“In competitive authoritarian regimes, formal democratic institutions are widely regarded as the most important means of obtaining and exercising political authority,” Levitsky and Way wrote, gesturing to governments like Slobodan Milosevic’s in Yugoslavia or Alberto Fujimori’s in Peru stacking the field in their favor through a pliable or cowed media as well as other abuses of state power. “Sitters violate these rules so often and to such an extent that the regime does not meet the conventional minimum standards of democracy.”
In 2020, they updated their work, noting that a large number of the “competitive authoritarian” regimes they had previously designated 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 not only thrives but is moving westward. No democracy can be taken for granted,” wrote Levitsky and Way. Similar trends have even reached the United States, where the Trump administration borrowed the ‘deep state’ discourse, as autocrats in Hungary and Turkey used to justify purges and packing of the courts and other central state institutions.
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As Americans vote in the midterm elections, the specter of “competitive authoritarianism looms.” That can be disconcerting to many in a country that still sees itself as a democracy without peer, wrapped in myths of exceptionalism and prominence. But for years, analysts examining the health of democracies in a global context have warned. They point to the toxicity of America’s polarized politics, the partisan partisanship of the Supreme Court, the prevalence of gerrymandering, which skews the results of district elections in favor of the party that draws the maps, and the Republican Party’s failure to vote, which has seen the steady rise of legislation in various Republican-controlled states, which critics call anti-democratic measures that could undermine popular sovereignty.
It is now entirely conceivable that Republican officials in a number of battleground states will have enough power — and feel sufficiently empowered — to throw out the 2024 election results in their constituencies if the results go against their interests. At the state level, Republicans game the system in glaring ways: Even though Wisconsin, for example, is a 50-50 state, a Republican card with coilovers could give the GOP a veto-proof, supermajority in the Legislature. Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels said last week that if elected, his party will “never lose another election” in the state.
This has been achieved by design, argued Rachel Kleinfeld of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Anti-democratic politicians backed by safe seats and polarization have gone through and begun to flesh out an authoritarian playbook,” she wrote. “This playbook has enormously accelerated democratic disintegration over the past five years.”
Democrats have played their own 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, say. under former President Ronald Reagan.
The Troubled Paradox of American Democracy
ONE consensus among democracy researchers fear it the guardrails that protect the system of American democracy steadily erodes. America’s democratic decline has been charted in numerous ways. Freedom House has shown how the United States has experienced a rapid decline as a “free” society in recent years; The Economist Intelligence Unit listed the US as a “defective democracy” in 2017, while Europe’s International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance now calls the US a “backsliding democracy.”
The Varieties of Democracy Index, hosted by Sweden’s University of Gothenburg, has tracked 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 it denial. It has separately charted on a grid how Republicans have drifted deeper into the illiberal right, 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 counterparts in Western Europe, meanwhile, are closer to the Democrats.)
Seeing all this, Democrats, including President Biden, have made desperate appeals to voters to go 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 eaten away at the conversation. “There is an ‘in your face’ aspect to this that is much more tangible than ‘democracy is collapsing’ or ‘Wisconsin’s electoral and legislative institutions no longer meet basic criteria for democracy,'” he wrote to me in a e-mail.
Copelovitch pointed to how Polish voters in 2015 delivered a significant majority to the opposition right-wing populist Law and Justice party after it successfully campaigned against public economic concerns. It has remained in power ever since, consolidating its grip on the Polish state and judiciary with an illiberal ruthlessness that has prompted EU officials to raise fears for the future of democracy and the rule of law in Poland.
“If Republicans win big on Tuesday, it will be largely because a meaningful share of the electorate switched their votes to or left the GOP — in patterns similar to what we’ve seen in Poland and elsewhere — believing that this will improve their economic outlook,” Copelovitch said.
For their part, Levitsky and Way are less afraid of competitive authoritarianism taking hold in the United States. They wrote earlier this year that the US still possesses a potent civil society, private sector and media scene, a robust political opposition (in their formulation, that’s the Democrats), and sufficient institutional capacity in its decentralized federal system to counter genuine authoritarianism.
But there is little reason to rejoice. “Instead of autocracy, the United States appears headed for endemic regime instability,” they wrote in Foreign Affairs. “Such a scenario would be marked by frequent constitutional crises, including contested or stolen elections and serious conflict between presidents and Congress … the judiciary … and state governments. … The United States would likely cycle back and forth between periods of dysfunctional democracy and periods of competitive authoritarian rule, where the incumbents abuse state power, tolerate or encourage violent extremism and tilt the electoral campaign against their rivals.”