‘Springtime for Strongmen’? Explaining the rise of populist authoritarians


How are we to understand the resurgence of authoritarianism? What form does it now take? What responsibility do elites bear for its success? These are among the most important questions westerners confront. How we answer them will shape the world, FT analyst Martin Wolf contends.

Erica Frantz of Michigan State University sheds a bright light on the ways of contemporary authoritarians in a short book, entitled Authoritarianism: What Everyone Needs to Know. This illuminates two main points, he writes:

  • First, nowadays, the most common way for authoritarian regimes to emerge is by eating out democracy from within, rather as the larvae of some wasps eat out host spiders. Such processes make up close to 40 per cent of all contemporary collapses of democratic regimes.
  • Second, these new regimes often take what the author calls “the most dangerous form of dictatorship”: personal (or “personalist”) rule. Between 2000 and 2010, 75 per cent of transformations of democracies into dictatorships ended thus. Examples are Russia under Mr Putin, Venezuela under Hugo Chávez, and Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

There are several reasons why authoritarianism is on the rise, says Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of The World America Made. Autocracy flourished in 2018 because when Washington pursues a so-called realist policy of global retrenchment, it looks for dictators it thinks it can rely on, he writes for Foreign Policy:

  • Today, academics who urge retrenchment in U.S. foreign policy argue that Washington should accommodate “diversity” in the world—perhaps a nice mix of tyrants and would-be tyrants to go along with the dwindling number of democracies. As Harvard University’s Graham Allison puts it, America needs to adapt “to the reality that other countries have contrary views about governance and seek to establish their own international orders governed by their own rules.” Don’t worry. It has.
  • Autocracy is making a comeback because too many in the West act like late 19th-century racial imperialists; they think Arabs and others lacking so-called Judeo-Christian traditions can’t handle democracy. …
  • Authoritarianism is also on the rise because dictatorships have money to throw around. And unlike democratic leaders, they don’t have to tell anyone where the money is going. … 
  • Finally, autocracy has been succeeding because it is just as natural to humans as democracy. People may seek recognition, as Francis Fukuyama argues, but that is not the only thing they seek. They also yearn for the security that comes from family, tribe, and nation. ….

Around the world, rising populists and angry electorates are putting pressure, sometimes deliberately, on what Harvard University’s Steven Levitsky [a Journal of Democracy contributor] called democracy’s “two conflicting imperatives: majority rule and liberalism.” That contradiction “is as old as liberal democracy itself,” he told The New York Times:

As its modern form first took hold, philosophers and revolutionaries debated how to balance several lofty ambitions, of which popular rule was just one. And they fretted over how to make their new system last.

They concluded that democracy could never work as “simply the rule of public opinion,” said Nadia Urbinati, a Columbia University scholar of democracy. It would need “rules and procedures” to guard against factionalism, an abusive majority or a power-hungry leader. They converged on a system in which “elections are just one leg,” alongside a second leg of rules, rights and institutions, she said. “Without that, we don’t call it a democracy.”

Some political scientists describe populism as a pathology or malfunction of democracy, analyst Marc Champion writes for The Washington Post:

Populists say they are rescuing democracies that have been hijacked by elites. [Populism expert Cas] Mudde argues that the truth is somewhere in between, with populists pushing back against liberal forms of democracy with a majoritarian, winner-takes-all interpretation that sets back pluralism and minority rights. What’s certain is that populists stand out by insisting they alone represent the will of the people, dismissing any criticism of themselves as an attack on the people, and therefore illegitimate. That helps explain why populists, once in power, quickly bump up against democratic checks and balances — in particular the courts and media — that were designed to limit what governments can do.

Some European countries are choosing a “Russian-type of democracy” and this is the biggest challenge to the European Union, a top official at EU’s Commission told CNBC Tuesday:

According to Jyrki Katainen, vice president for jobs, growth, investment and competitiveness at the European Commission, the EU follows a liberal type of democracy, where rule of law is one of its core values. “There are new challenges coming from some of our member states, where some political leaders don’t respect liberal democracy to the same extent than before,” he said.

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