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  • Author or Editor: Natasha Lindstaedt x
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Why do democracies fall apart, and what can be done about it?

This book introduces students to the concept and causes of democratic decay in the modern world. Illustrating the integral link between public commitment to democratic norms and the maintenance of healthy democracies, it examines the key factors in decaying democracies, including:

• Economic inequality;

• Corruption;

• Populist and authoritarian discourse;

• Declining belief in political institutions and processes.

Drawing on real-world developments, and including international case studies, the book outlines the extent to which there is a ‘democratic recession’ in contemporary politics and shows how transnational networks and technology are impacting on this development.

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The Brazilian presidential election in late October 2018 saw a run-off between right-wing authoritarian candidate Jair Bolsonaro and former São Paulo mayor Fernando Haddad. Bolsonaro’s campaign rhetoric targeted minorities, gay people and women, and exposed his nostalgia for a return to military rule. Bolsonaro had gained attention in a radio interview in 2016, in which he said that the Brazilian military dictatorship’s one mistake was torturing but not killing. In spite of this, Bolsonaro managed to win the second round handily, with 55.1 per cent of the votes (Bloomberg News, 2018; Phillips, 2018).

After his inauguration on 1 January 2019, Bolsonaro appointed members of the armed forces to key government posts, including vice president and the ministers of defence, science and technology, and mines and energy, as well as to the government secretariat, which handles relations with parliament. Seven out of twenty two ministers in his administration came from the armed forces (including reservists), more even than in some governments during the military dictatorship of 1964–1985.

The press referred to Bolsonaro as ‘Tropical Trump’, a moniker that alluded not only to Bolsonaro’s right-wing agenda but also to the two leaders’ shared disdain for democratic institutions and human rights. Both leaders also made false claims about the fairness of their countries’ elections just prior to their victories.

Just two years before Bolsonaro’s big win, the election of Trump brought to the fore the populist challenge facing Western democracy. But Trump’s win was preceded by other alarming developments for democracy. One of the earliest challenges came from Viktor Orbán in Hungary.

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As previous chapters have explained, more and more frequently, contemporary democratic recessions are initiated by authoritarian-style leaders taking power through popular elections rather than through elite-driven coups d’état and slowly dismantling democracy with some public consent (Bermeo, 2016). This development challenges the common perception that ordinary citizens universally consider democracy the best political system. This chapter lays the foundation for greater insight into how authoritarian values develop in consolidated democracies. There is rich literature that distinguishes between democratic and less democratic political cultures. We explore the differences, and look at how and why different cultures are more conducive to stable democracy.

We then turn to how collective values are formed at the national level by looking at historical legacies. This may help explain how authoritarian values persist in countries that are democratic but have authoritarian pasts. Studies have shown that political indoctrination that takes place during the impressionable years has an important impact on the values of citizens who lived in authoritarian regimes.

Next, we incorporate studies in political psychology to investigate what causes individuals to embrace non-democratic values. Bringing in studies that look at the individual level helps explain the nostalgia or support for authoritarianism that exists in formerly and currently authoritarian regimes, while also explaining why there are pockets of citizen support for authoritarian styles of leadership from citizens living in consolidated democracies that have never experienced authoritarianism and have no authoritarian political culture to draw from.

A large body of research has focused on whether and how a country’s cultural experiences shape its potential to democratize and to consolidate its democracy.

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Although it is common for media freedoms and civil liberties to come under attack in autocracies, these practice have become more prevalent in democracies as well. Many countries around the globe have seen freedom of expression and of the media deteriorate. The pervasiveness of declining media freedom in democratic settings is highlighted by Freedom House’s 2017 Freedom of the Press report (Dunham, 2017, 3), which found that ‘press freedom worldwide deteriorated to its lowest point in 13 years in 2016, driven by unprecedented threats to journalists and media outlets in major democracies’. Studies have also pointed to civil society coming under particular attack from 2006 to 2016 (Mechkova et al, 2017). This chapter explains how regimes looking to expand executive control seek to undermine media freedom and civil society. Incumbent regimes do so in order to minimize these institutions’ ability to expose anti-democratic behaviour and to amplify narratives that support their own efforts to consolidate control.

