Are Democracies Slowly Dying in The Age of Authoritarianism and Populism?

Viewpoint by Jan Servaes *

BRUSSELS (IDN) — Military coups d’état posed the greatest threat to democracies during the Cold War, until about 1990, and were responsible for nearly three out of every four democratic collapses. Democracies in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, the Dominican Republic, Ghana, Greece, Guatemala, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru, Thailand, Turkey and Uruguay all died in this way.

Africa seems to be the continent where military coups are still the preferred way to topple a sitting government.  It is estimated that there have been at least 100 successful coups in Africa in the past four decades, with more than twice the number of coup attempts. Burkina Faso tops the list with seven coups in less than the past 20 months. Experts say coups are prevalent in Africa due to incompetent leadership and corruption.

Also in Southeast Asia, we commemorated the first ‘anniversary’ of the coup against Ang San Suu Kyi in Myanmar on February 1. A few years ago, in 2014, the democratically elected Thai government was overthrown by General Prayuth Chan-ocha, who, after rewriting the constitution and rigging the electoral law, is still in power.

However, while coup proofing is typically portrayed as a tactic of dictators, it is also used in democracies. Therefore, since 1990 democracies have mainly died from within: killed by elected autocrats. Like Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, elected leaders have undermined democratic institutions in Cambodia, Georgia, Hungary, Nicaragua, Peru, the Philippines, Poland, Russia, Sri Lanka, Turkey and Ukraine, among others.

In most parts of the world trust in democracy (all-in-all limited, because not applicable to the economic field) is declining. This decline goes hand in hand with a deterioration of the freedom of civil liberties and human rights. Freedom of the press is rapidly shrinking to invisibility in Russia under Putin, and in Xi Jinping’s China. And the way Hindu nationalist Modi stirs up tensions between Hindus and Muslims in India is unworthy of “the largest democracy in the world.”

Even in the US, that under President Joe Biden is still posing as the “world champion of democracy”, democracy is under threat according to a detailed and historically sound analysis by Harvard political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt: How Democracies Die. They show how elected autocrats in different parts of the world use remarkably similar strategies to undermine democratic institutions.

Though it is premature to argue that military coups are outdated; in general, however, it can be said that since the end of the Cold War, most democracies have slid into authoritarian or autocratic regimes without the presence of boots in the streets.

Democracies slide towards autocracy

Many government attempts to undermine democracy are “legal” in the sense that they are approved by the legislature or accepted by the courts. They can even be portrayed as attempts to improve democracy—make the judiciary more efficient, fight corruption or clean up the electoral process.

Newspapers still publish but are bought off or bullied into self-censorship. Citizens continue to criticize the government but are often confronted with tax or other legal problems. This sows public confusion. People don’t immediately realize what’s going on. Many continue to ‘believe’ that they live under a democracy.

Now the democratic setback begins at the ballot box

Democratic backlash begins today with elections. The electoral road to collapse is dangerously deceptive. Levitsky and Ziblatt argue that recognizing patterns of democratic breakdown is important. As these patterns become apparent, the steps to degradation become less ambiguous. Knowing how citizens in other democracies have successfully resisted elected autocrats, or why they tragically failed to do so, is essential for those who want to defend democracy today, they contend.

Can Democracy Isolate Extremists and Populists?

An essential test for democracies is whether political leaders, and especially political parties, succeed in isolating popular extremists (including those within their own ranks). Because argue Levitsky and Ziblatt, when fear, expediency or miscalculation drives established parties to bring populists into the mainstream, democracy is in jeopardy.

Once an authoritarian aspiring to power comes to power, democracies face a second critical test: will the autocratic leader undermine or limit democratic institutions?

Institutions alone don’t stop autocrats

Institutions alone are not enough to keep elected autocrats in check. Constitutions must be defended—by political parties and organized citizens, but also by democratic standards. Without robust standards, constitutional checks and balances do not serve as the bulwarks of democracy as we envision them. Institutions become political weapons, wielded forcefully by those who control them, against those who don’t.

Autocrats Abuse Institutions to kill democracy

This is how elected autocrats undermine democracy: packing and ‘arming’ the courts and other neutral bodies, buying off or silencing the media and the private sector, and rewriting the rules of politics to tilt the playing field against opponents.

“The tragic paradox of the electoral road to authoritarianism is that the killers of democracy use democratic institutions—gradually, subtly and even legally—to kill it” (p. 8).

