It Happened in America
Democratic Backsliding Shouldn’t Have Come as a Surprise
At the heart of his inaugural address, delivered just two weeks after a violent mob sacked the U.S. Capitol, President Joe Biden claimed that the transfer of power reflected American democracy’s victory over the forces of insurrection, chaos, and intolerance. “At this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed,” he said in a speech that used the term “democracy” more than any of his predecessors’ inaugural addresses. A month later, he revisited the theme at the Munich Security Conference, where he repudiated the “America first” policies of former President Donald Trump and committed to protecting human rights around the world. “Democracy doesn’t happen by accident,” he said. “We have to defend it, fight for it, strengthen it, renew it.” And in the contest between authoritarianism and democracy, the United States was, after a brief hiatus, again on the right side of history. “America is back,” Biden claimed.
But it’s hard to be so optimistic about liberal democracy. The world has moved on from the heady days of the so-called third wave of democratization, which started in Greece, Portugal, and Spain in the 1970s, spread through Latin America in the 1980s, and accelerated in eastern Europe in the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union. Nowadays, the news is much grimmer. The Arab Spring ended in renewed repression in Egypt and Syria. During the last decade, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping have tightened their grip on power. Massive street protests in Belarus, Hong Kong, Myanmar, and Russia have been met with violent repression. Illiberalism is rising in Brazil under President Jair Bolsonaro, in Hungary under Prime Minister Viktor Orban, and in the Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte. Even in long-standing liberal democracies, including the United States, authoritarian populist leaders have risen to power.
In their new book, Backsliding, Stephan Haggard and Robert Kaufman aim to explain today’s democratic regress. Their study makes a stimulating contribution to the growing work on backsliding, seeking to identify leading cases around the world and describe their causes. Haggard and Kaufman emphasize the role played by governing elites, arguing that backsliding commonly occurs when leaders gradually dismantle checks and balances with the complicity of legislative elites. In so doing, however, the authors underestimate the role of broader shifts in the electorate and the failure of political institutions. It isn’t just illiberal leaders who can be blamed for backsliding; they are aided by supportive publics and flawed institutions.
Haggard and Kaufman compare 16 diverse cases of democratic backsliding, including Brazil, Greece, Nicaragua, Russia, and the United States. They selected states that had at least eight consecutive years of electoral democracy from 1974 to 2019 and a statistically significant decline in liberal democracy, as measured by data collected by the Varieties of Democracy project. The authors define backsliding precisely but narrowly. It most commonly occurs, they say, when autocrats who have been voted into executive office gradually undermine electoral integrity, curtail political rights and civil liberties, and erode horizontal checks on their power. Thus, cases in which democracies collapsed for other reasons, such as a military coup, a civil war, or a foreign military intervention, are excluded from the study, since these are less common today.
The authors sketch out a particular pathway for backsliding. First, autocrats exploit political polarization to win executive office. They heighten tensions over cultural issues, making rhetorical appeals that emphasize us-versus-them divisions between the “real people” and foreigners, immigrants, and racial, ethnic, or religious minorities, as well as powerful elites and political opponents. Then, to expand their powers, these leaders incrementally assault core democratic institutions, especially by undermining free and fair elections and independent legislatures. Partisans holding elected office are complicit, failing to curb the leaders’ attacks on the rule of law or their manipulations of electoral rules. This process, Haggard and Kaufman claim, disorients the public, who cannot see the damage to democracy until it is too late.
In Hungary, for example, the authors date backsliding back to 2010, when Orban’s party, Fidesz, won a landslide victory. Soon after taking office, Orban revised the constitution and electoral law, which allowed him to consolidate his power in elections held in 2014 and 2018. Orban encroached on the news media’s independence, restricted the judiciary, and limited political rights and civil liberties—all the while stoking resentment against migrants. Orban claimed that he and he alone reflected “true” democracy, responding to the will of the public by defending Hungary against the EU and what he viewed as its lax policy on immigration.
