Why Protests Threaten Dictatorships but Make Democracies Stronger

Democracies have greater legitimacy because citizens largely support the system and its institutions. Dictatorships rely on performance—and they fail when they don’t produce results.

Demonstrators gather on 16th Street across from Lafayette Park while protesting peacefully against police brutality and racism on June 6 in Washington, DC.
Demonstrators gather on 16th Street across from Lafayette Park while protesting peacefully against police brutality and racism on June 6 in Washington, DC. Win McNamee/Getty Images

Listen to this article

Over the last few years, discussions of American decline have become commonplace —but recent events have made them more prominent. That’s because the country that marshalled the resources and resolve to help win two world wars and a cold war has proven unable to deal with the challenges thrown up by the coronavirus.

In light of these events, the eminent historian Harold James wrote that “like the Soviet Union in its final years, the United States is reeling from failures of leadership and suppressed socioeconomic tensions.” It is important to remember, he warns, that “up until the moment the Soviet system collapsed, very few thought it could actually happen.”

Critics of the United States and of democracy are even more eager to portray recent events as confirming the debility of both. As Peter Rough wrote recently in Foreign Policy, “China in particular has been extremely adept at exploiting the virus for its global propaganda war against the United States.” It has also portrayed the protests as “another sign of American decline” and as a reflection of the weakness and disorder of democracy.

There’s no doubt that the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic has revealed serious weaknesses. But recent events also reveal crucial potential strengths of the American political system.

There is no doubt that the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic has revealed serious weaknesses in American democracy. But recent events also reveal crucial potential strengths of the American political system, as well as strengths of democracy in general.

Understanding this, and why the United States might emerge from this period of turmoil stronger rather than weaker, requires one to take a step back and consider the difference between what political scientists refer to as systemic and performance legitimacy.

Systemic legitimacy comes from citizens believing in a particular political system itself—its tenets, principles, and goals—separately from the ups and downs of government performance, short-term fluctuations in economic conditions, or the particular policies or leaders that characterize it at any given time. The great political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset described this type of legitimacy as involving “the capacity of the system to engender and maintain the belief that the existing political institutions are the most appropriate ones for society.”

This is the type of legitimacy American democracy enjoys: Despite growing dissatisfaction with the functioning of democratic institutions, most Americans continue to believe that democracy is the best or most appropriate system overall. Because it is anchored in relatively stable political values and identities, rather than in short-term evaluations of particular outcomes, systemic legitimacy is fairly durable.

Beyond this, democracy’s legitimacy and durability are enhanced by the fact that citizens are allowed to express their discontent and demands in myriad ways—through protest, civil society, media—and can make use of an institutionalized method—elections—to hold leaders and governments accountable. Cumulatively, these mechanisms provide ways for democracy to “self-correct” or adapt to new demands and challenges, without needing to get rid of the system itself.

It is possible, although unusual, for nondemocratic regimes to enjoy some systemic legitimacy. During the early to mid-20th century, for example, a critical minority of citizens in Russia, Eastern Europe, and China probably believed in communism: It had defeated fascism in Europe and corrupt regimes in Asia, it claimed to be part of the “forward march” of history, and it promised to create a fairer version of modernity than the one offered by capitalism. By the end of the 20th century, however, communist regimes had lost whatever systemic legitimacy they may have had.

Once communist regimes could no longer rely on a reservoir of citizen belief in the inherent legitimacy, or desirability, of communism, they came to share a potentially dangerous vulnerability with other dictatorships.

Lacking systemic legitimacy, they increasingly had to rely on what political scientists call “performance legitimacy” to justify their hold on power. Here citizens support a regime not on ideological but practical grounds: the promotion of economic growth; the maintenance of order; protecting the interests of a threatened group; or defeating an external enemy.

Since this type of legitimacy is subject to continual reevaluation, it is less durable or dependable than its systemic counterpart: Should a dictatorship prove unable to produce better performance—particularly ever-improving living conditions—the only way for it to remain in power is via force. This, of course, is the story of the decline of the Soviet Empire.

By the late 1970s or early 1980s, there were few true believers or ideologically committed communists left in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, even within Communist parties. To paraphrase the great Czech-born intellectual Ernest Gellner, by this point Russians and Eastern Europeans had largely lost faith in communism’s transcendental claims and its continued existence—and therefore increasingly depended on “promises testable in this world rather than the next.”

But by the 1980s, communist economies were too bankrupt to improve citizens’ living conditions, necessitating the use of force to deal with discontent, most notably in Poland. Once Mikhail Gorbachev came to power and removed force as the final backstop, lacking both systemic and performance legitimacy, communism’s days in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe were numbered.

Since the late 20th century, almost all dictatorships, including China’s, have increasingly relied on performance rather than systemic legitimacy. Unlike the Soviet Union, however, China’s economic performance over the past decades has been remarkable. While there is a lively debate among economists and political scientists about whether democracies or dictatorships are better at producing long-term growth, there is no doubt that contemporary dictatorships, particularly China, have improved their performance in comparison to their mid-20th century counterparts.

Roberto Stefan Foa, for example, notes that during the postwar period, democracies—primarily North America and Western Europe—easily outperformed dictatorships. During this period, accordingly, democracies could rely on systemic and performance legitimacy.

But by the late 20th century this connection had been broken, as the economic performance of democracies declined and that of dictatorships, particularly China’s, improved. As Foa argues, to the extent that citizens value the pursuit of wealth or “national glory,” and are willing to trade these for personal liberties, the successful performance of dictatorships can persuade many citizens to support them.

