Autocrats Have a Playbook—Now Democrats Need One Too

With democracy still in retreat, it is time to get smart about fighting back.

A cutout of the Goddess of Democracy stands out in a sea of light during a vigil to remember the Tiananmen Square movement on its 10th anniversary in Hong Kong, on June 4, 1999.
A cutout of the Goddess of Democracy stands out in a sea of light during a vigil to remember the Tiananmen Square movement on its 10th anniversary in Hong Kong, on June 4, 1999. Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

According to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index of 167 countries, in 2020, democracy continued its slide—in part due to the opportunities afforded to power-hungry governments by COVID-19 and government lockdowns. While some of the backsliding occurred in the world’s established democracies, much of it happened in hybrid regimes that, in spite of their democratic veneer, are authoritarian in nature.

Scholars have described this phenomenon, where democratic institutions exist in form but not in substance and where elections occur but are far from free and fair, as “competitive authoritarianism,” an increasingly common regime type from Asia to Latin America. These elected autocrats have not risen independently around the world. Rather, scholars have shown autocrats and their aspirants learning from one another. The thought of academic-style conferences to discuss best practices in electoral manipulation and lessons learned in stacking judicial systems might be amusing, but elected autocrats from Venezuela to Turkey to Hungary really have borrowed from one another, sometimes even sharing advisors and exporting ideas in repression and election-rigging.

Yet while autocrats have written their “dictator’s playbook,” democratic governments have failed to develop an effective strategy to defend against it. After decades of observing highly recognizable patterns of institutional manipulation and democratic backsliding, democratic governments still struggle to respond, individually and collectively, to these slow-motion coups from within. It is time, in other words, for liberal democrats to develop their own democrat’s playbook. If they don’t, events like the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol will be just the beginning.

In their fight to remain in power, authoritarian regimes can boost their resilience by adopting, as experts Stephen Hall and Thomas Ambrosio wrote, “survival strategies based upon the prior successes and failures of other governments.” Authoritarians engage in either wholesale transplantation or local adaptation of legislation tried by authoritarian regimes.

In Venezuela, for instance, previously undisclosed documents demonstrate how former President Hugo Chávez invited the Cuban government to assist in rebuilding and restructuring Venezuela’s intelligence apparatus and armed forces, ensuring greater loyalty to Chávez and his political project—loyalty that helps explain the durability of his successor, Nicolás Maduro. In Nicaragua, a repressive cybersecurity law and a foreign agent law imposed on nongovernmental organizations appear to be carbon copies of measures passed by Vladimir Putin’s Russia in 2012. And across the Atlantic Ocean, the European Union settled on watered-down measures to protect democracy and human rights in Poland and Hungary after years of deterioration in election quality and the rule of law, even though it was clear autocratic leaders and parties in both nations were borrowing strategies from the other.

Autocrats have a strong interest in keeping one another in power and forging a world safe for their kind. In many of these cases, the traditional foreign-policy tools called on by democracies, such as the threat of sanctions and public shaming, have not proved effective in reversing or even curbing autocrats’ designs. An effective response to the so-called dictator’s playbook requires a deeper reading of it so that the world can catch aspiring autocrats at page one.

One of the first warning signs that the dictator’s playbook is in motion is when a movement or a leader—usually with claims of being an outsider but often not in reality—starts sowing public division or exacerbating existing tension, whether it be over cultural divides, nationalist resentment, economic insecurity, corruption, or alienation. The ability to tap into and exploit such anger is a critical precursor to elected autocrats being able to sweep into power.

Usually, the first recourse for an elected autocrat after obtaining office is electoral reengineering. Under the guise of cosmetic reforms to a free system, changes are made to favor the incumbent. A slew of reforms normally reduce the independence of electoral commissions, packing them with allies and lowering the threshold to be elected and remain in power. The use of state resources for promoting an incumbent’s candidacy in future elections often complements these moves, as well as directs state resources to media outlets offering fawning coverage of the ruling party (and closing or burying those unwilling to move with the zeitgeist).

Next, elected autocrats seek to dominate the public space and suffocate civil society. To do so, the dictator’s playbook recommends an end-run around institutional checks and balances. While on a collision course with civil society, a crony group of allies normally sprouts, commandeering independent media outlets, spawning pro-government organizations, and even organizing ersatz opposition parties. Bringing the private sector to heel, and ideally co-opting it, is critical to dominating all alternative centers of organization and opposition.

