Rotten to the Core?
How America’s Political Decay Accelerated During the Trump Era
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 institutions that would constrain the elected chief executive. Electoral authoritarians will not accept defeat. Illiberal democrats will not accept restraints. Electoral authoritarians cheat so their power will not be lost. Illiberal democrats break norms and bend the rules so their power will not be limited.
Illiberal democracy and electoral authoritarianism can both be seen in practice around the world today. And both of these undemocratic types threaten to take hold if democracy erodes, backslides, or even dies in the United States. Although the specter of illiberal democracy is imminent but could soon evaporate, the United States’ vulnerability to electoral authoritarianism is both long-standing and likely to persist, regardless of what transpires in the midterm elections and in elections to come.
Electoral authoritarians will not accept defeat. Illiberal democrats will not accept restraints.
Southeast Asia offers a cornucopia of examples of both illiberal democracy and electoral authoritarianism in practice. The Philippines provides a striking instance of an old and established democracy eroding into illiberal democracy. President Rodrigo Duterte accepts few, if any, limits on his personal power. Even the law is ineffective restraint, as Duterte’s extrajudicial killing campaign against suspected drug dealers most famously demonstrates. Duterte has been wildly popular for most of his term in office, but this does not make his abuses of power democratic. Denying fundamental rights is the essence of illiberalism, even if an elected leader is doing the denying. Duterte is not an electoral authoritarian, however; at least not yet. He does not command a political party with the ability to win skewed election after skewed election. He is not fixated on playing the Punisher against political opponents who threaten to replace him, at least in part because the Philippines has term limits, and Duterte is probably too old to consider having them changed for his own benefit. He is an illiberal democrat because of what he does with his electoral power, not how he got it or tries to keep it.
Singapore, on the other hand, furnishes an especially telling example of electoral authoritarianism. Quite unlike Duterte, Singaporean authorities are obsessed with following the law and making everybody else follow it as well. They rule collectively rather than individually. The electoral system is finely tuned and exquisitely manipulated so that the ruling People’s Action Party’s (PAP’s) opponents stand no legitimate chance of defeating it. There is no independent election commission. Voters widely suspect that their votes are monitored and that their communities could be punished with a withdrawal of government services if they elect an opponent of the PAP. Perhaps ironically, the PAP more clearly deserves the epithet of “authoritarian” than does Duterte, whose more flagrant abuses of power don’t yet accord with any sustainable kind of authoritarian rule.
Singapore and the Philippines are not alone, even in Southeast Asia. In Myanmar, free and fair elections in 2015 ushered the opposition National League for Democracy of Aung San Suu Kyi into power, even as the military retained many vital positions for itself. But electoral democracy quickly backslid into illiberal democracy. Minority Muslim populations are faring miserably under Buddhist-dominated democracy, most notoriously in the case of the Rohingya in Rakhine State. The news media is still repressed when reporting on the military’s human rights abuses or revealing so-called state secrets. Meanwhile in Indonesia, the recent imprisonment of Jakarta’s ethnic Chinese governor for allegedly insulting Islam shows that Southeast Asia’s largest democracy is taking a worrisome illiberal turn of its own.
While illiberal democracy is not confined to the Philippines, electoral authoritarianism is not limited to Singapore. In Cambodia, the long-ruling party of Hun Sen has tightened the noose on its partisan opponents and the news media, as its confidence in winning even unfree and unfair elections has slackened. By this point Cambodia has almost entirely shed the electoral side of its authoritarianism, looking less like Singapore than it does like single-party dictatorships, such as Vietnam and China.
But perhaps the most instructive example from Southeast Asia for the United States is Malaysia. For fifty years, the country was a consummate electoral authoritarian regime, dominated by a single party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO). Until it suffered a shocking electoral defeat earlier this year, UMNO ruled on behalf of an “indigenous” majority that feared losing its privileges to “immigrant” minorities. It used every trick in the book to skew elections in its favor. This included gerrymandering, malapportionment, and the targeted disqualification and even imprisonment of especially threatening electoral opponents.
Such manipulations produced a situation in which UMNO and its coalition partners could lose the popular vote outright, as they did for the first time in 2013, yet still secure a firm parliamentary majority, as well as the all-powerful prime minister position. It was only when UMNO’s nativist politics had so totally alienated Malaysia’s sizable ethnic minority populations, and UMNO leader Najib Razak had engaged in such colossal corruption that even the most cynical Malaysian onlookers were shocked, that even outright authoritarian abuses could no longer secure UMNO’s electoral victory.
What might this all mean for the United States, as it goes to the polls today and beyond? For all its obvious differences with the Southeast Asian countries just discussed, the United States confronts the same two undemocratic beasts that Southeast Asia faces: electoral authoritarianism and illiberal democracy.
Observers differ widely on how severe of a threat, if any, President Donald Trump and an increasingly bellicose and norm-violating Republican Party pose to American democracy. One reason for this is that they pose meaningfully different threats.
Like Duterte, Trump is a consummate illiberal democrat. He attacks anyone who dares to criticize him. His respect for the media, courts, and other democratic institutions of constraint is entirely contingent on their not constraining him. Whereas previous Republican leaders have used dog whistles to excite anti-immigrant and other racist sentiments, Trump uses a bullhorn. He is a personalistic ruler driven by appetites. How and through what deals with foreign interests he acquired his enormous fortune—and perhaps continues to do so as president—is considered none of the people’s business. Yet he has no evident strategy to consolidate his power over a long period of time in electoral authoritarian fashion, if American political institutions could even be bent so far in the first place.
Like Philippine leader Rodrigo Duterte, Trump is a consummate illiberal democrat.
The Republican Party is a different matter entirely. Through widespread voter identification laws and related forms of voter suppression—most blatantly in Wisconsin in 2016 and in Georgia today—the GOP appears to focus more on winning elections than on winning majorities. This antimajoritarian strategic focus fits beautifully with the Electoral College system, which has delivered the last two Republican presidents to the White House without winning the popular vote: a Malaysia-like pattern of loser takes all that cannot be allowed to continue in any electoral democracy worthy of the name.
While Trump in many ways echoes Duterte, the Republican Party increasingly calls Malaysia’s UMNO to mind. Nor is this an unfamiliar look for U.S. party politics. When considering recent American history, it is not difficult to see the post-Reconstruction South of the Jim Crow era as a paradigmatic example of electoral authoritarianism, with the racist Democratic Party basically playing UMNO’s role as the defender of majority privilege, by hook or by crook.
Even if the Democrats manage to overcome voter suppression and win a landslide in today’s congressional and gubernatorial races, they cannot easily stop or even slow Trump’s erosion of democracy into illiberal democracy, short of outright impeachment. By contrast, even if Trump is defeated in 2020 or removed earlier, the GOP may still shift ever further in an electoral authoritarian direction, especially in states that lean consistently red.
Even if Trump is defeated or removed, the GOP may still shift ever further in the direction of electoral authoritarianism.
Trump is not on the ballot today, though he is very much in the background. The slide toward illiberal democracy that Trump currently represents is thus unlikely to be arrested no matter what voters decide. The irony, however, is that while the scourge of illiberal democracy is currently harder to defeat at the polls, it might not outlast the Trump presidency at all.
The main question for democracy on the ballot today is whether the United States will keep shifting into outright electoral authoritarianism. Electoral authoritarianism could suffer a big setback today, if Democrats who are committed to undermining voter restrictions prevail over those Republicans devoted to upholding them. But today’s midterm elections can only be at most a single victory in America’s long and continuing campaign to ensure that the worst authoritarian vestiges of its recent past do not resurface to define its electoral future.