Iran’s Crisis of Legitimacy
An Embattled Regime Faces Mass Protests—and an Ailing Supreme Leader
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 matter of time until some of the world’s most powerful autocracies would be forced to democratize, they now concede too readily that these regimes have permanently solved the challenge of sustaining their legitimacy. Having once believed that liberal democracy was the obvious endpoint of mankind’s political evolution, many experts now assume that billions of people around the world will happily forgo individual freedom and collective self-determination. Naive optimism has given way to premature pessimism.
If the past decade has been bad for democracy, the next one may turn out to be surprisingly tough on autocrats.
The new orthodoxy is especially misleading about the long-term future of governments that promise to return power to the people but instead erode democratic institutions. These populist dictatorships, in countries such as Hungary, Turkey, and Venezuela, share two important features: first, their rulers came to power by winning free and fair elections with an anti-elitist and anti-pluralist message. Second, these leaders subsequently used those victories to concentrate power in their own hands by weakening the independence of key institutions, such as the judiciary; curtailing the ability of opposition parties to organize; or undermining critical media outlets. (By “populist dictatorships,” I mean both outright dictatorships, in which the opposition no longer has a realistic chance of displacing the government through elections, and competitive authoritarian regimes, in which elections retain real significance even though the opposition is forced to fight on a highly uneven playing field.)
According to the new orthodoxy, the populist threat to liberal democracy is a one-way street. Once strongman leaders have managed to concentrate power in their own hands, the game for the opposition is up. If a significant number of countries succumb to populist dictatorship over the next years, the long-term outlook for liberal democracy will, in this view, be very bleak.
But this narrative overlooks a crucial factor: the legitimacy of populist dictators depends on their ability to maintain the illusion that they speak for “the people.” And the more power these leaders concentrate in their own hands, the less plausible that pretense appears. This raises the possibility of a vicious cycle of populist legitimacy: when an internal crisis or an external shock dampens a populist regime’s popularity, that regime must resort to ever more overt oppression to perpetuate its power. But the more overt its oppression grows, the more it will reveal the hollowness of its claim to govern in the name of the people. As ever-larger segments of the population recognize that they are in danger of losing their liberties, opposition to the regime may grow stronger and stronger.
The ultimate outcome of this struggle is by no means foreordained. But if the past decade has been depressingly bad for democracy, the next one may well turn out to be surprisingly tough on autocrats.
In North America and western Europe, populist leaders have gained control of the highest levers of power over the course of only the past few years. In Turkey, by contrast, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been in power for nearly two decades. The country thus offers an ideal case study of both how populist dictators can seize power and the challenge they face when increasingly overt oppression erodes their legitimacy.
Erdogan became prime minister in 2003 by running on a textbook populist platform. Turkey’s political system, he claimed, was not truly democratic. A small elite controlled the country, dispensing with the will of the people whenever they dared to rebel against the elite’s preferences. Only a courageous leader who truly represented ordinary Turks would be able to stand up against that elite and return power to the people.
He had a point. Turkey’s secular elites had controlled the country for the better part of a century, suspending democracy whenever they failed to get their way; between 1960 and 1997, the country underwent four coups. But even though Erdogan’s diagnosis of the problem was largely correct, his promised cure turned out to be worse than the disease. Instead of transferring power to the people, he redistributed it to a new elite of his own making. Over the course of his 16 years in power—first as prime minister and then, after 2014, as president—Erdogan has purged opponents from the military; appointed partisan hacks to courts and electoral commissions; fired tens of thousands of teachers, academics, and civil servants; and jailed a breathtaking number of writers and journalists.
Even as Erdogan consolidated power in his own hands, he seized on his ability to win elections to sustain the narrative that had fueled his rise. He was the freely elected leader of the Turkish republic; his critics were traitors or terrorists who were ignoring the will of the people. Although international observers considered Turkey’s elections deeply flawed, and political scientists began to classify the country as a competitive authoritarian regime, this narrative helped Erdogan consolidate support among a large portion of the population. So long as he won, he could have his cake and eat it, too: his ever-tightening grip on the system tilted the electoral playing field, making it easier for him to win a popular mandate. This mandate, in turn, helped legitimize his rule, allowing him to gain an even tighter grip on the system.
