Mabel Berezin


On her book Illiberal Politics in Neoliberal Times: Culture, Security and Populism in the New Europe

Cover Interview of September 24, 2009


Having spent most of my career, researching and writing on illiberal politics, I am convinced that most citizens live in the middle—not at the edges of either left or right.  Political extremism of all stripes may generate violence and hatred—but it tends not to win elections.  In that regard, I am extremely hopeful.

The lessons of this book extend beyond Europe.  In an age that appears replete with threats from global terrorism to financial crisis, leaders and citizens ignore the link between democracy and security at their peril.  A thick democracy—that is, a democracy that merges democratic sentiments and institutions—is difficult.  It is difficult because democracy requires not only wealth as a material foundation but also a generalized public sense of largesse and empathy.  But these are aristocratic as opposed to populist virtues—not because the mass public is intrinsically intolerant, unjust and unfair but because it is frequently not in the ordinary person’s interest to voluntarily share scarce cultural and material resources.

Modern nation-states made democracy possible by providing citizens with an expanded notion of security—domestic and international.  Security is an emotional and practical concept—much like honor in non-modern societies.  Security was institutionalized in the major institutions of membership of the modern nation-state: the army, the schools and social welfare, as well as in targeting enemies and identifying friends.

The challenges to contemporary democracy lie in the new relation between security and insecurity, in all its forms—material, cultural and emotional—that globalization creates.  Secure states are democratic states no matter where they are geographically situated.  Unless modern polities confront that issue, populism will continue to lurk in the interstices of even procedurally democratic nation-states.

© 2009 Mabel Berezin