European Populism and the Return of ‘Illiberal Sovereignty’: A Case-Study of Hungary
Published in International Affairs 98:2 (March 2022), pp. 529–547.
Abstract: European populist leaders and movements often extol the virtues of sovereignty, but how exactly are they using this term? Scholars have typically relied on conventional understandings of the concept—Westphalian, popular, and national sovereignty—to interpret populist discourses, but some have noted that these categories seem inadequate. This article asks whether much older, long overlooked, versions of sovereignty might help to explain the sovereignty discourse of European populists. These older variants include extralegal sovereignty (a leader's power to act outside the constraints of formal rules) and organic sovereignty (the power of a political community understood as a single ‘organism’). Both are inherently illiberal: extralegalism rejects constitutionalism, while organicism is inimical to political pluralism. An examination of the public speeches and statements of one prominent European populist leader, Prime Minister Victor Orbán of Hungary, reveals that he has, indeed, invoked these illiberal versions of sovereignty. By retrieving these older concepts, populists gain a powerful rhetorical tool to advance illiberal principles of political authority.