In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Illiberal Democracies and Democratic Backsliding

  • Introduction
  • What Illiberal Democracy Is and Is Not
  • Illiberalism, Democracy, and Political Systems
  • Crises or Transitions
  • The Global Shift
  • Polarization and Illiberalism
  • Anti-liberal Populism
  • Mass Politics
  • Eastern Europe
  • South and Southeast Asia
  • Islam and Illiberal Democracy
  • Illiberalism in the Americas

Political Science Illiberal Democracies and Democratic Backsliding
Darin Self
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 September 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0352


During democracy’s Third Wave there was a sense of optimism in the literature concerning the future of democracy, as countries around the world appeared destined for liberal democracy. That optimism has faded as systems in the past half-decade have seen the rise of illiberalism, democratic decline, or autocratization. Political systems found in every region of the world have careened between democracy and authoritarianism, with several systems adopting illiberal features. Given the rise of notable illiberal politicians such as Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party of Hungary, Narendra Modi with the BJP in India, and Donald Trump and the Republican Party in the United States, greater attention is being paid to illiberalism. More specifically, academics, journalists, and policy practitioners seek to better understand why and how these individuals and parties use democracy itself to violate what is seen as the ideal form of self-governance: liberal democracy. The purpose of this bibliography is to provide a survey of the literature on illiberal democracy. It is by no means exhaustive, but should help seasoned and novice students of democracy as they seek to build an understanding of the concept and causes of illiberalism that appear to be becoming more common in the world today. There is no consensus within the literature over what constitutes “illiberal democracy” or even if there is such a thing. For the purpose of this bibliography, illiberal democracy is situated against the ideal of liberal democracy. Liberal democracy is more than a system wherein parties lose elections; it is also one where individual rights and liberties are secured, and the rule of law upheld. Due to the lack of a coherent conceptualization and theme of illiberal democracy, this bibliography casts a wide net to also include democratic erosion, democratic breakdown, or autocratization. The bibliography begins with two sections that explore the concept of illiberalism and democracy and whether the two are inextricably linked. In the first section, What Illiberal Democracy Is and Is Not, there are several citations which conceptualize democracy and liberalism. The following section, Illiberalism, Democracy, and Political Systems, provides more depth on how liberalism is intertwined with democratic systems. Afterwards there are two sections which explore the issue of democratic crises and the global trend toward greater illiberalism. In the subsequent sections, the reader will find literature across several themes related to illiberalism. This includes populism, polarization, and the role Mass Politics and contentious politics play in either supporting or subverting illiberalism. Following these thematic sections are sections with specific work on illiberalism in Central and Eastern Europe, the Americas, and South and Southeast Asia, along with a special look at Islam and illiberalism which overlaps significantly with the Middle East and North Africa.

What Illiberal Democracy Is and Is Not

What constitutes democracy has always been contested. The literature on illiberal democracy was largely spurred by Zakaria 1997, which conceptualized illiberal democracy by separating the procedural aspects of democracy (i.e., elections) from the more extensive liberal aspects (i.e., individual rights and liberty) or constitutional liberalism. This built on minimalist definitions of democracy, such as those presented in Schmitter and Karl 1991, where popularly elected officials are free to exercise their power. Plattner 1998 disagrees and states that one cannot separate liberalism from democracy. While Zakaria 1997 separates the two aspects of democracy to form a concept of illiberal democracy, Ding and Slater 2020 conceptualizes democracy in a way that demonstrates that these two dimensions are coupled, and democratic decline can include the decoupling of democratic rights from democratic procedures. Given the multitude of ways scholars have conceptualized democracy (Collier and Levitsky 1997) it comes as no surprise that there is considerable variation in how to conceptualize and measure illiberalism or illiberalization. Within the more recent literature, some scholars have offered typologies of democratic decline or backsliding (Bermeo 2016, Cassani and Tomini 2020) while others center their conceptualization around core factors of democracy that vary by degree (e.g., Daly 2019, Foweraker and Krznaric 2000, and Munck 2016). Other works, such as Gerschewski 2021, take a narrower approach and differentiate between erosion and decay, which depends on whether the negative movement of the democratic regime is due to domestic causes or international ones. As can be seen in this literature, there is difficulty in separating the various aspects of democracy, and great care should be taken when focusing on illiberalism within democratic regimes.

  • Bermeo, N. “On Democratic Backsliding.” Journal of Democracy 27.1 (2016): 5–19.

    DOI: 10.1353/jod.2016.0012

    Although Bermeo does not mention “illiberalism,” this article is useful for thinking through the concepts of autocratization, democratic backsliding, and illiberal democracy. The author focuses exclusively on democratic institutions or procedures and outlines the ways democracy can be undermined or has changed in the years prior to the article’s publication. Instead of coups, autogolpes, or electoral fraud, we see more executive aggrandizement, promissory coups, opposition harassment, and strategic electoral manipulation.

  • Cassani, A., and L. Tomini. “Reversing Regimes and Concepts: From Democratization to Autocratization.” European Political Science 19.2 (2020): 272–287.

