Refine strategies to counter democratic backsliding


Credit: Carnegie

As democratic backsliding has become a defining feature of global politics, it is crucial that
international democracy supporters sharpen their strategies to address the formidable challenge it presents, say Carnegie analysts Thomas Carothers and Benjamin Press.

Strategies should take account of the various motivations and methods driving three distinct types of backsliding, they write in Understanding and Responding to Global Democratic Backsliding: 

  • In cases of grievance-fueled illiberalism, a political figure mobilizes a grievance, claims that the grievance is being perpetuated by the existing political system, and argues that it is
    necessary to dismantle democratic norms and institutions to redress the underlying wrongs.
  • Opportunistic authoritarians, by contrast, come to power via conventional political appeals but later turn against democracy for the sake of personal political survival.
  • In still other backsliding cases, entrenched interest groups—generally the military—that were displaced by a democratic transition use undemocratic means to reassert their claims to power.

Although motivations and methods differ across backsliding efforts, a key commonality is their relentless focus on undermining countervailing governmental and nongovernmental institutions that are designed to keep them in check, they add.

As international democracy supporters continue to refine their strategies of responding to democratic backsliding, they must better differentiate between facilitating factors and central causes. Doing so will point to the need for a central focus on of leader-driven antidemocratic projects:

  • In contexts of grievance-fueled illiberalism, helping civic and political actors learn from comparative experiences on how to broadcast alternative messages, form effective alliances, and implement effective campaign techniques that work against illiberal causes is of special importance. Given the negative spiral of toxic polarization that often develops in such contexts, paying particular attention to the growing body of research on depolarization will also be of great importance.
  • In contexts where opportunistic authoritarians are pressing for absolute power, other priorities may be more important. The widespread use of corruption as a political consolidation tactic by such leaders may make anticorruption assistance, for example, especially potent.
  • And in entrenched-interest cases, trying to head off threatened military coups or countering them once they have occurred entail still other priorities, like marshaling regional response mechanisms, designing quick-acting and well-targeted sanctions, and making the most of public diplomacy to call out coup leaders. RTWT
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