How modern authoritarians are breaking down democracy



Modern authoritarianism has succeeded, where previous totalitarian systems failed, due to new strategies of repression, the exploitation of open societies, and the spread of illiberal policies in democratic countries themselves, according to a new analysis.

Russia, under President Putin, has played an outsized role in the development of modern authoritarian systems, especially in media control, propaganda, the smothering of civil society, and the weakening of political pluralism, adds the Freedom House report, Breaking Down Democracy: The Goals, Strategies, and Methods of Modern Authoritarians:

The toxic combination of unfair elections and “majoritarianism” is spreading to illiberal leaders in what are still partly democratic countries. Increasingly, populist politicians—once in office—claim the right to suppress the media, civil society, and other democratic institutions by citing support from a majority of voters.

The hiring of political consultants and lobbyists from democratic countries to represent the interests of autocracies is a growing phenomenon. China is in the vanguard, but there are also K Street representatives for Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Ethiopia, and practically all of the authoritarian states in the Middle East.

“The leaders of today’s authoritarian systems devote full-time attention to the challenge of crippling the opposition without annihilating it, and flouting the rule of law while maintaining a plausible veneer of order, legitimacy, and prosperity,” said Arch Puddington (right), the report’s author.

The confluence of authoritarian gains and setbacks for democracy suggest a number of conclusions:

  • Modern authoritarianism is a permanent and increasingly powerful rival to liberal democracy as the dominant governing system of the 21st century. Variations on the systems that have proved effective in suppressing political dissent and pluralism in Russia and China are less likely to collapse than traditional authoritarian states, given their relative flexibility and pragmatism.
  • The most serious threat to authoritarian systems lies in economic breakdown. However, Russia, China, and other major autocracies have shown themselves capable of surviving economic setbacks that, while affecting the standard of living, did not push citizens to the limits of endurance. The catastrophic case of Venezuela is a notable exception. ….
  • Illiberalism in democratic environments is more than a temporary problem that can be fixed through an inevitable rotation of power. In Hungary, the Fidesz government has instituted policies that make it difficult for opposition parties to raise funds or present their political message, creating a structurally uneven political playing field. Other elected leaders with authoritarian mindsets will take notice and follow suit.
  • Authoritarian states are likely to intensify efforts to influence the political choices and government polices of democracies. The pressure will vary from country to country, but it will become increasingly difficult to control due to global economic integration, new developments in the delivery of propaganda, and sympathetic leaders and political movements within the democracies. Putin and his cohorts have learned well how to use democratic openness against democracy itself.
  • Authoritarian leaders can count on an increasingly vocal group of admirers in democratic states. For several years now, European parties of the nationalistic right and anticapitalist left have forged ties with Moscow and aligned their goals with Putin’s. The 2016 U.S. presidential election revealed a new constituency, albeit small, that harbors respect for Putin despite his hostility to American interests and his interference in the country’s democratic process. …
  • Modern authoritarians can be expected to double down on their drive to neuter civil society as an incubator of reformist ideas and political initiatives. Civil society can serve as a vibrant alternative to mainstream democratic parties as those parties fall prey to corruption, elitism, and ossification. ….
  • The rewriting of history will become more widespread and will greatly complicate societal efforts to confront both past and present political abuses. The rehabilitation of Joseph Stalin and the airbrushing of Mao Zedong’s destructive reign serve to facilitate an authoritarian form of nationalism in which strength and unity supersede justice and freedom, and the state is exalted at the expense of individual human beings.
  • Authoritarian or illiberal forces are more likely to gain supremacy in countries where the parties that represent liberal democracy do not simply lose elections, but experience a full-blown political collapse, whether through corruption, ineptitude, or failure to build lasting bonds with the public. In the end, elections do matter, and real change still requires victory at the polls. This is why robust, self-confident, and uncorrupted opposition parties are essential to democracy’s survival.



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