    DOI: 10.1057/s41304-018-0168-5

    Seeks to create a cleaner conceptualization of autocratization to aid the comparative analysis of a regime change away from democracy. The authors center their concept of a regime around political participation, public contestation, and executive limitation. This creates a range of regimes from liberal democracy, defective democracy, electoral autocracy, to closed autocracy. Any shift down this scale qualifies as autocratization.

  • Collier, D., and S. Levitsky. “Democracy with Adjectives: Conceptual Innovation in Comparative Research.” World Politics 49.3(1997): 430–451.

    DOI: 10.1353/wp.1997.0009

    The authors list illiberal democracy as a diminished subtype of the root concept of democracy. By diminished subtype, the authors mean it is a conceptual innovation used to differentiate cases due to imperfections in democracy and to avoid stretching the concept of democracy. For the authors, illiberal democracy is diminished from the procedural minimum definition in democracy due to its missing attributes: civil liberties.

  • Daly, T. G. “Democratic Decay: Conceptualising an Emerging Research Field.” Hague Journal on the Rule of Law 11.1 (2019): 9–36.

    DOI: 10.1007/s40803-019-00086-2

    Seeks to tackle the various concepts that have emerged to address challenges facing democracy. To develop a concept of democracy, Daly creates a negative conception of democracy divided between liberal constitutional democracy and self-sustaining democracy. The author then sorts the literature into two camps: executive-led attacks on democracy versus the deterioration of public and political norms.

  • Ding, I., and D. Slater. “Democratic Decoupling.” Democratization 28.1 (2020): 63–80.

    DOI: 10.1080/13510347.2020.1842361

    The authors focus their conceptualization and empirical analysis on the gap emerging between two central components of democracy: elections and liberal rights. Instead of seeing democracy and autocracy as polar opposites lying on a single spectrum, they argue that democracy is a complex mix of institutions which vary in their development and erosion. Thus, democratic backsliding does not necessarily happen in a linear fashion, as some components of democracy (e.g., liberal rights) can fail or deteriorate while others (e.g., competitive elections) hold.

  • Foweraker, J., and R. Krznaric. “Measuring Liberal Democratic Performance: An Empirical and Conceptual Critique.” Political Studies 48.4 (2000): 759–787.

    DOI: 10.1111/1467-9248.00282

    Conceptualizes liberal democracy multidimensionally to measure liberal democracy comparatively. The authors include the durability of liberalism, government efficacy, and the extent to which liberal values are delivered by the government. The authors demonstrate that most measures of liberal democracy only capture one or two core democratic values and range to include accountability, executive constraint, representation, participation, civil rights, property rights, political rights, and minority rights.

  • Gerschewski, J. “Erosion or Decay? Conceptualizing Causes and Mechanisms of Democratic Regression.” Democratization 28.1(2021): 43–62.

    DOI: 10.1080/13510347.2020.1826935

    Conceptualizes democratic regression as the loss of democratic quality, which is more narrow than alternative definitions which center around whether systems have regressed on procedural aspects of democracy. Defines democratic regression this way to highlight difficulties and inconsistencies in the analysis of democratic decay or erosion. The author argues that the literature can be divided into multiple dimensions of internally caused (democratic) decay and externally caused (democratic) erosion.

  • Munck, G. L. “What is Democracy? A Reconceptualization of the Quality of Democracy.” Democratization 23.1 (2016): 1–26.

    DOI: 10.1080/13510347.2014.918104

    Reconceptualizes democracy because many approaches which measure democracy and its quality are ad hoc, selecting specific components or features of democracy without clear consideration for the structure of the procedures and the relationship various components share. Suggests that instead a conceptualization of democracy that is appropriate for the comparative analysis of the quality of democracy should be founded on the “value of freedom.”

  • Plattner, M. F. “Liberalism and Democracy: Can’t Have One without the Other.” Foreign Affairs 77.2 (1998): 171–180.

    DOI: 10.2307/20048858

    Responding to Zakaria 1997, the author approaches the concept of liberal democracy by highlighting how democracy and liberalism constitute the “interweaving” of two difference elements. While democracy is the rule of the people, as opposed to some monarch or oligarchs, liberalism is not about who rules, but how power is exercised. Central to liberal rule is the restraint of the government against violating rules and liberties.

  • Schmitter, P. C., and T. L. Karl. “What Democracy Is . . . and Is Not.” Journal of Democracy 2.3 (1991): 75–88.

    DOI: 10.1353/jod.1991.0033

    Defines democracy as “a system of governance in which rulers are held accountable for their actions in the public realm by citizens” (p. 76). The authors then distinguish between liberal and social democracy. The difference between the two is the scope of what constitutes the public realm, with liberal democracy restricting the public realm to the individual, while social democracy expands it through regulation and subsidization of economic actors.

  • Zakaria, F. “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy.” Foreign Affairs 76.6 (1997): 22–43.

    DOI: 10.2307/20048274

    One of the earliest articles to consider the possibility of systems that meet democratic procedural measures, but also feature illiberal parties winning power through democratic means. Highlights how guarantees of liberalism are distinct from democratic institutions and that democracy is susceptible to being “usurped” from the bottom, as politicians respond to popular demands.

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