U.S. democracy slides toward ‘competitive authoritarianism’


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The idea of ​​”competitive authoritarianism” has been there 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 the particular phenomenon of “hybrid” regimes that came into focus after the Cold War. Using the optimistic mode of the 1990s, they argued that politics around the world should not be seen as countries that are just transitioning to democracy, but where a form of quasi-authoritarianism is reinforced by a normal electoral structure.

“In competitive authoritarian regimes, formal democratic institutions are widely regarded as the principal means of obtaining and exercising political authority,” Levitsky and Way wrote, pointing to governments such as Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia or Alberto Fujimori in Peru, who stacked the field in their favor through the media. pliant or cowed as well as other abuses of state power. “Incumbents break those rules too often and to that extent, the regime fails to meet conventional minimum standards for democracy.”

In 2020, they updated their work, stating that a number of “competitive authoritarian” regimes they had previously chosen remained as such, while new countries joined the club. Think Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Or the regime built by the late Venezuelan demagogue Hugo Chávez. Or the illiberal dominance of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

“Competitive authoritarianism is not only advancing but is heading west. No democracy can be given,” Levitsky and Way wrote. Turkey used it to justify purges and packages of courts and other key state institutions.”

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As Americans vote in the midterm elections, the specter of “competitive authoritarianism” looms. That can be disturbing to many in a country that still sees itself as a peerless democracy, wrapped in a myth of exceptionalism and superiority. But for years, analysts examining the health of democracy in a global context have been sounding the alarm. They point to the political toxicity of the polarization of the United States, the partisan bias of the Supreme Court, the prevalence of gerrymandering that skews the election results in the district in favor of the party drawing the map, and the electoral rejectionism of the Republican Party, which. has seen the steady progress of legislation in various Republican-controlled states that critics dub as anti-democratic measures that can undermine popular sovereignty.

Now it’s all but conceivable that Republican officials in some battleground states will have enough power — and feel enough power. to throw out the results of the 2024 election in their constituencies if the results are against their interests. At the state level, Republicans are gaming the system in an eye-catching way: Although Wisconsin, for example, is a 50-50 state, the gerrymandered Republican map can give the GOP a veto-proof, supermajority in the legislature. Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels said last week that, if elected, his party would “never lose another election” in the state.

This has been achieved by design, says Rachel Kleinfeld of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Antidemocratic politicians backed by safe seats and polarization have stepped in and started making the authoritarian playbook,” he wrote. “This playbook has accelerated the disintegration of democracy in the last five years.”

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

The paradox troubled US democracy

A the consensus of democratic scholars fear that guardrails protect the American democratic system are steadily eroding. The decline of US democracy has been charted in many forms. Freedom House has shown how the United States has had a rapid regression as a “free” society in recent years; The Economic Intelligence Unit listed the United States as a “flawed democracy” in 2017, while the European International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance now calls the United States a “regressive democracy.”

The Democracy Varieties Index, held at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, has tracked the growing “autocratization” in the United States over the past decade, accentuated by Trump’s denial of the legitimacy of the 2020 election and the Republican Party’s broader embrace of that denial. It has been separately mapped on the grid how the Republicans have deepened into the illiberal right, closely related to nationalist factions that rule in countries such as India and Turkey and right-wing parties in the West. (The GOP’s traditional conservative counterparts in Western Europe, meanwhile, are closer to the Democrats.)

Seeing all this, Democrats, including President Biden, have appealed to voters to take to the electoral ramparts and protect the nation’s democracy. But these entreaties may prove enough, suggested Mark Copelovitch, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, at a time when Republican messaging about gas prices and economic pressure has consumed the conversation. “There is an ‘in your face’ aspect to this that is more real 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 an email.

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Copelovitch shows how Polish voters in 2015 delivered a large majority to the opposition right-wing populist party Law and Justice after successfully campaigning on people’s economic concerns. It has remained in power ever since, consolidating its hold over the Polish state and judiciary with illiberal ruthlessness that has seen EU officials raise fears about the future of democracy and the rule of law in Poland.

“If the Republicans win big on Tuesday, it will be, in large part, because some significant part of the electorate switched their votes to or turned out for the GOP – in the same pattern as we saw in Poland and elsewhere – in the belief that this will improve their economic prospects,” Copelovitch said.

For their part, Levitsky and Way are less afraid of the competitive authoritarianism that has gripped the United States. They wrote earlier this year that the United States still has a strong civil society, a private sector and media scene, a strong political opposition (in their formulation, it’s the Democrats) and enough institutional capacity in a decentralized federal system to thwart genuine authoritarianism.

But there is little reason to cheer. “Rather than autocracy, the United States appears to be heading toward endemic regime instability,” they wrote in Foreign Affairs. “Such a scenario will be marked by frequent constitutional crises, including contested or stolen elections and severe conflicts between the president and Congress … the judiciary … and state governments. … The United States will likely move back and forth between periods of democracy dysfunctional and competitive authoritarian government periods when incumbents abuse state power, tolerate or encourage violent extremism, and tilt the electoral field against their rivals.


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