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The Rise of Electoral Autocracy
What does the autocratising of democracy look like?
The political scientist Samuel Huntington popularised the concept of “democratic waves”, in which he attempted to capture periods in history where the proportion of nations adopting democracy substantially increased. Although academics debate the definitions of democracy Huntington applied, even with stricter definitions there remain clear patterns across different periods in which democracy rose, and receded, over the past ~200 years.
The first is the period from the early 18th Century to the late 1920’s as the political franchise was extended to most (White) men and women; this was followed by the receding of democracy into autocracy over the period from the 1920’s to the end of the Second World War; the second period was the reestablishment of democracy, or advent of democracy, in the liberated post-War world; and the third period was the democratic emergence in Spain, Portugal, and Greece, during the 1970’s, Latin America in the 1980’s, and Eastern Europe in the 1990’s.
But what wave is rising now? The world’s largest democracy, India, has slipped into the persona-cult of Modi; The Arab Spring, for all its promise, ended in a winter of increasingly intolerant regimes, repressions, and violence. Democracy has been extinguished in Hong Kong only 23 years after “one country, two systems” began. Hungary, Poland, Turkey, Serbia, and the U.S., have moved up on the autocracy scale, characterised by anti-pluralist political parties and polarised electorates. Based on the Varieties of Democracy ["V-Dem" Index], the share of the global population living in countries undergoing autocratisation has increased from 5% in 2011 to 36% in 2021. Global democracy has reverted to 1989 levels, before the fall of the Soviet Union; the post-Cold War democratic surge, in sum, has been wiped away.
What Makes a Democracy?
With the grim facts of the matter evident, this raises a question: what does the evolution of democracy look like in our fractured world? On this question, however, there appears to be, at least in the media, but also in the wider popular discourse, some operational definition issues. The first is the tendency to make crude binary distinctions between democracies and non-democracies, which results in comparisons between any anti-democratising trend within a democracy and centralised, authoritarian dictatorships like China, or kleptocratic dictatorships Russia. This fails to capture that democratic “backsliding” is a process of leveraging the very institutions of democracy against itself. In this context, aspects of democracy such as elections are retained. As the latest V-Dem report highlighted, globally the most common political regime type is “electoral autocracies”. The “we’re becoming like China!” trope isn’t just inaccurate ; it’s a wholly implausible comparison for the characteristics of autocratisation within a democracy.
The second is the now-tiresome recitation of cries of “fascism” (I wrote about the historical illiteracies with this comparison for our contemporary political troubles in this essay). The most egregious of this false equivalences is the conflation of “fascism” with contemporary populism, the latter of which exists on both Left and Right and is entirely distinguishable from fascism. Contemporary populism is less of a political ideology associated with a specific location on the political spectrum, and more the mobilisation of a vertical distinction between “people” and some oppressive force, which depends on the context in which it is applied (for the Right, the oppressive force tends to be “unaccountable elites”, while for the Left the oppressive force is invisible Foucauldian “power structures” and Pale Males). The modern Right is also more libertarian than fascist in championing hyper-individuality vs. commitment to the State, and the idea of a homogenous mass movement is more a feature of the modern progressive Left. The cries of “this is what fascism looks like!” by someone who never opened a book on fascism are a gross misdiagnosis.
The reason these operational misdiagnoses are an issue is because they lead us away from seeing what exactly is emerging within democracies, particularly those with a longer tradition of democracy like the U.S., the UK, and several European states. The trends by which democracies undergo a shift towards a more autocratic political regime do not necessarily imply the adoption of political regimes like dictatorship, but involve an interaction between the electorate, institutions, and the State in a process of delegitimising, eroding, or dismantling, the institutions and systems which sustain democracy. These are within-democracy processes that result in regimes that may have a superficial veneer of democracy, but lack some key characteristics of what a true liberal democracy exhibits. To consider this more fully, we need to put some appropriate operational definitions on democracy.