This chapter explains how regimes looking to expand executive control are vilifying civil society and the media, and provides examples of this. It argues that this process degrades citizens’ rights and engagement with the state, which makes it more difficult for citizens to access accurate information about their governments (Bermeo, 2016). Unfortunately, it has been easier to delegitimize the media because of its self-inflicted wounds. The media in many democracies has become increasingly sensationalist and polarizing, and thus less trustworthy (Newton, 2017). Before doing so, we look at what how the media and civil society can provide discursive and diagonal accountability.

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In 2019, protests took place all over the world. From Lebanon to Hong Kong, from Chile to Bolivia, from Iraq to France, protests have erupted in democracies, authoritarian regimes and grey-zone regimes alike. In total, citizens in twenty-nine democracies and thirty-four autocracies protested against autocratization in 2019 (Lührmann and Lindberg, 2020). Just as citizens are critical to accelerating democratic decline, they are essential in pushing for positive change. Earlier chapters explained that the number of coups as a means of authoritarian breakdown is declining. At the same time, there is also an increase in citizen-accepted autocratization as well as citizen-led non-violent revolutions that have forced out autocratic leadership. From 1946 to 2008, 4 per cent of all regime changes were caused by revolutions. From 2010 to 2012, this rose to 25 per cent (Kendall-Taylor and Frantz, 2014). We are seeing a resurgence in what was once a rare pathway to authoritarian breakdown – people taking to the streets to protest a variety of issues. Varieties of Democracy (Lührmann and Lindberg, 2020) reports that the share of countries with large pro-democracy mass protests rose from 27 per cent in 2009 to 44 per cent in 2019. These pro-democracy protests have led to democratization in twenty-two countries since 2010.

The chapter will show how the protests of the 2010s have been driven by similar factors that drive populism – inequality, corruption, bad governance and poor representation. We are also seeing the citizen response to authoritarian populism, with individuals who have never been politically active before being compelled to fight for their democracy.

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More recent literature on democratic backsliding has shown increasing concern over executive aggrandizement. In the past, the process of undermining institutional checks and balances took place rapidly as the result of military coups.1 Since the Cold War ended, the risk of coups has decreased, while the accumulation of too much power in the hands of the executive is the biggest threat to democratic stability (Svolik, 2015). As this chapter will explain, democratic backsliding takes place because of the executive’s strategic manipulation of laws that weaken checks on executive power. This occurs in a piecemeal fashion, through a series of changes that usually happen within the confines of the law and which may seem innocuous in isolation. The leadership then gradually modifies governing institutions in ways that insulate them from any challenges.

The chapter begins by explaining what horizontal accountability is and how legislative, judicial and administrative institutions are important in a democracy. It then clarifies how these institutions are weakened, both at the direction of the executive and because of their own inherent vulnerability. Eliminating checks on executive power is a clear marker of democratic backsliding (Huq and Ginsberg, 2017). The chapter details the discrete changes to formal and informal institutions and procedures that undermine the rule of law and accountability (Lust and Waldner, 2015). It also explains one of the key preconditions for autocratization – weak rule of law. Newer democracies often lack strong rule of law as a foundation, but we are also seeing rule of law erode in more consolidated democracies, well before autocratic power grabs have taken place.

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Our understanding of democratic backsliding would be incomplete without an exploration of the global context propelling discontent. Globalization was supposed to benefit developed and developing countries around the world. Instead globalization has been reviled (and loved) almost everywhere. In 2002, Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz (2002) sought to explain in his book Globalization and Its Discontents why there was so much dissatisfaction with globalization in developing countries. Today globalization is facing a political, economic and cultural backlash even in developed countries.

With globalization, voters in developed countries face more uncertainty, social dislocation and economic duress, such as the loss of jobs and industries. The response to economic anxiety brought about by globalization is channelled in different ways (Voorheis et al, 2015; Duca and Saving, 2016; Grechyna, 2016). More importantly, these anxieties and the different responses to them has fostered polarization. Neither the left nor the right believes that globalization is being managed properly, but there is little common ground in terms of how to tackle this problem. Globalization generates a highly emotional response from voters, who have become more willing to vote for extreme candidates and parties that polarize the electorate. In consolidated Western democracies, globalization has fuelled waves of authoritarian populism.