More recently, however, Erdogan’s story of legitimation—the set of claims by which he justifies his rule—has begun to fall apart. In 2018, Turkey’s economy finally fell into recession as a result of Erdogan’s mismanagement. In municipal elections this past March, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost Ankara, Turkey’s capital, and Istanbul, its largest city. For the first time since taking office, Erdogan was faced with a difficult choice: either give up some of his power by accepting defeat or undermine his story of legitimation by rejecting the results of the election.
Erdogan chose the latter option. Within weeks of Istanbul’s mayoral election, the Turkish election board overturned its results and ordered a rerun for the middle of June. This turned out to be a massive miscalculation. A large number of Istanbulites who had previously supported Erdogan and his party were so outraged by his open defiance of the popular will that they turned against him. The AKP candidate suffered a much bigger defeat in the second election.
Having tried and failed to annul the will of the people, Erdogan now faces the prospect of a downward spiral. Because he has lost a great deal of his legitimacy, he is more reliant on oppressive measures to hold on to power. But the more blatantly he oppresses his own people, the more his legitimacy will suffer.
The implications of this transformation extend far beyond Turkey. Authoritarian populists have proved frighteningly capable of vanquishing democratic opponents. But as the case of Erdogan demonstrates, they will eventually face serious challenges of their own.
It is tempting to cast the stakes in the struggle between authoritarian populists and democratic institutions in existential terms. If populists manage to gain effective control over key institutions, such as the judiciary and the electoral commission, then the bell has tolled for democracy. But this conclusion is premature. After all, a rich literature suggests that all kinds of dictatorships have, historically, been remarkably vulnerable to democratic challenges.
Between the end of World War II and the collapse of the Soviet Union, for instance, dictatorships had a two percent chance of collapsing in any given year. During the 1990s, the odds increased to five percent, according to research by the political scientists Adam Przeworski and Fernando Limongi. Clearly, the concentration of power that characterizes all dictatorships does not necessarily translate into that power’s durability.
Instead of assuming that the rise of populist dictatorships spells an end for democratic aspirations in countries such as Hungary, Turkey, and Venezuela, therefore, it is necessary to understand the circumstances under which these regimes are likely to succeed or fail. Recent research on autocratic regimes suggests that there are good reasons to believe that populist dictatorships will prove to be comparatively stable. Since most of them are situated in affluent countries, they can afford to channel generous rewards to supporters of the regime. Since they rule over strong states with capable bureaucracies, their leaders can ensure that their orders are carried out in a timely and faithful manner. Since they control well-developed security services, they can monitor and deter opposition activity. And since they are embedded in efficient ruling parties, they can recruit reliable cadres and deal with crises of succession.
On the other hand, many of the countries these regimes control also have features that favored democratization in the past. They usually have high levels of education and economic development. They contain opposition movements with strong traditions and relatively established institutions of their own. They often neighbor democratic nations and rely on democracies for their economic prosperity and military security. Perhaps most important, many of these countries have a recent history of democracy, which may both strengthen popular demands for personal liberties and provide their people with a template for a democratic transition when an autocratic regime does eventually collapse.
All in all, the structural features on which political scientists usually focus to gauge the likely fate of authoritarian regimes appear finely balanced in the case of populist dictatorships. This makes it all the more important to pay attention to a factor that has often been ignored in the literature: the sources and the sustainability of their legitimacy.
In the twentieth century, democratic collapse usually took the form of a coup. When feuds between political factions produced exasperating gridlock, a charismatic military officer managed to convince his peers to make a bid for power. Tanks would roll up in front of parliament, and the aspiring dictator would take the reins of power.
The blatantly antidemocratic nature of these coups created serious problems of legitimacy for the regimes to which they gave rise. Any citizen who valued individual freedom or collective self-determination could easily recognize the danger that these authoritarian governments posed. Insofar as these dictatorships enjoyed real popular support, it was based on their ability to deliver different political goods. They offered protection from other extremists. They vowed to build a stable political system that would dispense with the chaos and discord of democratic competition. Above all, they promised less corruption and faster economic growth.