The barest conception of democracy is generally attributed to Joseph Schumpeter’s “minimal democracy”, characterised by free and fair elections of representatives in open competitive elections. This “minimal” conception explicitly excluded factors like freedom of expression and association, and any requirement for either universal suffrage or for the political franchise to cover the majority of the population. Political theorist Robert Alan Dahl expanded the minimal conceptions with his “maximalist” concept, which added the requirements of freedom of expression and freedom of organisation to Schumpeter’s definitions. Dahl conceived of the importance of freedom of expression and organisation for democracy as giving full expression to free, fair, and open competitive elections; it was these non-electoral liberties that gave meaning to electoral freedoms. This distinction is important: the mere holding of elections is not sufficient to constitute a proper democracy, as in the context of electoral autocracy.
In contemporary contexts, evident in the V-Dem definitions, these “minimalist” and “maximalist” concepts have been redefined under the definitions of “electoral democracy” and “liberal democracy”, respectively. An electoral democracy is one considered minimally democratic, i.e., holds free and fair elections in addition to exhibiting universal suffrage, and freedom of expression and association. Liberal democracy contains these characteristics, while additionally exhibiting separation of powers of the core branches of State: judicial and legislative constraints on the executive, and individual liberties and equality guaranteed by the rule of law and legal access. The prevalence of liberal democracy peaked in 2012 with 42 countries globally, but is down to 34 in 2021 and constitutes only 13% of the global population.
Autocratisation of the Five Core Institutions of Democracy
A fully functioning liberal democracy requires the foundation stone of separation of powers operating within the context of what the historian Ramachandra Guha termed the five “core institutions” of democracy. Separation of powers - where the main institutions of State - the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary retain independence from each other - is fundamental. It provides for constraints on the exercise of executive ruling power, and for the preservation of individual liberties against government interference, through an independent judiciary. The executive must also function within the boundaries placed on it by the legislature, and the executive is ultimately responsible to the legislature (e.g., a Bill proposed by government requires ratification by the legislature). Where the government exceeds its legal boundaries or acts beyond the constraints of the legislature, again the judiciary may provide a remedy.
However, in consideration of Dahl’s conception that broad non-electoral freedoms are required to give meaning to electoral freedoms, Guha’s “core institutions” of healthy democracy becomes a more encompassing framework to consider democratic erosion within democracies. The core institutions are:
The political party;
The body of elected members (i.e., the legislature);
The civil service;
Let’s consider each in turn. The first institution is the political party itself, and this encapsulates Dahl’s criterion of “associational autonomy” or freedom of organisation, i.e., that political parties have freedom to form and to participate, to field candidates in opposition to the government, and are free of interference from the ruling government. Within this party-centred characteristic, Guha also highlights that this extends to within a political party itself. The institution of the political party is compromised when a political party becomes beholden to a persona-cult of the individual; this is precisely what has occurred with Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party, with Trump and the Republican Party, Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz in Hungary, or the Tories under Boris Johnson in the UK. In more autocratic regimes, the institution of the political party is relegated by the cult of the individual as leader.
The second institution is the body of elected members, whatever that may be called in a given democracy: Congress in the U.S. or Parliament in the UK or India. In a functioning liberal democracy this institution serves as a genuine forum for debate and bipartisan commitments to act for the people, rather than in the interests of power. However, this institution is compromised when crude majoritarianism sets in, and where the ruling party begins to use the legislature in service of its own power. This is a crucial difference between being in government and holding power; autocracies seek the latter. When crude majoritarianism takes root the impetus becomes partisan frustration of the operation of government by the legislature. The British Parliament under the enormous 2019 Tory majority is one example of this, as they have sought to enact multiple pieces of legislation that are fundamentally anti-democratic and authoritarian, aiming to consolidate their own party power. Orbán’s Fidesz have consolidated power with their parliamentary supermajority, enacting a new constitution that brought important State agencies under executive control. When the institution of the legislature breaks down under the weight of party power-grabs and crude majoritarianism, the conduct of holding power divorces this institution from its duty to represent the needs of citizens.