Indeed, international economic factors create a ripe environment on which political entrepreneurs in authoritarian regimes can capitalize. The goal of this chapter is not to explain how globalization has caused autocratization in Western democracies. Instead, the chapter lays out how globalization has impacted polarization and apathy, creating a context that would-be autocrats can seize upon.

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As previous chapters have explained, democratic backsliding is largely the result of a change in norms and values among elites and the public. This chapter sets out to explore the key factors that drive this trend – the changing international order and new mechanisms to spread authoritarian norms – which is causing some citizens to reject the liberal democratic model. The role of changing norms has been facilitated by different models of authoritarian learning and authoritarian cooperation. In contrast to the past, where authoritarian regimes were more content to focus on their own stability, a handful of authoritarian regimes have become more proactive in authoritarian promotion and the use of sharp power. These regimes have worked to foster norms that are incompatible with democracy, and have stoked hyper-nationalist sentiment in an effort to vitiate civic forms of nationalism. The chapter then explains how authoritarian regimes use social media to promote anti-democratic values in democracies and beyond. Finally, the chapter explores how authoritarian regimes are able to maintain authoritarian rules in the age of the internet. The tactics used by authoritarian regimes to control digital freedom, which have served as a model for backsliding regimes, are also explained.

Historically, the institutions of the global order have mirrored the domestic political cultures of the most powerful countries in the world. International institutions have been a projection of domestic liberalism on a global scale (Ikenberry, 2009). The dominance of Western democracies has meant that the norms of liberal democracy were endorsed around the world. After the fall of the Soviet Union, there appeared to be a consensus that constitutionalism, the rule of law and the protection of individual rights were desirable.

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After decades of progress, democracy around the world has hit a snag. From Hungary to India, Venezuela to Turkey, Brazil to the Czech Republic, the quality of democracy is faltering. In 2020, for the first time since 2001, the majority of governments in the world are autocracies. Although pro-democracy protests reached an all-time high in 2019, key trends developing beneath the surface have slowed democracy’s forward momentum and are threatening to reverse the progress of the last several decades (Lührmann and Lindberg, 2020).

For many years, this was not the case. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the success of the liberal democratic order set in motion changes to the international environment that put authoritarian regimes on the defensive. Autocracies struggled to adapt to the post-Cold War reality, and their numbers rapidly declined. Democracy, it seemed, had triumphed and secured its status as the world’s preferred form of governance. Francis Fukuyama (1989) proclaimed that we had reached the end of history – the point where liberal capitalist democracies would be the norm. Counter to the hopes that democracy would take hold in places like China after the Tiananmen Square protests and in Russia after the Soviet Union broke down, the end of history had been prematurely declared (see Diamond, 2008, 2015).

The staunchest authoritarian regimes did not buckle in countries such as North Korea, China, Singapore and Vietnam. Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Armenia were also just as authoritarian as ever.1 The end of the Cold War also did little to change the democratic landscape in the Middle East – and though there were some positive developments in Africa, much of the continent had not democratized.

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As previous chapters have laid out, the primary threats to democracy are deteriorations in the rule of law, and greater executive control over the media, civil society and institutions that can check executive power. For the most part, electoral manipulation has been less common in advanced democracies. Nevertheless, for the first time in decades, there is evidence that the number of countries in which freedom and fairness of elections are declining is more than the number in which they are improving (Lührmann et al, 2019). In grey-zone regimes in particular, electoral manipulation is becoming more sophisticated and prevalent. At the same time, there are increasing challenges to the fairness and legitimacy of elections in advanced democracies. Thus, it is not just authoritarian regimes that are engaging in electoral malpractice, but also regimes that once held free and fair elections.

The chapter begins by looking at the type of accountability that is undermined by electoral malpractice – vertical accountability. We explain what vertical accountability is, how elections provide it, and the importance of elections and electoral systems in a democracy. The chapter then examines how executives (and the ruling party) weaken vertical accountability by engaging in different types of electoral malpractice, such as manipulating the rules governing elections and voting, the ease of voting, the choices voters have, how people vote and the administration of voting (Schedler, 2002; Birch, 2008; Van Ham and Lindberg, 2016). Generally speaking, electoral manipulation is more common in grey-zone regimes that have weaker accountability mechanisms in other areas as well.

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