Lastly, the playbook contains the more severe and eyebrow-raising maneuvers. Packing the judiciary and politicizing the armed forces and national police guarantee a continuation in power. In this phase, political repression in the form of arbitrary preventive detention, jailing political opponents on trumped-up charges, and the creation of pro-government paramilitary groups are quite common. And for good measure, elected autocrats may choose to consolidate their victories by amending or rewriting their country’s constitution.

These moves are all separate chapters in a well-worn book to consolidated dictatorship. From Nicaragua to Venezuela, Turkey to Russia, and Poland to Hungary, elected autocrats have followed these steps like a treasured family recipe. The challenge is that unlike the traditional coup—as recently witnessed in Myanmar—the death of democracy in these cases comes gradually without the benefit of a single identifiable blow (and therefore no clear moment around which liberal democratic governments can rally to defend democracy). Writing a democrat’s playbook is the only way to remain ever vigilant.

As in sport, every good offense starts with a good defense. Liberal democratic governments must start by publicizing their awareness of the dictator’s playbook. Important groupings of liberal democratic governments should work to clearly define and outline the warning signs, publishing the results in a joint declaration and thereby elevating smaller democratic transgressions in international debate. It is crucial to put autocrats and aspiring autocrats on notice that the democratic world understands their game.

For such a foreign policy to be successful, however, it would need to plan for offense too. Offensive responses would be publicized by liberal democratic governments as potential coordinated measures to deter the actions described above. Such measures could include diplomatic isolation, enhanced monitoring and reporting by international bodies, targeted Magnitsky-like sanctions on individuals, a commitment to work with civil society activists to address democratic deficits, and funding efforts to reduce civil conflict and polarization exploited by autocrats. A democrat’s playbook that is defensive (and reactive) in nature risks falling behind against the guile of autocrats.

To this end, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s proposal for a D-10 grouping of leading democracies could give institutional mortar to the democrat’s playbook. Embedding the democrat’s playbook within a well-defined grouping of countries meeting regularly is the only way to ensure its enduring relevance. Tasking the D-10 or some similar grouping with advancing the democrat’s playbook would provide a recognizable outlet for expressing concern over regression and accord more weight to those statements than individual governments alone. As the United Nations Security Council’s failure to condemn the coup in Myanmar demonstrates, current international institutions are insufficient even in the most egregious cases of backsliding. Yet a D-10 grouping could outline the types of voluntary bilateral and multilateral tools it stands ready to deploy.

Countries committed to the democrat’s playbook must also reform what has increasingly become a mixed bag of democracies and autocracies: the United Nations Human Rights Council. The United States should work with like-minded allies to reform the Human Rights Council and prevent its further descent into a clubhouse for China, Cuba, Russia, and Venezuela, to name just a few current members making a mockery of the institution. The body should require stricter membership criteria; create a more competitive, transparent electoral process; subject members to routine inquiries about human rights practices; and lower the threshold for suspending members.

Similarly, countries devoted to the democrat’s playbook must work to discredit the raft of thinly veiled, parallel organizations that have grown to undermine the authority of multilateral organizations, especially in the realm of human rights protection and electoral integrity. Examples of such organizations would include the Chávez-inspired Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our Americas and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, as well as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Asia, which have branched out into election observation with blatantly partisan agendas. Lacking the technical standards to do so, these organizations sanction fraudulent elections for regimes favorable to the organization’s founders.

Lacking the technical standards to do so, these organizations sanction fraudulent elections for regimes favorable to the organization’s founders.

Not all elections are equal or monitored objectively, and it is high time to reanimate the debate over technical standards for what constitute credible, free, and fair elections. This involves supporting and combining the work of the United Nations, the European Union, and U.S. organizations like the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute to combat anti-democratic efforts to dilute standards and spread misinformation.

Although the creation of special envoys, representatives, and do-nothing commissions has itself become a burden on effective government, the Biden administration should strongly consider appointing a term-limited special representative against democratic backsliding in the White House. Such an office would direct a whole-of-government response to the dictator’s playbook and develop a coordinated strategy with other leading democracies, international organizations, and civil society.

Perhaps the most important step for a grouping of countries countering the dictator’s playbook is to avoid obvious cases of hypocrisy at home. In quite a few democracies, including the United States, reversing institutional decay and shoring up democratic norms will be critical. It is no coincidence that many of the dictators’ trick plays sound familiar to many Americans. International commitment to a democrat’s playbook will also help liberal democrats keep their countries honest at home. As any winning Super Bowl team will tell you: If you are competing without a playbook, you are bound to lose—even with the best intentions and talent.

Christopher Sabatini is a senior fellow for Latin America at Chatham House, the director of Global Americans, and a lecturer at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. Twitter: @ChrisSabatini

Ryan C. Berg is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where his research includes Latin American foreign-policy issues.