×

The Dictators’ Last Stand

Why the New Autocrats Are Weaker Than They Look

Little big man: supporters of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro in Caracas, May 2019 Leo Correa / Redux

It has been a good decade for dictatorship. The global influence of the world’s most powerful authoritarian countries, China and Russia, has grown rapidly. For the first time since the late nineteenth century, the cumulative GDP of autocracies now equals or exceeds that of Western liberal democracies. Even ideologically, autocrats appear to be on the offensive: at the G-20 summit in June, for instance, President Vladimir Putin dropped his normal pretense that Russia is living up to liberal democratic standards, declaring instead that “modern liberalism” has become “obsolete.” 

Conversely, it has been a terrible decade for democracy. According to Freedom House, the world is now in the 13th consecutive year of a global democratic recession. Democracies have collapsed or eroded in every region, from Burundi to Hungary, Thailand to Venezuela. Most troubling of all, democratic institutions have proved to be surprisingly brittle in countries where they once seemed stable and secure.

In 2014, I suggested in these pages that a rising tide of populist parties and candidates could inflict serious damage on democratic institutions. At the time, my argument was widely contested. The scholarly consensus held that demagogues would never win power in the long-established democracies of North America and western Europe. And even if they did, they would be constrained by those countries’ strong institutions and vibrant civil societies. Today, that old consensus is dead. The ascent of Donald Trump in the United States, Matteo Salvini in Italy, and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil has demonstrated that populists can indeed win power in some of the most affluent and long-established democracies in the world. And the rapid erosion of democracy in countries such as Hungary and Venezuela has shown that populists really can turn their countries into competitive authoritarian regimes or outright dictatorships. The controversial argument I made five years ago has become the conventional wisdom. 

But this new consensus is now in danger of hardening into an equally misguided orthodoxy. Whereas scholars used to hope that it was only a

Loading, please wait...

Related Articles

This site uses cookies to improve your user experience. Click here to learn more.

Continue