It isn’t just illiberal leaders who can be blamed for backsliding; they are aided by supportive publics and flawed institutions.
In the United States, Trump won the White House by exploiting party polarization over cultural values. Once in office, he deepened partisan divisions in Congress and among the electorate. He worsened us-versus-them rifts on a range of issues, such as immigration, race, religion, and nationalism. Trump also eroded Republican trust in the legitimate authority of democratic institutions that counterbalance the executive. He regularly attacked the media and complained about the judiciary. He largely bypassed Congress, governing instead through Twitter attacks, executive orders, and the appointment of officials in “acting” roles not confirmed by the Senate. He also sowed mistrust of elections, culminating in the brazen attack by his supporters on the Capitol. Perhaps more disturbing, far from retreating to a quiet retirement in Mar-a-Lago, Trump signaled in a February speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference that he intends to continue to lead the GOP. He lambasted Biden’s record, attacked the congressional Republicans who supported his impeachment, and hinted that he may even run for president again in 2024.
Yet this raises a question: Does the theory presented in Backsliding reflect a rationalization of the Orban and Trump cases, or can it indeed explain democratic decline elsewhere in the world? The Hungarian and American stories encapsulate Haggard and Kaufman’s theory. Yet there’s reason to doubt whether that narrative, focused as it is on supply-side factors, can provide a comprehensive explanation of democratic decline elsewhere in the world. The role of leaders may indeed be important, but if so, it is unclear why a series of leaders sharing similar illiberal values and practices should emerge during the last decade in so many diverse countries around the world. Is this just coincidence? Some contagion effects may be expected; hence, Trump’s ascension through illiberal tactics may have emboldened others—such as Bolsonaro, elected in 2018—to follow a similar playbook. But most of the illiberal leaders in Backsliding rose to power many years before Trump, so the timing suggests that something else is at work.
The authors are careful to qualify their claims, acknowledging the high diversity in their cases. For instance, they suggest that party polarization grew before autocrats came to power in Greece, Hungary, and Poland, but not in Nicaragua, Russia, and Turkey. In Bolivia and Zambia, the old party system broke down and new contenders filled the vacuum, whereas in Turkey and the United States, an existing party became more extreme. Immigration sharply divided several countries in Europe, but in different ways. Some, such as Greece and Turkey, were directly affected by the flood of migrants from Afghanistan and Syria that began around 2014, whereas others, such as Hungary and Poland, absorbed fewer refugees. Certain backsliders, notably Russia, also faced economic crises, whereas others, such as Poland, experienced strong economic growth before slipping. In other words, it’s complicated.
One limitation of the book is that Haggard and Kaufman rely on just 16 cases. Had they included more, they could have overcome tricky analytic issues, giving their study more power and thus a greater ability to generalize across time and space. At the same time, the short volume contains too many dissimilar countries to allow for detailed historical case studies of backsliding. Another limitation is that the authors stretch the concept of certain key terms to fit their cases. They apply the label “autocrat” to leaders in their cases of backsliding, but this is a circular explanation. Some of their measurements are suspect, too. To gauge polarization, they rely on online surveys of experts who estimate the degree of societal polarization and the extent of antigovernment social movements. But these are vague and impressionistic measurements that are as likely to be colored by the outcome being studied—backsliding—as they are to represent an objective prior condition.
An even bigger problem is that the authors treat polarization as exogenous, rather than explaining the roots of these divisions in economic or cultural cleavages in the electorate. Their explanation reflects a supply-side approach, which focuses on how illiberal leaders contribute to backsliding. Haggard and Kaufman give primacy to the capacity of illiberal leaders to corrupt democratic norms and the acquiescence of legislative elites in this process. In their words, “Backsliding . . . is ultimately the result of the actions of autocrats who gain executive office and control over the legislature.” The book essentially reflects a “great man” theory of history—tempting, given the amount of attention paid to Orban, Putin, Trump, and their ilk.
