Across the world, including in the United States as midterm elections unfold, experts lament that democracy is eroding, or backsliding, or perhaps even dying. But this tells us little about what is most likely to arise, exactly, in democracy’s stead. When democracy erodes, what remains? When a democracy backslides, where does it wind up? When democracy dies, what is born?
The simple answer is authoritarianism. But authoritarian regimes are every bit as diverse as democracies. Authoritarianism is not simply the absence of democracy but its own political beast—really a menagerie of very different beasts—with multiple modi operandi. For this reason, it is safe to say that democracy is under serious threat but that the threat is not a singular one.
From the United States to the Philippines to Poland to Brazil, two undemocratic models of rule are readily identifiable. One is electoral authoritarianism, in which rulers win power through elections, but those elections are either manipulated or the playing field between incumbents and opponents between elections is far from fair. The other is illiberal democracy, in which rulers freely win elections but then abuse both their authority and minority populations with the power they win. To put it most plainly, electoral authoritarians do as they please to win elections. Illiberal democrats do as they please after winning them. While elected leaders and governments often combine both features as democracy erodes, it’s perfectly possible to have one without the other.
Authoritarianism is not simply the absence of democracy but its own political beast—really a menagerie of very different beasts.
The differences between these two undemocratic beasts are legion. Electoral authoritarianism is typically the collective enterprise of a ruling party. Illiberal democracy—a term originally coined by Fareed Zakaria and recently embraced by Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban—is more often the individual project of a power-hungry elected leader. Electoral authoritarians use subterfuge to undermine partisan opponents. Illiberal democrats openly assault minority populations and brazenly attack core democratic
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