why autocrats are winning (right now) #DemFront #DemFront18

During the opening session of Frontiers of Democracy last night, Hardy Merriman from the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict showed this graph from Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan. It shows that nonviolent social movements were strikingly successful at achieving their own stated objectives during the 1990s, but their success rate has fallen sharply since.

A full explanation would have to consider many variables–geopolitics, technology, changes in ideologies and issues. I suspect (as Chenoweth and Stephan do) that one factor is the skill and sophistication of both democrats and autocrats. For a sustained argument about the importance of skill in social movements, see Marshall Ganz, Why David Sometimes Wins: Leadership, Organization, and Strategy in the California Farm Worker Movement

To explain the graph above, we could first argue that nonviolent movements and bottom-up pro-democracy movements developed an impressive repertoire of strategies, thanks to the experience of anti-colonial struggles in the Global South, social movements in the West, dissident movements in the Soviet Bloc, and hacker cultures online. At the same time, the traditional toolkit of the autocrat–centrally managed economies, mass incarceration and terror, secret police bureaucracies, etc.–was failing.

On both sides, actors always learn from their peers. Solidarity invited Bayard Rustin to Poland to teach nonviolent strategies–and that’s just one of countless examples on the nonviolent side. On the other side, Saddam imitated Stalin. But Rustin and Solidarity had the newer and and more successful ideas; Saddam and his ilk were losing.

Then the surviving older autocrats, and the new generation of authoritarians, began to innovate. Chenoweth & Stephan write:

State opponents may be learning and adapting to challenges from below. Although several decades ago, they may have underestimated the potential of people power to pose significant threats to their rule, they may now see mass nonviolent campaigns as truly threatening, devoting more resources to preventing them — perhaps following the implications of Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith’s “Dictator’s Handbook” — or deploying “smart repression” to subvert them when they arise. This phenomenon of learned adaptation, or what Steven Heydemann, the Ketcham Chair in Middle East Studies at Smith College, calls “authoritarianism 2.0,” is a central focus of the “Future of Authoritarianism” project at the Atlantic Council.

In a recent Bloomberg column, Tyler Cowan argues that “the governance technologies and strategies of authoritarian regimes have become much more efficient.” One-party states and oligarchs are better at managing economies and thereby delivering economic growth.

They have also developed more sophisticated ways of dealing with criticism:

Authoritarian leaders realized that absolute prohibitions on free speech were counterproductive, and they learned how to manage an intermediate solution.  Allowing partial speech rights is useful as a safety valve, it allows major dissidents to be identified and monitored, and absolute speech prohibitions tended to wreck the economy and discourage foreign investment, leading to unpopularity of the government. At the same time, an autocratic government could come down hard on the truly threatening ideas when needed.

Authoritarian states have begun collecting valid data about what the people want through reliable opinion polling. As Cowan notes, Mao got only indications of popular support from his terrified underlings, but today’s Communist Party really knows what the Chinese people think and can respond strategically.

Also in the modern autocrat’s toolkit are increasingly sophisticated surveillance strategies, state control of media that is actually popular (rather than drab and overtly propagandistic), and the use of digital technologies to corrupt the public sphere.

The graph is alarming, but the game isn’t over yet. Autocrats and democrats play an endless cat-and-mouse game. There was nothing inevitable about the triumph of nonviolent social resistance, but neither is it doomed today. Strategies that worked in 1995 are not likely to work in 2020, and we should always expect effective counter-strategies to develop. As Merriman said last night, this pattern underlines the importance of innovation, analysis, training, and networking.

See also Why Civil Resistance Workspeople trust authoritarian governments mostwhy the global turn to authoritarian ethnonationalism?what does it mean to say democracy is in retreat?watching democratic cultures decline; and was the Civil Rights Movement successful because of the Cold War?

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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