setbacks for authoritarianism?

It’s easy to imagine authoritarianism as a ratchet: a device that can be tightened but not loosened again.

An authoritarian leader and/or party wins an election, perhaps with a substantial base of authentic supporters. Instead of blatantly overturning the constitution in a “self-coup,” the government uses a whole range of available tools to discourage opposition and secure continued power. These tools include changing the electoral system (perhaps subtly), taking over the state media, raising the cost of private media, altering curricula and removing hostile educators, selectively investigating and prosecuting opponents, heavily surveilling private communications, channeling economic benefits to supporters and potential supporters, forming close partnerships with local oligarchs, shifting power from the legislature to the executive, governing by decree and executive action, packing the civil service and judiciary with friendly appointees, encouraging opponents to emigrate while selectively refusing entry visas to journalists and activists, banning overseas NGOs and funders, encouraging the police and security forces to use visible violence, and using rhetoric that links authoritarian means to popular ends, such as prosperity or religious or ethnic domination.

Authoritarians have so many tools and opportunities that it’s easy to predict a one-way path.

Nevertheless, the following parties and/or leaders who meet at least some of the previous description have suffered setbacks or outright losses: Trump in the USA (2020), Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro (2022), the Law and Justice Party in Poland (2023), Turkey’s Tayyip Erdogan and the AKP (2024), and India’s Narendra Modi and the BJP (2024). I would add South Africa’s ANC (2024), although I would anticipate disagreement about that case.

It appears that “backsliding” is not a rigid and predictable process, any more than “transition to democracy” was (Cianetti & Hanley 2021). Looking at data from many countries, Brownlee & Miao find that a one-way journey toward fascism really was a pattern in the 1920s and 1930s, but at other times, there has a lot of movement in both directions, with a slight predominance of shifts away from authoritarianism (Brownlee & Miao 2022). Regimes that combine some elements of democracy, such as genuine elections, with authoritarian practices appear to be unstable, almost always teetering to one side or the other in time (Carothers 2018)

I think that civil societies are more resistant than we might fear. To put it more forcefully, it’s not so easy to boss people around.

An authoritarian party always takes over at the expense of rival political movements and would-be leaders, who have strong incentives to push back at an opportune time.

Authoritarian governments and their opponents continually innovate. Every tool of control sooner or later produces a technique for subversion. (Unfortunately, the opposite is also true: each form of resistance meets a new form of control.) One reason for waves of authoritarianism or democratization is that one side may temporarily lead in this competition, but then the other side catches up.

It is also difficult for any administration to remain popular for long. Unanticipated events–such as the current global bout of inflation–will turn people against a leader even if he doesn’t deserve the blame. Once a leader is unpopular, there are rewards to opposing him. It is risky to permit elections, even if they are subtly manipulated, but it is also hard to avoid them.

By the same token, defeating a would-be authoritarian doesn’t end the struggle, as illustrated by the USA today.