Cvr: The Rise of Illiberalism


The Rise of Illiberalism

Thomas J. Main
Release Date: January 4, 2022

How a more positive form of identity politics can restore public trust in government

Illiberalism, Thomas Main writes, is the basic repudiation of liberal democracy, the very foundation on which the United States rests. It says no to electoral democracy, human rights, the rule of law, toleration. It is a political ideology that finds expression in such older right-wing extremist groups as the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacists and more recently among the Alt-Right and the Dark Enlightenment. There are also left-of-center illiberal movements, including various forms of communism, anarchism, and some antifascist movements.

The Rise of Illiberalism explores the philosophical underpinnings of this toxic political ideology and documents how it has infiltrated the mainstream of political discourse in the United States. By the early twenty-first century, Main writes, liberal democracy’s failure to deal adequately with social problems created a space illiberal movements could exploit to promote their particular brands of identity politics as an alternative.

A critical need thus is for what the author calls “positive identity politics,” or a widely shared sense of community that gives a feeling of equal importance to all sectors of society. Achieving this goal will, however, be an enormous challenge.

In seeking actionable remedies for the broken political system of the United States, this book makes a major scholarly contribution to current debates about the future of liberal democracy.

Praise for The Rise of Illiberalism

“This is an extraordinarily rich book. Part of it is a theoretical examination of the differences between ‘liberal’ and ‘illiberal’ polities and a vigorous defense of the former. Especially important is Main’s emphasis on the need for significant constitutional reform. Also truly valuable is the stunning empirical data on the actual frequency with which Americans seek out illiberal internet sites and what they find there. Main demonstrates that far-right illiberalism is significantly more pervasive than its far-left analogue. This is a book to be read closely and debated with on occasion, and should be an essential reference in our necessary national discussion about how, if at all, we can save liberal democracy from its militantly illiberal challengers.”
—Sanford Levinson, author of Framed: America’s 51 Constitutions and the Crisis of Governance, and, with Cynthia Levinson, Fault Lines in the Constitution

“Illiberalism is a phenomenon and a problem that isn’t going away. Tom Main combines thought-provoking analysis of illiberalism and wide-ranging prescriptions for how to deal with it in this book. By taking illiberalism seriously, he’s done us all a service.”
—William Kristol, director, Defending Democracy Together

“Illiberalism has taken root in the United States, and it represents a distinct threat to its democracy. So argues Thomas Main, who documents the proliferation of illiberal platforms, characterizes their penetration into our politics and culture, and outlines steps needed to put our democracy on a more stable footing. The Rise of Illiberalism is a gripping call to action.”
—William Howell, University of Chicago

“It’s hard to imagine a timelier moment for this piercing interrogation of some of the most pressing challenges our democracy is facing. The Rise of Illiberalism is essential reading for anyone struggling to understand the growth of illiberalism and what might be possible to stop it.”
—Cynthia Miller-Idriss, director, Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab (PERIL), American University

“America faces a historic crisis of democracy, threatened by the rise of a powerful movement of illiberal politics on the right—a movement that remains poorly understood. Thomas Main provides a thoughtful, data-informed analysis that sheds useful new light on this frightful political force and what might be done to defuse it.”
—Terry M. Moe, Stanford University

“Thomas Main examines Alt-Right websites that reject liberal democracy to promote white supremacy and politics as war. He calls for democratic realignment based on acceptance of egalitarian identity politics, constitutional change, and new gatekeeping to revitalize American identity. The Rise of Illiberalism is urgent reading for contemporary scholars and activists!”
—Naomi Zack, professor of philosophy, Lehman College, CUNY


Thomas J. Main is a professor at the Marxe School of Public and International Affairs, Baruch College, City University of New York, and author of The Rise of the Alt-Right (Brookings).