U.S. democracy slides toward ‘competitive authoritarianism’


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The thought “competitive authoritarianism” has been running for twenty years. It was coined by political scientists Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way in a 2002 essay in the Journal of Democracy to describe a certain phenomenon of “hybrid” regimes that was emerging after the end of the Cold War. Countering the optimistic mood of the 1990s, they argued that polities around the world should not be seen as countries that were conveniently transitioning to democracy, but in which a form of quasi-authoritarianism was embedded through conventional electoral structures.

“In competitive authoritarian regimes, formal democratic institutions are widely seen as a primary means of obtaining and exercising political authority,” Levitsky and Way write, gesturing to governments like that of Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia or Alberto Fujimori in Peru, who hardened the field in Peru. their favor through aggressive or cowed media as well as other abuses of state power. “However, the holders of these rules violate them so often and to such an extent that the regime fails to meet minimum standards for democracy.”

In 2020, they updated their work, noting that many of the “competitive authoritarian” systems they mentioned earlier remained so, and new countries joined the club. Consider Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Or the regime built by the late Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan demagogue. Or the illiberal leadership of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

“Competitive authoritarianism is not only on the rise, it’s on the decline. No democracy can be taken for granted,” Levitsky and Way wrote. “Similar trends have even reached the United States, where the Trump administration has borrowed the ‘deep state’ discourse used by the autocrats in Hungary and Turkey to justify the purges and packing of the courts and other key state institutions .”

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As Americans vote in mid-term elections, “competitive authoritarianism” is on the rise. That could be a concern for many in a country that still sees itself as a peerless democracy, wrapped in myths of exceptionalism and supremacy. But for years, analysts who examine the health of democracies in a global context have been sounding the alarm. They point to the toxicity of polarized US politics, the partisan bias of the Supreme Court, the prevalence of gerrymandering that skews district election results in favor of the party that draws the maps, and the electoral rejection of the progressive Republican Party. The various Republican-controlled states have seen a steady stream of legislation that critics dub as anti-democratic measures that could undermine popular sovereignty.

It is now entirely conceivable that Republican officials in some battleground states will have enough power — and feel that they have enough power. throw out the results of the 2024 elections in their constituencies if the results go against their interests. At the state level, Republicans are gaming the system in deceptive ways: Even though Wisconsin is a 50-50 state, for example, a so-called Republican map could give the GOP a veto, a supermajority in legislature. Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels inquired last week that, if elected, his party will never lose another election in the state.

This was achieved by design, advocated by Rachel Kleinfeld of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Anti-democratic politicians backed by safe seats and polarization have walked through and begun to enact an authoritarian playbook,” she wrote. “This playbook has dramatically accelerated democratic disintegration over the past five years.”

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Democrats have played their part in this polarization, Kleinfeld noted, but the “rapid asymmetric decline” and “primarily driven by a very different Republican Party” than, say, under former president Ronald Reagan.

The troubling paradoxes of US democracy

A the consensus of the students of democracy fear that the guardrails that protect the American system of democracy steadily eroding. The US democratic decline has been traced in various forms. Freedom House showed how the United States has rapidly regressed as a “free” society in recent years; The Economist Intelligence Unit listed the United States as a “flawed democracy” in 2017, and the International Institute for Democracy and European Electoral Assistance named the United States a “backsliding democracy”.

The Types of Democracy index, hosted by the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, has tracked the growing “autocracy” in the United States over the past decade, which has been reinforced by Trump’s denial of the legitimacy of the 2020 election and acceptance of more wide of the Republican Party with that denial. It has been mapped separately on a grid as the Republicans have drifted deeper into the illiberal right, closely related to nationalist factions in power in countries such as India and Turkey and far-right parties in the West . (Meanwhile, the GOP’s traditional conservative counterparts in Western Europe are closer to the Democrats.)

Seeing all this, the Democrats, including President Biden, have made desperate appeals to voters to fight the electoral rampages and protect the nation’s democracy. But these admissions may not be enough, suggested Mark Copelovitch, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, at a time when Republican messages about gas prices and economic pressures have dominated the conversation. “There’s an ‘in your face’ aspect to this that’s far more palpable than ‘democracy is about to collapse’ or ‘Wisconsin’s electoral and legislative institutions no longer meet the basic criteria of democracy,'” he wrote to me in email.

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Copelovitch pointed out how Polish voters in 2015 gave a significant majority to the right-wing populist opposition Justice and Justice party after it successfully campaigned against the public’s economic concerns. He has remained in power ever since, consolidating his hold on the Polish state and judiciary with an illiberal ruthlessness that has caused EU officials to fear for the future of democracy and the rule of law in Poland.

“If Republicans win big on Tuesday, it will be, in large part, because a significant portion of the electorate either switched their votes to the GOP or turned out for it – in patterns similar to what we’ve seen in Poland and elsewhere – in religion. that this will improve their economic prospects,” Copelovitch said.

From that point of view, Levitsky and Way are less afraid of competitive authoritarianism engaging the United States. They wrote earlier this year that the United States still has a strong presence in civil society, the private sector and the media, that there is a strong political opposition (in its formulation, that is the Democrats) and enough institutional capacity in its decentralized federal system to block real authoritarianism.

But there is little reason to cheer. “Rather than autocracy, the United States appears headed for endemic regime instability,” they wrote in Foreign Affairs. “Such a situation would be characterized by frequent constitutional crises, including contested or stolen elections and bitter conflict between presidents and Congress … the judiciary … and state governments. … The United States is likely to oscillate between periods of dysfunctional democracy and periods of competitive authoritarian rule during which it exploits state power, tolerates or encourages violent extremism, and tilts the electoral playing field in against their competitors.”


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