However impressive the economic growth of China and other dictatorships over the past years, performance legitimacy remains inherently fragile since if performance falters, the main justification for a regime’s maintaining a monopoly on political power disappears. This of course explains why China, as Suzanne Nossel noted in Foreign Policy, has devoted immense resources to an aggressive domestic and international propaganda offensive during the pandemic: The corruption and incompetence of its initial response to the virus threatened its rationale for remaining in power.

If a dictatorship like China’s cannot convince its citizens of its superior performance, without systemic legitimacy they must rely on force to remain in power. Force can, of course, be highly effective—but it is expensive and dangerous over the long term. It increases resentments and divisions in society, necessitating the use of ever-greater repression to maintain power, thereby further raising the stakes for a dictatorship should performance nosedive.

Another tool available to dictatorships to justify their hold on power is nationalism, mixing elements of performance and force to convince citizens that their country is threatened and that dictatorship is necessary to protect them from their enemies. This can be effective but is dangerous and expensive over the long term. Nationalism is a difficult beast to tame once unleashed and can easily lead to internal and external conflicts that threaten the regime’s existence.

Pre-1914 Germany is the classic and most tragic example of this, as dictatorial German elites whipped up a nationalist frenzy to try to fend off growing calls for liberalization and democratization. The result was a country that flung itself headlong into the First World War and then, a generation later, a National Socialist terror regime.

The dismal and divisive performance of the Trump administration during the pandemic, combined with the U.S. government’s failure to deal with long-standing legacies of racism and other deep-seated problems, has recently led to some of the largest protests in American history. But rather than being a harbinger of American decline or a sign of democracy’s weakness, these protests represent an opportunity for renewal—for the system to self-correct and adapt.

For while the protests reflect deep dissatisfaction with existing leaders and governments, they do not necessarily threaten democracy overall. Expressing discontent through protest is a legitimate activity within democracies; indeed, Americans have used it prominently throughout the country’s history as a means to force politicians and governments to recognize and respond to demands and grievances. Dictatorships, of course, lack such mechanisms of adaptation and renewal, which makes growing discontent, and particularly organized expressions of it, mortal threats to them.

As long as citizens’ mechanisms for influencing and holding leaders and governments accountable continue to function, democracies—unlike dictatorships—are not existentially threatened by growing discontent or organized expressions of it. In contrast to dictatorships, in other words, the real danger to democracy comes not from poor performance but from poor responsiveness.

Seen in this light, there are reasons for both pessimism and optimism. Population shifts over the past decades have amplified the distorting effects of the Electoral College and the Senate on electoral outcomes—two of the last five presidents were elected despite losing the popular vote and more than half of the Senate is elected by approximately 18 percent of the population—and these distortions are expected to worsen over time.

Meanwhile, state and local level voting restrictions discourage historically disadvantaged groups from voting. And the role of money in American politics has made a mockery of the democratic ideal of political equality by enabling an economic oligarchy to translate its wealth into outsized political power and influence, through lobbying, campaign donations, and the funding of private groups that shape policies.

Unsurprisingly, many Americans on the left and right view the country’s political institutions and elites as corrupt and unaccountable, a perception that threatens to undermine the legitimacy of democracy itself.

Even so, the current protests have already significantly influenced American society and shifted public opinion. Since the protests began, Americans’ views on racial justice issues have undergone a remarkable transformation. Corporations, sports teams, and other organizations that had previously tried to avoid confronting racial justice issues have also shifted course. And policy changes, particularly regarding policing, are being debated and even implemented at the local, state, and national levels.

This is the way democracy is supposed to work—citizens mobilized to express their demands and dissatisfaction and institutions and elites have begun to adjust. Bringing about longer-term structural change, however, requires more than protests; the upcoming Presidential election is therefore crucial.

It could result in an administration committed to dealing with injustices and inequalities and fixing the political system to make it more responsive to broad cross-section of citizens. That would allow the United States to emerge from this period of turmoil stronger than ever.

Ultimately, democracy’s long-term legitimacy comes not from a promise of better performance—although the more responsive a democracy is, the better performance it is likely to produce, since leaders and governments attuned to citizens’ needs and demands are more likely to implement policies to deal with them. Instead, democracy’s legitimacy comes from its tenets, principles, and goals: the legal and political equality of all citizens, their right to have their voices heard, choose their own leaders and governments, and shape the development of their country.

Ultimately, democracy’s long-term legitimacy comes not from a promise of better performance but from its tenets, principles, and goals.

In an essay he wrote just before his death on July 17, John Lewis, the great civil rights leader, was somewhat optimistic that the current moment would indeed change the country for the better. He said that those raising their voices and protesting about injustice “filled me with hope about the next chapter of the great American story,” while urging them to vote. “The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it,” he wrote.

A startling number of Americans seem not to appreciate this basic truth. After all, many Americans had to fight for the right to vote—a right that citizens of many other nations do not enjoy. Alongside the recent protests, the November election provides yet another opportunity for U.S. citizens to collectively change their country’s trajectory.

Should they do so, we may look back at this period as a time when voting and other types of political activity helped the American political system begin correcting its poor performance and adapting to new challenges, thereby reminding the world of one of democracy’s crucial strengths and a key potential advantage it has over dictatorships.

Sheri Berman is a professor of political science at Barnard College, Columbia University, the author of Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe: From the Ancién Regime to the Present Day, and a columnist at Foreign Policy.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola