U.S. democracy slides toward ‘competitive authoritarianism’

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Idea “competitive authoritarianism” has been around for two decades. 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 the “hybrid” regime that came into focus after the end of the Cold War. They countered the optimistic fashion of the 1990s and argued that polities around the world should not be seen as countries suddenly transitioning to democracy, but where a form of quasi-authoritarianism is entrenched through largely conventional electoral structures.

“In competitive authoritarian regimes, formal democratic institutions are generally seen as the primary means of acquiring and exercising political power,” Levitsky and Way wrote, pointing to governments such as those of Slobodan Milošević in Yugoslavia or Alberto Fujimori in Peru, which rounded the field in their favor through complacent or fearful media and other abuses of state power. “However, the rulers violate these rules so often and to such an extent that the regime fails to meet the conventional minimum standards for democracy.”

In 2020, they updated their work and found that a good number of the “competitive authoritarian” regimes they identified earlier remained so, while new countries joined the club. Consider Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Or the regime built by the late Venezuelan demagogue Hugo Chávez. Or the illiberal rule of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

“Competitive authoritarianism is not only flourishing, it is moving westward. No democracy can be self-evident,” wrote Levitsky and Way. “Similar tendencies have even reached the US, where the Trump administration has borrowed the ‘deep state’ discourse used by autocrats in Hungary and Turkey to justify purges and packing of courts and other key state institutions.”

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As Americans vote in the midterm elections, a scene of “competitive authoritarianism” emerges. This can be disconcerting for many in a country that still sees itself as a peerless democracy shrouded in myths of exceptionalism and superiority. But for years, analysts studying the health of democracies in a global context have been warning. They point to the toxicity of polarized United States politics, the partisan bias of the Supreme Court, the prevalence of gerrymandering that skews district elections in favor of the party drawing the maps, and the electoral rejection of the Republican Party, which has seen the steady progress of legislation in various Republican-controlled states. which critics describe as anti-democratic measures that could undermine popular sovereignty.

Now, it’s entirely conceivable that Republican officials in many battleground states will have enough power — and feel empowered enough to throw out the results of the 2024 elections in their constituencies if the results were against their interests. At the state level, Republicans are gaming the system in attractive ways: Even though Wisconsin is a 50-50 state, for example, a Republican map could give Republicans a veto-proof supermajority in the legislature. Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels joked last week that if elected, his party would “never lose another election” in the state.

This was achieved by design, argued Rachel Kleinfeld of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Anti-democratic politicians, supported by safe seats and polarization, went through and started running the authoritarian game,” she wrote. “This book has greatly accelerated the democratic disintegration of the last five years.”

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

The Troubled Paradox of American Democracy

A consensus of democracy scholars fear of it the guardrails that protect the system of American democracy they are steadily deteriorating. The democratic decline of the United States has been characterized in many forms. Freedom House has shown 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, while the European International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance now labels the United States a “declining democracy”.

Hosted by Sweden’s University of Gothenburg, the Varieties of Democracy Index has tracked the growing “autocratization” in the United States over the past decade, highlighted by Trump’s denial of the legitimacy of the 2020 election and the broader acceptance of that denial by the Republican Party. Separately, he showed online how Republicans have drifted deeper into the illiberal right, which is closely related to ruling nationalist factions in countries such as India and Turkey and far-right parties in the West. (The GOP’s traditional conservative opponents in Western Europe, meanwhile, are closer to the Democrats.)

Seeing all of this, Democrats, including President Biden, made a desperate appeal to voters to get to the polls and protect the nation’s democracy. But those pleas may prove insufficient, 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 consumed the conversation. “There’s an in-your-face aspect to this that is much more tangible 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 pointed to how Polish voters in 2015 gave the opposition right-wing populist Law and Justice party a sizeable majority after it successfully dispelled public economic concerns. Since then, she has remained in power, consolidating her control over the Polish state and judiciary with an illiberal ruthlessness that has left EU officials fearful about the future of democracy and the rule of law in Poland.

“If the Republicans win big on Tuesday, it will be largely because some significant portion of the electorate switched their votes to the Republican Party or chose to vote for it — in patterns similar to what we’ve seen in Poland and elsewhere — in the belief , that it will improve their economic prospects,” Copelovitch said.

Levitsky and Way, however, are less afraid of a competitive authoritarianism taking over the United States. They noted earlier this year that the United States still has a strong civil society, private sector and media scene, a strong political opposition (in their formulation, Democrats), and enough institutional capacity in its decentralized federal system to prevent genuine authoritarianism.

However, there is little cause for rejoicing. “The US appears to be headed for endemic regime instability rather than autocracy,” Foreign Affairs wrote. “Such a scenario would be marked by frequent constitutional crises, including disputed or stolen elections and severe conflicts between presidents and Congress … the judiciary … and state governments. … The United States would likely move back and forth between periods of dysfunctional democracy and periods of competitive authoritarian rule in which incumbents abuse state power, tolerate or encourage violent extremism, and tilt the electoral playing field against their rivals.”

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