By: Spencer Bokat- Lindell | September 28, 2022
Illustration @ The New York Times; images by Alberto Pizzoli and Yuichi Yamazaki via Getty Images
Voters around the world are electing leaders with authoritarian tendencies.
Last weekend, voters in Italy handed the reins of government to a coalition led by a party directly descended from Benito Mussolini’s fascist dictatorship, delivering one of the biggest victories to the far right in Europe since World War II. “Today is a sad day for Italy,” said the leader of Italy’s center-left Democratic Party, who during the campaign had cast the contest as nothing less than a fight to save the country’s democracy.
If such language sounds familiar to American ears, it’s because countries around the world, including the United States, are confronting what experts say is a worldwide wave of democratic backsliding. According to data from V-Dem, a monitoring institute based in Sweden — where, as it happens, a far-right party with roots in neo-Nazism made a strong electoral showing two weeks ago — more democracies were deteriorating, and even slipping into autocracy, in 2021 than at any point in the past 50 years.
What explains the global resurgence of authoritarian politics, and what does it portend for the future of democracy? Here’s what people are saying.
Liberal democracy, in retreat
Democracy’s spread over the past few centuries has rarely been linear, instead ebbing and flowing with the competing forces of autocracy. Some political scientists divide democracy’s progression into three waves: the first beginning in the 19th century; the second beginning in the aftermath of World War II; and the third beginning in the mid1970s, which crested with 42 liberal democracies, a record high, in 2012. Today, only 34 liberal democracies exist, down to the same number as in 1995, according to V-Dem. (The share of the world population living in liberal democracies also fell in the last decade, to 13 percent from 18 percent.)
As The Times’s Amanda Taub has explained, this recent democratic decline — which some scholars say constitutes “a third wave of autocratization,” the first having begun in the 1920s and the second in the 1960s — has been primarily driven not by coups or revolutions, but by the actions of legitimately elected officials: “Once in power, unscrupulous leaders can sometimes manipulate the political environment to their own benefit, making it more likely that they will be victorious in future contests. By winning those elections, they gain the stamp of democratic legitimacy — even for actions that ultimately undermine democratic norms.”
In Europe, the most prominent practitioner of this kind of “soft autocracy” by election is Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary. After being voted into power in 2010, he has worked to build what he calls an “illiberal democracy” by eroding civil liberties and media freedom, subjugating the judiciary, and restructuring his country’s electoral system. In the process, he has become a model to the far right around the world, including in the United States.
To varying degrees, the decline of liberal democratic norms and institutions is visible in almost every region:
In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, elected in 2014, has presided over a sharp rise in Hindu nationalism — with violent, frequently deadly consequences for the country’s Muslim minority — and a stifled speech
In the Philippines, voters recently elected the son of a former dictator to succeed Rodrigo Duterte, who during his six years as president cracked down on the news media and launched a war on drugs that led to thousands of killings.
In El Salvador, President Nayib Bukele, elected in 2019, has deployed the army in Congress to pressure legislators, defied the Supreme Court’s attempts to restrain his use of military force and jailed thousands with little due process under a state of emergency over gang violence.
And then, of course, there is the United States: Political scientists have warned that, in a trend that predated Donald Trump but accelerated under his presidency, the Republican Party’s commitment to liberal democratic norms has diminished, its messaging now resembling that of authoritarian parties like Orban’s.
Unlike ruling parties in many other backsliding democracies, though, the Republican Party has been able to win control of government without commanding popular majorities. As The Times’s David Leonhardt wrote recently, because of a confluence of geographic sorting trends and the small-state bias of Congress and the Electoral College, every branch of American government now favors one party (Republican) over another (Democratic) in a way they did not for much of the country’s history. “We are far and away the most countermajoritarian democracy in the world,” Steven Levitsky, a professor of government at Harvard, told Leonhardt. Debatable Agree to disagree, or disagree better? Broaden your perspective with sharp arguments on the most pressing issues of the week.
What drives democracies toward autocracy?
No two democracies backslide for identical reasons, but political scientists and others have posited some common themes. One is backlash to threats, real or perceived, to the majority’s sense of national identity.
“First, society polarizes, often over a backlash to social change, to demographic change, to strengthening political power by racial, ethnic or religious minorities, and generally amid rising social distrust,” The Times’s Max Fisher, who has reported widely on global democratic decline, recently explained. “This leads to a bottom-up desire for populist outsiders who will promise to confront the supposed threat within, which means suppressing the other side of that social or partisan or racial divide, asserting a vision of democracy that grants special status for ‘my’ side, and smashing the democratic institutions or norms that prevent that side from asserting what is perceived to be its rightful dominance.”
How does class come into the picture? Some scholars have theorized a link between democratic backsliding and the Great Recession, if not global free-market capitalism itself. In India, for example, Debasish Roy Chowdhury argued last month in The Times that “neoliberal policies have compounded inequality, with the state retreating from fundamental responsibilities such as health and education.” He continued: “This breeds a life of indignity and powerlessness for millions who take refuge in group identity, gravitate toward strong leaders promising to defend them against other groups and easily become hooked on the mass opioid of religious hatred now being used to redefine secular India as a Hindu state.”
Taking another materialist view, Richard Pildes, a constitutional law scholar at New York University School of Law, attributes the rise of illiberal forces to the dispersal of political power among a growing number of political parties, which he argues limits the ability of democratic governments to function effectively. “When democratic governments seem incapable of delivering on their promises, this failure can lead to alienation, resignation, distrust and withdrawal among many citizens,” he wrote in The Times last year. “It can also trigger demands for authoritarian leaders who promise to cut through messy politics. At an even greater extreme, it can lead people to question democracy itself and become open to anti-democratic systems of government.”
Can democratic backsliding be stopped?
History has shown that the arc of human civilization does not inevitably bend toward liberal democracy. But its tendency toward autocracy is also highly contingent. In The Washington Post, Miguel Angel Lara Otaola noted this year that since 2000, even as democratic backsliding became the predominant global trend, nine countries managed to transition back to democracy after a period of authoritarianism. “These countries show us that democracy is resilient and that countries can and do return to democracy,” he wrote.
The organization Otaola works for, the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, has proposed numerous ideas for halting and reversing democratic backsliding, including investing in civic education, reforming campaign finance laws, and strengthening coordination between international organizations with peacekeeping initiatives like the United Nations, the European Union and the African Union. Other experts have argued for abolishing two-party systems, more heavily regulating tech giants and imposing financial penalties on backsliding governments.
Yet there are also those who believe technocratic fixes are unequal to the problem. In a 2016 essay, the Indian writer Pankaj Mishra presented the declining health of democracy around the world as a crisis for the ideology of modern market-based liberalism itself: A “religion of technology and G.D.P. and the crude 19th-century calculus of self-interest,” it can neither account for nor provide an answer to the anger of those who feel left behind by the disruptions and inequalities wrought by globalized capitalism.
To chart a path forward, those who believe in the ideals of liberal democracy will “require, above all, a richer and more varied picture of human experience and needs than the prevailing image of Homo economicus,” Mishra argued. “Otherwise, in our sterile infatuation with rational motivations and outcomes, we risk resembling those helpless navigators who, De Tocqueville wrote, ‘stare obstinately at some ruins that can still be seen on the shore we have left, even as the current pulls us along and drags us backward toward the abyss.’”
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Spencer Bokat-Lindell is a staff editor in the Opinion section of the NY Times. @bokatlindell Weekly Debatable Agree to disagree, or disagree better? We’ll help you understand the sharpest arguments on the most pressing issues of the week, from new and familiar voices.