In most cases, those promises were hard to keep. Dictatorships frequently produced political chaos of their own: palace intrigues, coup attempts, mass protests. In many cases, their economic policies proved to be highly erratic, leading to bouts of hyperinflation or periods of severe economic depression. With few exceptions, they suffered from staggering levels of corruption. But for all these difficulties, their basic stories of legitimation were usually coherent. Although they often failed to do so, these dictatorships could, in principle, deliver on the goods they promised their people.
Populist dictatorships are liable to suffer from an especially sudden loss of legitimacy.
This is not true of populist dictatorships. As the case of Erdogan illustrates, populists come to power by promising to deepen democracy. This makes it much easier for them to build dictatorships in countries in which a majority of the population remains committed to democratic values. Instead of accepting an explicit tradeoff between self-determination and other goods, such as stability or economic growth, supporters of populist parties usually believe that they can have it all. As a result, populists often enjoy enormous popularity during their first years in power, as Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, and India’s Narendra Modi have demonstrated.
Once they consolidate their authority, however, populist dictators fail to live up to their most important promise. Elected on the hope that they will return power to the people, they instead make it impossible for the people to replace them. The crucial question is what happens when this fact becomes too obvious for large segments of the population to ignore.
At some point during their tenure, populist dictators are likely to face an acute crisis. Even honest and competent leaders are likely to see their popularity decline because of events over which they have little control, such as a global recession, if they stay in office long enough. There are also good reasons to believe that populist dictatorships are more likely than democracies to face crises of their own making. Drawing on a comprehensive global database of populist governments since 1990, for example, the political scientist Jordan Kyle and I have demonstrated that democratic countries ruled by populists tend to be more corrupt than their nonpopulist peers. Over time, the spread of corruption is likely to inspire frustration at populists’ unfulfilled promises to “drain the swamp.”
Similarly, research by the political scientist Roberto Foa suggests that the election of populists tends to lead to serious economic crises. When left-wing populists come to power, their policies often lead to a cratering stock market and rapid capital flight. Right-wing populists, by contrast, usually enjoy rising stock prices and investor confidence during their first few years in office. But as they engage in erratic policymaking, undermine the rule of law, and marginalize independent experts, their countries’ economic fortunes tend to sour. By the time that right-wing populists have been in office for five or ten years, their countries are more likely than their peers to have suffered from stock market crashes, acute financial crises, or bouts of hyperinflation.
Once a populist regime faces a political crisis, the massive contradictions at the heart of its story of legitimation make the crisis especially difficult to deal with. Initially, the political repression in which populist regimes engage remains somewhat hidden from public view. Power grabs usually take the form of complicated rule changes—such as a lower retirement age for judges or a modification of the selection mechanisms for members of the country’s electoral commission—whose true import is difficult to grasp for ordinary citizens. Although political opponents, prominent journalists, and independent judges may start to experience genuine oppression early in a populist’s tenure, the great majority of citizens, including most public-sector workers, remain unaffected. And since the populist continues to win real majorities at the ballot box, he or she can point to genuine popularity to dispel any doubts about the democratic nature of his or her rule.
This equilibrium is likely to be disrupted when a shock or a crisis lowers the leader’s popularity. In order to retain power, the leader must step up the oppression: cracking down on independent media, firing judges and civil servants, changing the electoral system, disqualifying or jailing opposition candidates, rigging votes, annulling the outcome of elections, and so on. But all these options share the same downside: by forcing the antidemocratic character of the regime out into the open, they are likely to increase the share of the population that recognizes the government for what it truly is.
This is where the vicious cycle of populist legitimacy rears its unforgiving head. As support for the regime wanes, the populist autocrat needs to employ more repression to retain power. But the more repression the regime employs, the more its story of legitimation suffers, further eroding its support.
Populist dictatorships are therefore liable to suffer from an especially sudden loss of legitimacy. Enjoying a broad popular mandate, their stories of legitimation initially allow them to co-opt or weaken independent institutions without oppressing ordinary citizens or forfeiting the legitimacy they gain from regular elections. But as the popularity of the populist leader declines due to internal blunders or external shocks, the vicious cycle of populist legitimacy sets in. Custom-made to help populist leaders gain and consolidate power, their stories of legitimation are uniquely ill adapted to helping them sustain an increasingly autocratic regime.
