Rise of Authoritarianism
Speakers: Moises Naim and Julian Waller
Welcome to What Happens Next. My name is Larry Bernstein.
What Happens Next is a podcast which covers economics, finance, history, politics and current events.
Today’s session is on the risk of authoritarianism. We have two guests. Our first speaker is Moises Naim who is a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the author of the new book entitled Revenge of Power.
Moises will tell us about how populism, polarization, and post-truth undermine the democratic process. And that there is a global trend in the past few decades away from democracies towards more authoritarian regimes.
Our second speaker will be Julian Waller who is a political scientist at George Washington University, and he has a new paper that was recently published in the magazine American Affairs entitled Authoritarianism here?
Julian will speak about why strong democratic governance in the US makes it unlikely that authoritarianism can take hold in the US because of the diffusion of power within the Federal government and how state and local control through federalism strengthens democracy.
If you missed last week’s podcast check it out. The topic was part three of our ongoing history of World War 2 with Paul Kennedy who is the J Richardson Dilworth Professor of History at Yale. Paul has a new book out entitled Victory at Sea: Naval Power and the Transformation of the Global Order in WW2.
This episode focused on the fateful year 1943 when the war was won. Paul explained why the US decided to invade North Africa instead of Europe, as a trial balloon. Why North Africa was followed by an invasion of Italy to knock Mussolini out of the war. And, we learned about the internal strife within the allied alliance, the disputes between the armed services, and why the allies ultimately won the war.
Let’s begin today’s session on authoritarianism with Moises Naim.
Topic: Populism, Polarization, and Post-Truth
Bio: Scholar at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Former Editor in Chief of Foreign Policy
Reading: Revenge of Power: How Autocrats are Reinventing Politics in the 21st Century is here
This past decade has been rich in world changing events. Almost unnoticed is the global crisis of democracy. There is a global onslaught against the checks and balances that define a democracy. Undemocratic systems are on the rise. They currently account for 70% of the world population. That is 5.4 billion people live in non-democracies, according to studies by the University of Gothenburg. A decade earlier, the percentage of people without democracy was 49%. So that was a decade in which democracy became a system of governing that is in danger of extinction.
Not since 1978 has there been such a low number of countries in the process of democratizing. There are two reasons why the democratic backsliding didn't cause alarm. The first is that there were just too many other urgent problems to successfully compete for the attention of the media, public opinion: the pandemic, the global financial crisis, Brexit, and the war in Ukraine -- left little room for non-immediate emergencies. The second reason is that most attacks in democracy were deliberately difficult to detect, which made it much more difficult for people to fight back. But the reality is -- and this is according to the University of Gothenburg -- the level of democracy enjoyed by the average global citizen in 2021 is down to 1989 levels.
Of 195 countries, only 34 are overall democracies. This profound, important structural change took place stealthily. There is a new crop of autocrats that present themselves as democrats and then stealthily undermine democracy from within. They win elections, they get to power and immediately they start on weakening checks and balances that characterize a democracy. They do that by using three strategies that I call the three Ps: populism, polarization, and post-truth. Populism has always existed and is centered in the notion that requires a Messiah-like charismatic leader that represents the noble people that is being exploited against the elite. Normally, what happens is that that charismatic leader becomes a dictator, and instead of defending the interest of the poor, makes whatever necessary decisions in order to stay in power.
Some of the tricks they normally use to achieve that are polarization, deepening the differences that exist in societies. Polarization has acquired new potency thanks to the new technology, social media, and all the rest that we can broadly call the third P, which is post-truth. Propaganda controlled and centralized by dictators.
Now post-truth includes propaganda used by the state, but it also includes the messages of listeners, fans. And post-truth is casting doubts on what people believe, creating confusion, undermining trust in society. And the three Ps have been used around the world by very different regimes and leaders. And that explains the dire situation that democracy finds itself in and the decline of democracy we have seen in the past decade.
Topic: Low Risk of Authoritarianism in US
Bio: Political Scientist at George Washington University
Reading: Authoritarianism Here? Is here
So I have good news. The United States is simply not on the verge of a fascist takeover and those that counsel imminent democratic death do us a disfavor. That does not mean that politics here in the American Republic are healthy. They very clearly are not. A general political legitimacy crisis has been rumbling through American society since at least 2016 and shows no signs of abating. However, a period of heightened political tension, mistrust and division does not necessitate the full breakdown of political order.
Many scholars, commentators and policy makers have honed in on the perceived threat of democracy's gradual decline, the so-called democratic backsliding framework, which has become popular as a predictive playbook for how the end of democracy comes about. This focus on a gradual approach, usually emphasizes procedural tricks, slow institutional capture and distorted electoral outcomes. It's informed primarily by the experience of certain European countries: Hungary, Russia, Turkey, Serbia are most commonly cited. The problem is working through any convincing account of a gradual slide into electoral authoritarianism in the United States requires considerable leaps well beyond tinkering around the electoral margins by way of House gerrymandering, Senate malapportionment or the electoral college.
The problem with relying on this way of understanding predictions about the collapse of democracy is that we often presuppose that a stable consolidated authoritarian regime inevitably comes next, rather than just short-term political chaos or constitutional crisis. This leads us to the lure of unfortunate hyperbole, where we have all this talk about the authoritarian or tyrannical nature of the Republican party, for example, or the looming dictatorship resulted from populous leader like Donald Trump.
So, democratic breakdown today is this form of gradual slide into what we call electoral authoritarianism. There is another common form of democratic collapse, which is even more evocative. And that is a military coup leading to the suspension of constitutional order and the creation of a military-backed civilian bureaucratic authoritarian regime. Neither of these scenarios are especially likely in the current political and institutional ecosystem of the United States.
Democratic collapse is really, truly genuinely difficult. You have to understand that the lessons we draw from foreign countries -- they have to make sense. We hear a lot about the Hungarian case. It's a very soft electoral authoritarian regime, but this an ethnically homogenous country of 10 million people, the population of Michigan. It experienced the massive discreditation of the current political opposition in the wake of the financial crisis, leaving the now current government very well placed to not only win elections heavily, but to do so while promising to rid the system of what was widely perceived to be a deeply corrupt elite. It has a parliamentary system with a tendency to produce lopsided electoral outcomes in big swing elections. This allowed the quick capture of all state institutions by the ruling party, enabling them to change the constitution easily.
The United States is absolutely nothing like this at all. Here in America, one must be able to control a vast set of political and economic organizations in order to fashion a genuine stable authoritarian regime. The US is a country of 330 million people spread across an entire continent containing a smorgasbord of overlapping racial, ethnic, and class segments divided into a multitude of powerful state governments whose legitimacy and political authority are centuries old and practically meaningful to the lives of their respective citizens.
We need to be very careful about the lessons we draw from foreign cases and the realities of what authoritarian regimes and their paths to power actually look like in an ideal world. This shouldn't be a particularly controversial opinion, but things are quite heightened and tense these days. And it's very easy to fall into extreme interpretations or even wish casting disaster, which is something we need to be careful to avoid.