The judiciary, as the third core institution, serves arguably the most crucial role of the five core institutions as the bulwark of citizens rights of liberty, freedom of expression, and holding leaders to account. This is why a shift to autocracy is always characterised by attacks on judicial independence by the executive. In the UK, the independence of the judiciary is one of the core institutions functioning as intended, with the Supreme Court having constrained the executive on several attempts at breaching its remit, including the requirement for Parliamentary approval to trigger withdrawal from the EU, and the unconstitutionality of proroguing Parliament. But other countries illustrate how fettering with judicial independence is a primary objective in electoral autocracies; Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party (PiS in Polish) has packed courts with political appointees, enacted procedural “reforms” to dismantle the ability of the judiciary to provide checks and balances against executive power, and targeted individual judges on spurious disciplinary investigations. In the new constitution passed by Orbán’s Fidesz, constraints were placed on the authority of its Constitutional Court, which deals with judicial review of government, while Fidesz packed the courts with political loyalists.
Yet when it comes to the compromise of the core institution of the judiciary, there is little comparison to America. The U.S. Supreme Court has compromised every core tenet of how the judiciary functions in a democracy, acting as an engine for policy at the behest of the executive, and as the arbiter for the interests of a minority of U.S. voters. Seemingly answerable only to Jesus and murky Republican money far more than the Constitution and rights of citizens it purports to uphold, it is now an institution utterly compromised by its political hijacking by a party that stands for nothing beyond power for the sake of power. The recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions directly reflect Republican political policy: disenfranchise Black and minority voters, appease the Christian fundamentalist far-Right lobby on women’s rights and separation of church and state, facilitate a hierarchical “unitary executive” with vertical power projection on government, and consolidate minority rule structures for the legislature and executive. This is a corrosive use of the judiciary, one which bears the hallmarks of electoral autocracy.
In the background, but no less important, is the fourth core institution: the civil service. This institution, similar to the judiciary, must retain independence in a liberal democracy. It serves a particularly vital role in continuity and stability in the domain of government and democracy, such that while administrations may change hands and while the country may experience instability, economically or socially, democratic function and the operation of civil society remains stable. A characteristic of increasing autocracy is attempts by a ruling party to erode independence of the civil service, and swell the ranks with party loyalists to serve their political agenda, rather than serve the country. Robert Alan Dahl stated that democracy operates as”a political system one of the characteristics of which is the quality of being completely or almost completely responsive to all its citizens.” Undermining the civil service into an organ of party rule and diminishing its independence compromises this responsiveness, engendering political instability and fragmentation of the functioning of civil society.
The final core institution is fundamental to an open society; the free press. The free press plays a crucial role in holding government to account, and the transparency of the social, cultural, and political order. The core institution of a free press fits under the umbrella of freedom of expression and association paramount to a functioning liberal democracy. While focus on press freedoms typically looks at examples of full government censorship or shutdown, such as that which has occurred in Hong Kong in the past 2-years under the auspices of Beijing’s “security law”, the capture of the free press by vested private interests in service of their preferred political agenda is equally damaging. This latter issue underpins what V-Dem terms “toxic polarisation”, where the media become a vehicle for increasing anti-pluralist, one-sided political agendas, inciting citizens to support a means-justify-ends approach to securing their preferred policies. This exists on both Left and Right, with America serving as a caricature example of when the press become compromised in their freedom by prioritising politicised ideologies and their narratives.
The more the dialogue in the West focus on implausible outcomes like “we’re becoming China” or asinine, historically illiterate comparisons such as “this is what fascism looks like!”, the more we miss the often subtle ways in which the very freedoms, systems, and institutions that make democracy function are precisely the ways in which democratically elected parties are heralding in this new era of electoral autocracy, a form of pseudo-democracy, in lieu of liberal democracy. And the problem, from both liberal and conservative sides of the dialogue, is that we appear to be out of ideas for how, and why, liberal democracy deserves saving.
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