dislocations. Research has shown that areas stricken by deaths of despair are more prone to shift to support towards populist parties (Monnat and Brown 2017; Koltai et al. 2020; Scheiring 2021). Others have shown that economic factors robustly predict variables that are supposed to measure the cultural backlash, implying that cultural backlash and economic dislocation are part of the same causal pathway (Algan et al. 2017; Guiso et al. 2017; Colantone and Stanig 2018a).

Does this mean that economics trumps culture or agency? No. The rising culture of neo-nationalism is tightly interwoven with workers’ experience of economic change, sense of status loss and abandonment, and the increasing rift between credentialed and non-credentialed workers, paving the way for illiberal identity politics (Eger and Valdez 2014; Gingrich and Banks 2006; Kalb 2009). The strict separation between culture and the economy is an analytical artifact only existing in social scientists’ heads. It is more productive to analyze the dynamic interrelations between culture, class, economics, and identity in producing a fertile breeding ground for populism (Ausserladscheider 2019; Suckert 2019).

My fieldwork in Hungary’s rust belt, for instance, has shown how deindustrialization and privatization eroded working-class culture and decreased labor’s bargaining power, which slowed wage growth and even led to increased death rates and health inequalities along regional and class fault lines (Scheiring 2020a, 2020b). By the end of the 2000s, many of these people left behind by the new economic system had grown disillusioned. This is not about poverty — two-thirds of Hungarians felt in 2009 they were better off before 1989 than 20 years later, even though most of them earned more in 2009. Nevertheless, they felt they had lost many things, such as local communities, access to free services, holidays or housing facilities, or employment stability. Without a progressive left-wing political culture, many of these Hungarians drifted rightward and embraced neo-nationalism as a language of economic dissent. This social disintegration allowed Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party to mobilize workers against “uncaring” cosmopolitan neoliberals during the 2010 national election. A similar process unfolded among the rural peasantry in Hungary (Hann 2018; Szombati 2018) and disillusioned workers in Poland (Berman and Snegovaya 2019; Ost 2006). Illiberalism, the culture of neo-nationalism, and the lived experience of class dislocation are deeply entangled processes.


Illiberalism is a complex political phenomenon. Its explanations cannot be reduced to mono-causal theories. Political agency, perceptions, culture, changing social coalitions, and socio-economic structures all play a role. This calls for complex, interdisciplinary approaches to illiberalism. Politics is a relatively autonomous social sphere. The economy does not dictate its laws, but they are influenced by it. The most fertile approaches to analyzing illiberalism refuse to pit culture, the economy, and politics against each other as separate variables. These factors act in concert through people’s everyday perceptions of economic change and political entrepreneurs’ maneuvers to maintain and forge class coalitions and shape institutions. Quantitative analyses have their place in highlighting the association between well-defined variables, but historical case studies, qualitative analyses, and comparative approaches are better equipped to capture the complex nature of real-world illiberalism. 

The challenge of illiberalism requires us to go beyond our disciplinary confines. The inherently interdisciplinary nature of the socio-economic paradigm makes it a powerful lens through which we can understand illiberalism’s evolution. Once we get the analytical framework right, we can then start to think about policies and politics that address the cascading experiences of class dislocation, economic insecurity, racial inequality, and cultural hierarchies, which are necessary to fight illiberalism successfully. 



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