Many populist dictatorships will, sooner or later, experience an especially serious crisis of legitimacy. What will happen when they do?
In The Prince, Niccolò Machiavelli warned that the ruler “who becomes master of a city accustomed to freedom” can never sleep easy. “When it rebels, the people will always be able to appeal to the spirit of freedom, which is never forgotten, despite the passage of time and any benefits bestowed by the new ruler…. If he does not foment internal divisions or scatter the inhabitants, they will never forget their lost liberties and their ancient institutions, and will immediately attempt to recover them whenever they have an opportunity.”
Populist dictators would do well to heed Machiavelli’s warning. After all, most of their citizens can still recall living in freedom. Venezuela, for example, had been democratic for about four decades by the time Hugo Chávez first ascended to power at the end of the 1990s. It would hardly come as a surprise if the citizens of countries that have, until so recently, enjoyed individual freedom and collective self-determination eventually began to long for the recovery of those core principles.
But if populist dictators must fear the people, there is also ample historical evidence to suggest that autocratic regimes can survive for a long time after their original stories of legitimation have lost their power. Take the twentieth-century communist dictatorships of Eastern Europe. From their inception, the communist regimes of Czechoslovakia and East Germany, for example, depended on a horrific amount of oppression—far beyond what today’s populists in Hungary or Poland have attempted so far. But like today’s populists, those regimes claimed that they were centralizing power only in order to erect “true” democracies. In their first decades, this helped them mobilize a large number of supporters.
Eventually, the illusion that the regimes’ injustices were growing pains on the arduous path toward a worker’s paradise proved impossible to sustain. In Czechoslovakia, for example, cautious attempts at liberalization sparked a Soviet invasion in 1968, followed by a brutal crackdown on dissent. Virtually overnight, the regime’s story of legitimation went from being an important foundation of its stability to a hollow piece of ritualized lip service. As the Czech dissident Vaclav Havel wrote in his influential essay “The Power of the Powerless,” it was “true of course” that after 1968, “ideology no longer [had] any great influence on people.” But although the legitimacy of many communist regimes had cratered by the late 1960s, they were able to hold on to power for another two decades thanks to brutal repression.
Populist dictatorships in countries such as Turkey or Venezuela may soon enter a similar phase. Now that their stories of legitimation have, in the minds of large portions of their populations, come to be seen as obvious bunk, their stability will turn on the age-old clash between central authority and popular discontent.
Recently, a series of writers have suggested that the rise of digital technology will skew this competition in favor of popular discontent. As the former CIA analyst Martin Gurri argued in The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium, the Internet favors networks over hierarchies, the border over the center, and small groups of angry activists over bureaucratic incumbents. These dynamics help explain how populists were able to displace more moderate, established political forces in the first place. They also suggest that it will be difficult for populists to stay in power once they have to face the wrath of the digitally empowered public.
This argument, however, fails to take into account the differences in how dictatorships and democracies wield power. Whereas dictatorships are capable of using all the resources of a modern state to quash a popular insurgency, democracies are committed to fighting their opponents with one hand tied behind their back. Dictators can jail opposition leaders or order soldiers to fire into a crowd of peaceful protesters; democratic leaders can, at best, appeal to reason and shared values.
This imbalance raises the prospect of a dark future in which digital technology allows extremist networks to vanquish moderate hierarchies. Once in power, these extremist movements may succeed in transforming themselves into highly hierarchical governments—and in using brute force to keep their opponents at bay. Technology, in this account, fuels the dissemination of the populists’ stories of legitimation when they first storm the political stage, but it fails to rival the power of their guns once their stories of legitimation have lost their hold.
It is too early to conclude that the populist dictatorships that have arisen in many parts of the world in recent years will be able to sustain themselves in power forever. In the end, those who are subject to these oppressive regimes will likely grow determined to win back their freedom. But the long and brutal history of autocracy leaves little doubt about how difficult and dangerous it will be for them to succeed. And so the best way to fight demagogues with authoritarian ambitions remains what it has always been: to defeat them at the ballot box before they ever step foot in the halls of power.