The Evolution of the Strongman

Why authoritarians have grown more liberal as democracies have grown more authoritarian.

Ballot papers for Turkey’s presidential election are seen at a polling station in Istanbul on Aug. 10, 2014. (Ahmet Bolat/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Ballot papers for Turkey’s presidential election are seen at a polling station in Istanbul on Aug. 10, 2014. (Ahmet Bolat/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Even as news programs sound alarms about democracy in crisis, the truth is that authoritarian regimes govern a smaller percentage of the world’s countries today than at any time in the post-World War II era. The percentage of authoritarian regimes in power peaked in the late 1970s at the height of the Cold War, reaching about 75 percent. By 2000, just under 50 percent of countries were governed by authoritarian regimes. As of 2017, a scant 38 percent were.

So why all of the doomsday talk about rising authoritarianism? Well, although it has become somewhat rare for democracies to fully collapse into autocracy—indeed only two arguably did so in 2016 (Turkey and Nicaragua) and none in 2017—many democracies today are moving in the authoritarian direction. This is troubling because, historically speaking, when democracies deteriorate they usually don’t bounce back quickly.

Even more worrying, many of the countries suffering democratic breakdown today are not the ones we’d expect. A wide body of political science research has shown that the richer the democracy, the more resilient it is supposed to be. Yet, recent data indicate that the democracies falling apart today are quite a bit richer than those in earlier decades. In the 1990s, the per capita wealth of the typical democracy that collapsed was about $1,700. This figure, adjusted for inflation, grew to about $2,300 in the 2000s and to about $3,300 in the 2010s. The trend runs counter to some long-held beliefs about the dynamics of political change. It suggests that greater wealth may no longer protect democracies as well as it did in the past, which is perhaps why developments in Hungary, Poland, and elsewhere have generated such surprise and concern.

Turkey offers an unsettling example of what may lie ahead. Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to power in 2003, via parliamentary elections that by all accounts were democratic. Turkey had experienced interludes of military rule in the past, but few would have put it on the list of contenders for autocratic breakdown at the time of Erdogan’s assumption of control. Not only was it comparatively wealthy, but it also featured a rising middle class and bustling civil society.

Yet, over the course of his time in power, Erdogan has initiated a series of actions that have chipped away at Turkish democracy, including cracking down on intellectuals critical of the government and engaging in efforts to muzzle the media and otherwise sideline opponents. In 2016, the situation escalated. Erdogan supporters took control of several media outlets, branded academics opposing him as “treasonous” (leading to job losses for many), and initiated changes to the constitution that gave him extensive new powers. The failed coup that year was the tipping point, paving the way for a three-month state of emergency, which led to a widespread purge of government opponents. The overall process was slow and incremental—typical of most democratic breakdowns today—but the deterioration of democracy, according to rankings by the Economist, was nearly complete by the end of that year.

Ironically, if democracies that once seemed safe have slipped, today’s authoritarian regimes have grown more liberal—at least in terms of their facades. Since the end of the Cold War, the majority of the world’s authoritarian regimes have featured legislatures, multiple political parties, and somewhat competitive elections that are held on a regular basis. The evidence indicates that they are wise to do so: Authoritarian regimes with pseudo-democratic institutions last quite a bit longer in power than those without them. Astute autocrats have learned that a semblance of political pluralism offers many advantages and fewer risks than traditional tactics of control such as brute repression.

Today’s authoritarian regimes have grown “smarter” in other domains as well, beyond political institutions. Their goal is to mimic the virtues of democracy, such as accountability, contestation, and representation, using methods that are superficial and fall short of real reform. Examples are wide-ranging, including legalizing nongovernmental organizations—but only those that secretly promote the government agenda—and using election monitors—but only those that validate the government’s intended result. Many of today’s authoritarian regimes even pay for public relations firms to sell a positive image of their government domestically and overseas. All of these moves enable authoritarian governments to pretend to be democratic while making it more difficult to charge that they are not.

Singapore may be the best exemplar of the model. The People’s Action Party regime has governed since 1965. It regularly holds elections and even allows members of the opposition to win seats in the legislature. Although its elections seem competitive, the regime reportedly engages in subtle strategies to ensure that it maintains control. For example, it has used defamation lawsuits allegedly as a way to stifle its opponents. When opponents lose the lawsuits, they are forced to pay sizable financial damages, which eventually leads them to bankruptcy. Likewise, the Singaporean regime has created such programs as Reaching Everyone for Active Citizenry @ Home, which is part of its Ministry of Communications and Information and gathers citizen feedback on major issues. These programs provide the regime access to citizen preferences and beliefs, and they may ultimately serve as a tool for critical intelligence-gathering. The Singaporean regime’s skillful adoption of the trappings of democracy perhaps accounts for its longevity: It has been in power more than 50 years.

Indeed, the movement toward greater false liberalism among contemporary authoritarian regimes seems to have proved effective across the board. Although there are fewer authoritarian regimes governing than in decades past, those that remain are remarkably durable. During the Cold War, the typical authoritarian regime governed for about 12 years. This number increased to 19 years in the 1990s and 22 years in the 2000s; it has now climbed to 27 years in the 2010s. Gone are the days of the military junta that takes power only to be forced to leave it a few years later. Today’s authoritarian regimes have learned that feigning democratic rule has survival benefits.

The takeaway point from these trends is that our understanding of what is “normal” in the political landscape may need updating. Although it is true that more of the world is democratic than ever before, there are signs that progress may soon come to a halt. Democracies are gravitating toward authoritarianism in a number of surprising places, such as Hungary, Poland, and even the United States. At this point, we can only speculate as to why this is happening now. Likely causes include citizen disillusionment on the heels of the migration crisis, rising inequality, and stagnating standards of living. Regardless, although we have traditionally viewed the developed world as immune to this sort of thing—especially democratic backsliding evolving into full democratic breakdown—we no longer can. Meanwhile, today’s authoritarian regimes are making it more difficult to brand them as such. They are increasingly mimicking the traits of democracy, in ways that seem liberal but actually work to extend the authoritarian lifespan.

However, the message is not all gloom and doom. Although authoritarian regimes with pseudo-democratic institutions are longer-lasting, when they do collapse, they are more likely to transition to democracy than to another dictatorship. The experience of Malaysia gives particular cause for optimism. The dominant-party regime had been in power since 1957. It evolved its tactics in all the ways outlined here—and by all accounts was a very clever government. Few experts anticipated that the regime would lose (and respect the outcome of) the 2018 elections. Yet it did, and now Malaysia is democratic for the first time in its history. Even savvy authoritarian regimes sometimes miscalculate. If future democratizations are similar to Malaysia’s—occurring at the ballot box rather than through disruptive protests or force—this would be one trend that bodes well for global peace and stability.

Erica Frantz is an assistant professor in political science at Michigan State University.

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