Democracies Are Not "Backsliding."

Democracies Are Not "Backsliding."

Jan-Werner Mueller | "The world today is not experiencing a comprehensive, let alone inevitable, shift toward autocracy any more than it is experiencing the conclusive rescue of democracy."

By Jan-Werner Mueller*

It seems that 2023 will be another dismal year for democracy. There have been several coups in Africa. Tunisia – long touted as the Arab Spring’s one democratic success story – has seen the consolidation of an authoritarian (and xenophobic) regime. And Donald Trump appears on course to secure the Republican nomination for the 2024 US presidential election.

How we describe such developments matters. After all, words have consequences. Unfortunately, some of the language used to analyze the global democratic recession is having precisely the wrong effect. The term “backsliding” – which has contributed to a curious passivity among pro-democracy forces – is a case in point.

"Modern autocrats have devised a new playbook for consolidating, exercising, and maintaining power."

The world is not moving “back” toward some regimes familiar from the past, nor even toward dynamics and circumstances that we have seen before and can easily comprehend. The conventional wisdom has long been that, while democracies make mistakes, they also learn from those missteps and adjust accordingly – a feature that sets them apart from all other political systems. But authoritarians have now shown that they, too, can adapt, learning from their own mistakes, those of their antecedents, and their peers.

In fact, modern autocrats have devised a new playbook for consolidating, exercising, and maintaining power – one that depends significantly on keeping some trappings of democracy. As the social scientists Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman have shown, these so-called spin dictators are a far cry from the violent or even genocidal “fear dictators” who dominated the twentieth century. They eschew the use of overt repression to fortify their positions. They also avoid committing obvious breaches of law, and even deploy the law to achieve their own aims, in what scholars call “autocratic legalism.”

These autocrats focus on manipulating public opinion, while gradually weakening the democratic norms and institutions from which they claim to derive their legitimacy. For example, rather than engage in old-fashioned blunt repression, they might use modern surveillance technologies, such as spyware, to identify possible dissenters. And rather than deploy security services to knock on dissenters’ doors late at night, they might send the tax authorities to find fault with an NGO or newspaper.

Spin dictators also fabricate new “facts” on the ground. For example, far-right populists in Poland and Hungary managed to fool the European Union for long enough to restructure domestic institutions and change personnel in service of consolidating their own rule. While undoing this damage is not impossible, it gets harder every day. This is not to say that today’s autocrats are political magicians capable of fooling all the people all the time. They also make plenty of blunders that can endanger their rule, and they hold violence and other means of overt repression in reserve. Russian President Vladimir Putin had no problem abandoning all pretense of legality or tolerance for dissent after he ordered the invasion of Ukraine. However, the point remains: we are not simply returning to a kind of authoritarianism that we have seen before. 

"The world today is not experiencing a comprehensive, let alone inevitable, shift toward autocracy any more than it is experiencing the conclusive rescue of democracy."

If “back” is misleading, so is “sliding.” Much like the phrase “erosion of democracy,” the term sliding suggests that we are dealing with a kind of accident, or even a quasi-natural process. But many aspiring authoritarians have a plan, and that plan often includes elements copied from others. Once Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán demonstrated how to fool the EU and play for time while he consolidated his autocracy, others could easily imitate him – as Poland’s ruling party has done.

“Backsliding” also suggests that the current democratic recession is a linear process. As Seán Hanley and Licia Cianetti observe, this “risks reproducing, in reverse, the intellectual constraints of the transition paradigm of the 1990s.” In both cases, there has been an assumption that everyone is moving inexorably along the same path. But unjustified optimism (everyone is pursuing more robust democracy) has given way to unjustified pessimism (everyone’s democracy is being “eroded”).

In reality, the world today is not experiencing a comprehensive, let alone inevitable, shift toward autocracy any more than it is experiencing the conclusive rescue of democracy. The fact that authoritarian populists are sometimes – but hardly always – voted out of power makes this blatantly clear.

 One can see these fluctuating dynamics at work in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. In the latter, after a period of liberal resistance to authoritarianism and corruption, pro-Putin arch-populist Robert Fico could return to power in the upcoming snap election. Perhaps we should replace the term backsliding with “careening,” a term proposed by Hanley and Cianetti to capture an often-unpredictable zig-zagging trajectory.

If we assume that democracies are on a linear, practically inescapable, path back to old-style authoritarianism, we will fail to give adequate thought to potential paths out of the new authoritarianism. Prior to elections with authoritarian incumbents on the ballot – such as in Hungary last year, or Turkey earlier this year – liberal observers are usually clear about their desired outcome; but they rarely offer much of a plan for the day after the vote.

One might attribute this failing to fatalism: no one really expects power to change hands. But it might also be a sign of intellectual laziness, with observers assuming that one can simply apply off-the-shelf lessons from previous transitions – thus showing scant regard for the novel elements of today’s autocratic systems. They would do well to acknowledge that the new authoritarians’ supporters may have very different incentives and motivations than those of the communist-era nomenklatura, for instance. Those with a stake in kleptocratic mafia states and corrupted militaries may well be reluctant to sit down at round tables to negotiate. 

Such generalizations – like those based on past experience – might be misleading, but that is the point. To preserve, restore, or promote democracy globally, we need careful analyses of individual cases, not just broad assumptions about “global trends.”

*Jan-Werner Mueller, Professor of Politics at Princeton University.

© Project Syndicate