Indicators of authoritarian behavior

The current political climate in Western democracies, especially the United States, is characterized by increasing ideological polarization. What causes or initiates this erosion of democratic institutions? The four main indicators, or behavioural warnings, of authoritarian behaviour outlined by Levitsky and Ziblatt are (1) the rejection, in word or deed, of the democratic rules of the game, (2) the denial of the legitimacy of political opponents, (3) tolerating or encouraging violence, and (4) a willingness to curtail the civil liberties of opponents, including the media.

These four main indicators of authoritarian behaviour can be summarized as follows (on pp. 23-24):

  1. Rejection of (or weak commitment to) democratic rules
  • Do they reject the Constitution or do they express a willingness to violate it?
  • Do they suggest the need for anti-democratic measures, such as cancelling elections, violating or suspending the Constitution, banning certain organizations, or restricting basic civil or political rights?
  • Are they trying to use (or endorse the use of) extra-constitutional means against the government, such as military coups, violent uprisings or mass protests to force a change of government?
  • Do they try to undermine the legitimacy of elections, for example by refusing to accept credible election results?
  • Do they describe their rivals as subversive, or against the existing constitutional order?
  • Do they claim that their rivals are an existential threat, either to national security or to the prevailing way of life?
    1. Denial of the legitimacy of political opponents
  • Do they describe their rivals as criminals, whose alleged violation of the law (or potential to do so) disqualifies them from full participation in the political process?
  • Are they suggesting that their rivals are foreign agents, in the sense that they are secretly collaborating with (or being employed by) a foreign power?
  1. Tolerating or encouraging violence
  • Do they have ties to armed gangs, paramilitary militias, guerrillas or other organizations engaged in illegal violence?
  • Have they or their partisan allies encouraged or sponsored attacks on opponents?
  • Have they tacitly approved or refused violence to condemn or punish the aggressive behavior of their supporters?
  • Have they praised (or refused to condemn) other significant acts of political violence, in the past or elsewhere in the world?
  1. Willingness to curtail the civil liberties of opponents, including the media
  • Have they supported any laws or policies that restrict civil liberties, such as elaborate defamation or hate laws, or laws that restrict protest and criticism of the government, or certain social or political organizations?
  • Have they threatened legal or other sanctions against critics in rival parties, civil society or the media?
  • Have they praised the repressive measures taken by other governments, in the past or elsewhere in the world?

The election of Donald Trump has sparked much debate about the fate of American democracy. Does the election of a figure like Donald Trump—an inexperienced outsider with obvious authoritarian instincts—suggest that democracy in the US is on the decline? Indeed, according to Levitsky and Ziblatt, we should be wary because Trump exemplifies each of the aforementioned characteristics (pp. 65-67).

Was 2016 – Trump’s rise – a turning point?

Until 2016, the American democratic system was able to resist such authoritarian tendencies and exclude overt demagoguery in two ways, both formally and informally.

Until Trump’s rise, the “gatekeepers of democracy” (p. 37), such as political party leaders and bosses, effectively marginalized extremists from their parties on both the left and right sides of the political spectrum.

But Levitsky and Ziblatt argue that democracy cannot survive only through formal political channels. “Democrats do have written rules (constitutions) and umpires (the courts). But these work best, and survive longest, in countries where written constitutions follow their own unwritten rules”, i.e. are “the soft guardrails of democracy” (p. 101).

The importance of mutual and institutional tolerance

Two crucial informal norms that the authors emphasize and explain as the robustness of American democracy are (1) mutual tolerance and (2) institutional forbearance.

The first norm refers to recognizing the legitimacy of one’s political opponents to fight for power through the democratic process, as long as they play within constitutional rules (p. 102). Mutual tolerance precludes the use, or even encouragement, of threats and violence to prevent political opponents from competing for office.

The second standard is closely related to the rule of law; institutional forbearance means that elected officials cannot take legal action that intentionally favours one group of individuals at the expense of another. For example, the introduction of poll taxes or literacy tests, such as those that took place throughout the US post-Civil War reconstruction South, were generally applied to the entire population, with no reference to race. Southern states, however, passed these laws, knowing that the intended effect would be to disenfranchise African Americans who overwhelmingly voted Democratic, and therefore restored Republican dominance in the South. This example was a violation of institutional forbearance: it was not worthy of the rule of law.

The reversal of these anti-democratic measures through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Levitsky and Ziblatt say, had a polarizing by-product, triggering a partisan realignment between Republicans and Democrats along ideological lines. “With the disappearance of conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans” after this reshuffle, “the common ground between the parties gradually disappeared” (p. 169).

