Democracy, Liberalism, and their Opposites

By Takis S. Pappas

Describing Political Systems

Say you want to construct an all-encompassing typology of political systems in the world. Now, since most knowledge is mediated by words, you had better start with establishing a clear vocabulary. Fine, but you are already stumbling upon the unclear and confusing terms used by such well-respected sources as the V-Dem Institute, the Economist Intelligence Unit, Freedom House, or in the academe. Here is a sampling of such terms: “flawed democracy” (as if there are democracies that are “flawless”), “electoral democracy” (as if there are democracies without elections), “hybrid regime”, “competitive authoritarianism” or “partly free regime” (as if there are democracies that are half-democratic and half-nondemocratic), and more. Is there a way of avoiding this terminological and notional hullaballoo?

Yes, there is! In fact, only two terms, and their opposites, should suffice to classify all political systems into a small number of categories that are mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive. This thinking yields two pairs of terms. The first pair includes democracy and its opposite, non-democracy; the second pair consists of liberalism and its own opposite, illiberalism. The next step is to define those terms.


What is a democracy? At a minimum, a country can be said to be democratic when elections are free. When can elections be said to be free? Answer: When, and as long as, they meet the following two conditions. First, all lawful parties are allowed to participate in the electoral process and, second, the opposition has a credible chance of winning. In this sense, states like Hungary and Turkey at the time of this writing classify as democracies.

Autocracy or Non-Democracy

A non-democracy, or autocracy, is the exact opposite of democracy. Nondemocratic states either do not allow their people the right to choose their rulers (think, for instance, of China) or just give permission to unfree and fraudulent elections. There are three major ways to render elections unfree, thus interfering with electoral outcomes: Controlling access to the contest (as in Iran), muffling the opposition (as in Russia), and stealing an election (as in Belarus).


What is liberalism? It is the process of running modern democracies fairly by means of institutions. Liberals acknowledge that society is a place of incessant conflict among many groups competing for scarce resources. The solution they propose is to build bridges between the various parts of society based on human rationality, political moderation, and consensus. As of the means for success, those include forging strong institutions to prevent abuses of power, making everyone equal before the rule of law, and actively protecting the rights—let alone the very existence—of lawful minorities.


Illiberalism is the flip side of liberalism and displays the opposite features from it. It holds that society is split by a single overriding cleavage between the vast majority and smaller minorities. Illiberal electoral politics, therefore, is all about social hostility and incessant conflict, typically prompted by incendiary leaders, since no compromises can be attained or, indeed, are desirable. In such a polarizing view of the political world, the rule of law and the protection of minority rights become secondary. What really matters is satisfying the majority irrespective of constitutional legality, established procedural rules, instituted norms of deliberation, and overlapping consensus.

A Four-level Typology of Political Systems

With our basic terms now clarified and made unambiguous, we are in perfect position to neatly order the world’s political systems into distinct categories (i.e., categories which, without overlapping with one another, provide all alternatives possible). The two-by-two matrix below shows how our terms, when used as categorical variables, interact between them to produce all theoretically possible political system outcomes.

The elemental classification of political systems in the world

  Democratic Non-democratic
Liberal Liberal democracy nil
Illiberal Illiberal democracy Autocracy

The scheme above yields three possible types of political systems and one impossibility. The impossibility is the combination of liberal values with nondemocratic practice, which is a contradiction in terms, a near logical absurdity. And I am saying “near” because Singapore among all nations in the world may, perhaps with a little conceptual stretching, fit in this category—a rare combination of nondemocracy with a certain degree of liberalism. Other than that, the biggest distinction is between democratic and nondemocratic, or autocratic, systems and that difference has one clear indicator: Democracies make use of elections which are free while in autocracies, even when they authorize elections, those are anything but free and their outcomes preordained.

A more compelling distinction is the one between modern liberal democracies and illiberal ones. Liberal democracies display elections that are both free and fair while in illiberal democracies elections are free but not fair. This way, illiberal democratic nations are finely distinguished from both autocracies (the latter lack free elections) and liberal democracies (the latter provide free and fair elections).

A New Way to Classify Political Systems

Now turning from the matrix above to the graph below, we get a neat classification of political systems, that is, a logical ordering in a way that proceeds from the all-inclusive genus (all political systems) to a more specific species (democracies, non-democracies) to an even more specific subspecies (liberal, illiberal) based on commonly shared properties. (Note how species and subspecies, while exclusive to each other, they collectively comprise the original genus.)

Political Systems

Illiberal Democracy

A new addition is the breakdown of illiberal democracies into two types, or, more properly since we are dealing with a classification, sub-sub-types of democracy. The first of them comprises nations that have achieved democracy before having experienced liberalism (illiberals before liberalism). They were the focus of analysis in a well-known essay by Fareed Zakaria, published in 1997 in Foreign Affairs, and included such nations as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Iran, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, or Haiti.

The common characteristic of Zakaria’s illiberal democracies was that, while at a certain time they achieved democracy, liberalism remained for them a faraway and rather impossible prospect. Today, several of those states have returned to autocracy while the ones that remain democratic have very little hope of, let alone interest in, advancing to liberal-democracy status. For simplicity, and for the lack of a better term, let us call this type of illiberal democracies Zakarialands.

The second type of illiberal democracies consists of those democracies that reject their previous liberalism opting instead for illiberalism (illiberals after liberalism), which is another way to describe modern-day populism. Back in 2012, in an article published in Government & Opposition, I explained how the seemingly different post-authoritarian Greece and post-communist Hungary had transformed with time from liberal democracies into populist ones. My emphasis was on the novelty in the two countries’ populist systems of combining adherence to democracy with a conscious rejection of liberal democratic principles and disrespect for the liberal institutions. I then introduced the idea of “illiberal democracy” as the minimal definition of modern populism. Not long thereafter, in 2014, it would be Orbán himself who popularized my definition proclaiming his intention to turn modern-day Hungary into an illiberal democracy.

A Truly Dynamic Model

Upon further refinement, which should involve deciding on specific indicators for each political system, our multi-level typology covers all types of political system in the world and could be used in more productively than most existing classifications. And, finally, far from being static, this is a dynamic classification as it indicates how any country can change its political system in all possible ways. Witness how, for instance, Venezuela has shifted from liberal democracy in the 1980s to populism under Chávez to Maduro’s autocracy. Or how Russia and Turkey have transformed from Zakarialands to autocracies. Or how the United States has swayed from liberalism under Obama to Trump’s populism and then back to liberalism. How does your country fit my model? Leave a comment below.

About the Author

Takis S. Pappas (PhD, Yale) is a former professor of political science, currently a researcher with the ELIAMEP in Athens, Greece, and the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University in Washington, DC.  He is known for his original work on populism and liberalism. Among his books is Populism and Liberal Democracy: A Comparative and Theoretical Analysis. He keeps the blog

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