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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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The most recent wave of democratization has resulted in a proliferation of regimes that are neither fully democratic nor classically authoritarian. While there are fewer and fewer traditional authoritarian regimes, there are also fewer consolidated democracies. Most regimes are defying these binary categories and exhibiting a wide range of democratic and autocratic characteristics. Generally speaking, regimes that fall in the grey zone can be grouped into two categories: authoritarian regimes with democratic attributes, and democratic regimes with defective institutions and practices (Kendall-Taylor et al, 2019).

In contrast to past scholarship, it is now accepted that grey-zone regimes are not regimes in transit, but are a distinct type of political system (Bogaards, 2009; Levitsky and Way, 2010; Kendall-Taylor et al, 2019). After the Cold War ended, it was assumed that countries that experienced authoritarian breakdown would eventually become consolidated liberal democracies. But many countries failed to meet this expectation, and instead became stuck in the middle. Rather than leading to democracy, authoritarian collapse led to different forms of non-democratic rule that have been surprisingly durable.

This chapter first provides an overview of the different types of regimes that dot the landscape. We explain how these regimes in the grey zone operate and what differentiates them from democratic and authoritarian regimes. We also clarify that while most regimes around the world hold elections, this has led to new forms of authoritarianism, rather than efforts by authoritarian regimes to liberalize. We explain why that is the case, and how these regimes use democratic institutions to prolong their rule.

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According to Russell Dalton, the most pressing challenge to contemporary democracies comes from their own citizens. They have grown ‘distrustful of politicians, sceptical about democratic institutions and disillusioned about how the democratic process functions’ (Dalton, 2004, 1). Democratic backsliding does not happen without some citizen support of it (Luo and Przeworski, 2019).

One of the themes of this book is the argument that citizens are increasingly willing to support authoritarian leadership. This is not to say that democracy is not the most popular type of regime around the world; it still is. However, there are trends in public opinion that are concerning for democracy (Foa and Mounk, 2017; Kendall-Taylor et al, 2019). To help understand what these trends are, this chapter first lays out what we mean by public opinion and how public opinion is measured. We then use surveys from around the world to map the patterns of democratic and authoritarian values in democracies. Is democracy really in danger or just facing a predictable dip in support?

We then examine one of the key trends measured by public opinion surveys: polarization. We explain how polarization is problematic for democracy. With rising polarization, some individuals in democracies are increasingly inclined to support leadership that represents their point of view, even if it means that democracy might suffer. While Chapter 4 will explain other factors that drive support for authoritarianism, rising polarization helps explain how backsliding can happen in advanced democracies. Finally, we look at political participation rates and explore the counter-intuitive trend of high levels of polarization coinciding with high levels of apathy.

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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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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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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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Transparency International (2018), a noted non-governmental organization focused on rooting out corruption, states that the failure to curb corruption is contributing to the worldwide crisis of democracy. Only twenty countries have improved their corruption levels, while the rest have either stagnated or worsened since 2012. According to managing director Patricia Moreira ‘With many democratic institutions under threat across the globe – often by leaders with authoritarian or populist tendencies – we need to do more to strengthen checks and balances and protect citizens’ rights’.

This chapter examines how corruption undermines democracy. Many studies argue that high levels of corruption are a sign of democratic decay, but what are the ways in which corruption drives democratic erosion? Corruption is an oft cited reason for coups (Hiroi and Omori, 2013) and revolutions (Tucker, 2007), but there is less scholarship that has explored the relationship between corruption and democratic decay (Hiroi and Omori, 2013). A few studies have demonstrated that high levels of corruption are harmful to democratic consolidation, because corruption affects political legitimacy (Seligson, 2002a; Warren, 2004). Corruption affects a country’s political culture, leading to low levels of trust in public institutions, which has a severe impact on the commitment to civic activity and collective projects (Doig and Theobald, 2000). For example, the level of political corruption in Nigeria has affected its political culture substantially. There is decreasing confidence and trust in the state’s ability to organize free and fair elections and be accountable to its citizens (Ogundiya, 2010; Basiru, 2018). Rising corruption also creates fertile ground for the emergence of messianic styles of leadership that can ‘save’ the public from corrupt elites of the past.

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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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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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