What further fuelled this political polarization, which eroded democratic norms, was the emergence of a system of presidential primaries. “From 1972, the vast majority of delegates to both the Democratic and Republican conventions would be elected in state-level primaries and caucuses” (p. 50). This shift in the political selection process meant that the “road to nomination no longer had to go through the party establishment. For the first time, the party’s gatekeepers could be bypassed” (p. 51). Placing presidential nominations increasingly in the hands of voters eroded the pre-existing peer-review process of candidates and opened the door to political outsiders.

These formal changes, coupled with the rise of social media (p. 56), would unleash a political dynamic, with each party increasingly targeting its ideological base from which a populist candidate like Donald Trump could emerge, independent of the political establishment and with complete disregard for democratic norms. Even, according to Levitsky and Ziblatt,  if the Trump presidency failed to break through the ‘hard guardrails’ or the formal institutions of our constitutional republic, by eroding the informal democratic norms of mutual tolerance and institutional forbearance, “he has increased the likelihood that a future president will ” (p. 203).

Political lessons

What political lessons can we draw from How Democracies Die, given the institutional erosion of democratic norms? Given our polarized political environment, how can we save democracy from itself?

Use institutions where they exist

“Where institutional channels exist,” argue Levitsky and Ziblatt, “opposition groups should use them” (p. 217). Indeed, using extrajudicial means and other political measures to oppose a potential demagogue will only have a series of consequences undesirable for proponents of democracy, namely increasing political polarization and legitimizing the erosion of democracy. Therefore, opposition to authoritarian tendencies in democracy should “try to preserve, rather than violate, democratic rules and norms” (p. 217).

Take political parties out of the clutches of interest groups

All this implies that the reduction of political polarization requires political parties to escape the clutches of interest groups, as the authors argue (p. 223). However, it fundamentally requires the elimination of political discretion, the foundation on which interest groups lobby not only for special privileges, but also the foundation on which authoritarianism is built. As Levitsky and Ziblatt argue, most “elected autocrats begin by offering prominent political, business, or media figures public positions, favours, perks, or outright bribes in exchange for their support or, at the very least, their quiet neutrality” (pp. 81–82). Therefore, the road to authoritarianism can only be prevented if political parties are banned from writing laws and granting privileges intended to favor one interest group at the expense of another.

How to restore democracy?

The Republican Party, meanwhile, has become increasingly aligned with Trump and appears to be uniting around a strategy of actively collaborating with him in its efforts to remove the barriers to American democracy. Given this state of affairs, how can American democracy be restored?

According to Levitsky and Ziblatt, democracy can only be saved by forging broad, pro-democracy coalitions that cross racial, gender, ethnic, religious and socioeconomic boundaries. Their nature and composition allow them to appeal to a wider part of the country and transcend the partisan divide that consumes current politics. This partial elimination of partisan tensions can lead to depolarization, which in turn reinforces democratic norms of mutual tolerance and institutional forbearance.

The lack of a diverse coalition to maintain it could go a long way to explaining why the Republican Party is in such a dysfunctional state. It is predominantly a party of white Christians who are relatively less numerous in society. As long as it maintains this basic makeup, the Republican Party will simply not be able to act as a pro-democracy force in an increasingly diverse society.

Accordingly, the Republican Party should expand its appeal to a more diverse cross-section of the electorate. Only when it becomes a “big tent” party stretching across religious and ethnic lines can the Republican Party resume its function as the centre-right and conservative benchmark of American democracy.

The key is to get American politics to both embody strong democratic standards and ensure effective political representation for all members of a diverse society. Only then will democracy really stand on solid ground.

The book How Democracies Die offers important insights into how autocrats are emerging and provides both warning signs for the US and a potentially hopeful way forward. The book is filled with impressive historical research and analysis. “It is profound in its insights, and its conclusions are shocking. Anyone left unimpressed and unaffected deserves what he or she receives,” concludes Roger Abrams in The New York Journal of Books.

Steven Levitsky & Daniel Ziblatt (2018). How democracies die, B/D/W/Y Broadway Books, New York, 308 pp. (ISBN 978-1-5247-6294-0) [IDN-InDepthNews – 05 February 2022]

* Jan Servaes was UNESCO-Chair in Communication for Sustainable Social Change at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He taught ‘international communication’ in Australia, Belgium, China, Hong Kong, the US, Netherlands and Thailand, in addition to short-term projects at about 120 universities in 55 countries. He is editor of the 2020 Handbook on Communication for Development and Social Change

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