By contrast, Haggard and Kaufman treat demand-side factors, the forces that allow illiberal leaders to rise, as secondary. They assume a limited role for the public: voters provide a market for illiberal political appeals, sending illiberal leaders into office, but then are seen as passively accepting the consequences. At that point, the autocratic leaders are thought to take over, duping ordinary citizens into gradually giving up their democratic rights and freedoms, especially when the leaders control the flow of information. Haggard and Kaufman assume that ordinary citizens are committed to liberal democracy but disengaged, allowing power-hungry elites to corrupt the process. The theory thereby echoes populist notions that elites are deeply corrupt and legitimate authority lies with the virtuous people. Just as a fish rots from the head, the argument runs, so democracy collapses under pressure from the top.
Yet this theory does not allow that large swaths of the public may hold authoritarian values. Sometimes, people really do want leaders who prioritize order and security from outside threats, adhere to traditional norms, and promise to defend the tribe. That is why hate groups and extremists have risen across Europe and why Trump’s supporters managed to take over the Republican Party.
An alternative account emphasizes demand-side forces, as well as institutional factors. Illiberal leaders usually arise where there are deep social divisions combined with winner-take-all majoritarian institutions that fail to reflect minority views. From this viewpoint, loosely derived from the classic work of the political scientist Arend Lijphart, leaders are the product, as much as the driver, of the mismatch between social cleavages and political institutions. As Lijphart has argued, homogeneous societies with few major cleavages—such as the United Kingdom in the 1950s and 1960s—can sustain flourishing liberal democracies despite majoritarian rules. But in states riven by deep cultural or social divisions, he warned, democratic instability and conflict arise when leaders attempt to govern through majoritarian institutions, including winner-take-all elections for legislative and executive office.
The United States exemplifies the problem well. Since the 1980s, societal polarization has grown between liberals and conservatives over such issues as racial justice, immigration, abortion, and gay rights, with growing progressive values among the left catalyzing a cultural backlash on the right. Meanwhile, the country’s majoritarian institutions have become more dysfunctional. The Senate vastly overrepresents rural states. Gerrymandered districts, primaries, and winner-take-all elections provide incentives for candidates to appeal mainly to the party faithful. The Electoral College allows candidates to win the White House with less than 50 percent of the popular vote. Partisan polarization plus outdated institutions is a fatal combination. It undermines social tolerance, bipartisan cooperation, and democratic norms. Republican legislators—in thrall to a white, rural base that feels threatened by demographic and ideological shifts—remain powerful enough to seek to bend the rules in their favor. Since the 2020 election, 33 state legislatures have introduced more than 250 bills to make voting less convenient, restrict voter registration, and purge electoral rolls, all attempts to suppress voting rights among communities of color.
The same pattern has repeated itself elsewhere. In the United Kingdom, the battle over Brexit revealed bitter divisions between the Leave and the Remain camps. In Hungary, Orban’s government used the issue of migration to stoke xenophobic fears and challenge the EU, even though the country has relatively few immigrants. In France, debates over the role of Islam and French identity have fueled support for the far-right party the National Rally. Hindu nationalism in India has exacerbated mob violence against Muslim minorities and led the Parliament to pass a citizenship law that discriminates against Muslims. In each case, the tensions cannot be resolved through compromise; instead, majoritarian electoral institutions empower authoritarian populist leaders to threaten minority rights.
Such divisions do not account for every case of backsliding. The regression in Venezuela is probably best explained by the lasting influence of Hugo Chávez, Ukraine’s slippage is partly a product of Russian interference, and Egypt and Myanmar have their powerful militaries to blame. But generally speaking, the countries at the highest risk of backsliding are those where societies and parties are polarized over liberal-conservative cultural values and where the institutions do not accommodate these rifts.
What can be done? Cultural polarization is extremely difficult to overcome, particularly in the short term. The most effective strategy for reform is to strengthen liberal democratic institutions and thereby increase the incentives for politicians to follow democratic norms. Of course, the dilemma is that in many places, the authoritarian populists have already taken power and can use it to veto democratic reforms. In this regard, the prospects for reform do not seem rosy.