By Yascha Mounk
It has been a good decade for dictatorship. The global influence of the world’s most powerful authoritarian countries, China and Russia, has grown rapidly. For the first time since the late nineteenth century, the cumulative GDP of autocracies now equals or exceeds that of Western liberal democracies.
Even ideologically, autocrats appear to be on the offensive: at the G-20 summit in June, for instance, President Vladimir Putin dropped his normal pretense that Russia is living up to liberal democratic standards, declaring instead that “modern liberalism” has become “obsolete.”
Conversely, it has been a terrible decade for democracy. According to Freedom House, the world is now in the 13th consecutive year of a global democratic recession. Democracies have collapsed or eroded in every region, from Burundi to Hungary, Thailand to Venezuela. Most troubling of all, democratic institutions have proved to be surprisingly brittle in countries where they once seemed stable and secure.
In 2014, I suggested in these pages that a rising tide of populist parties and candidates could inflict serious damage on democratic institutions. At the time, my argument was widely contested. The scholarly consensus held that demagogues would never win power in the long-established democracies of North America and western Europe.
And even if they did, they would be constrained by those countries’ strong institutions and vibrant civil societies. Today, that old consensus is dead. The ascent of Donald Trump in the United States, Matteo Salvini in Italy, and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil has demonstrated that populists can indeed win power in some of the most affluent and long-established democracies in the world.
And the rapid erosion of democracy in countries such as Hungary and Venezuela has shown that populists really can turn their countries into competitive authoritarian regimes or outright dictatorships. The controversial argument I made five years ago has become the conventional wisdom.
But this new consensus is now in danger of hardening into an equally misguided orthodoxy. Whereas scholars used to hope that it was only a matter of time until some of the world’s most powerful autocracies would be forced to democratize, they now concede too readily that these regimes have permanently solved the challenge of sustaining their legitimacy.
Having once believed that liberal democracy was the obvious endpoint of mankind’s political evolution, many experts now assume that billions of people around the world will happily forgo individual freedom and collective self-determination. Naive optimism has given way to premature pessimism.
The new orthodoxy is especially misleading about the long-term future of governments that promise to return power to the people but instead erode democratic institutions. These populist dictatorships, in countries such as Hungary, Turkey, and Venezuela, share two important features: first, their rulers came to power by winning free and fair elections with an anti-elitist and anti-pluralist message.
Second, these leaders subsequently used those victories to concentrate power in their own hands by weakening the independence of key institutions, such as the judiciary; curtailing the ability of opposition parties to organize; or undermining critical media outlets. (By “populist dictatorships,” I mean both outright dictatorships, in which the opposition no longer has a realistic chance of displacing the government through elections, and competitive authoritarian regimes, in which elections retain real significance even though the opposition is forced to fight on a highly uneven playing field.)
According to the new orthodoxy, the populist threat to liberal democracy is a one-way street. Once strongman leaders have managed to concentrate power in their own hands, the game for the opposition is up. If a significant number of countries succumb to populist dictatorship over the next years, the long-term outlook for liberal democracy will, in this view, be very bleak.
But this narrative overlooks a crucial factor: the legitimacy of populist dictators depends on their ability to maintain the illusion that they speak for “the people.” And the more power these leaders concentrate in their own hands, the less plausible that pretense appears.
This raises the possibility of a vicious cycle of populist legitimacy: when an internal crisis or an external shock dampens a populist regime’s popularity, that regime must resort to ever more overt oppression to perpetuate its power. But the more overt its oppression grows, the more it will reveal the hollowness of its claim to govern in the name of the people. As ever-larger segments of the population recognize that they are in danger of losing their liberties, opposition to the regime may grow stronger and stronger.
The ultimate outcome of this struggle is by no means foreordained. But if the past decade has been depressingly bad for democracy, the next one may well turn out to be surprisingly tough on autocrats.
*First published in foreignaffairs.com