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Home World News Washington Post World News Analysis | US democracy slides into ‘competitive authoritarianism’

Analysis | US democracy slides into ‘competitive authoritarianism’

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The idea of ​​”competitive authoritarianism” has been around for two decades. It was coined by political scientists Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way in a 2002 essay in the Journal of Democracy to describe a particular phenomenon of the “hybrid” regime that came into focus after the end of the Cold War. They went against the optimistic fashion of the 1990s, arguing that governments around the world should not be seen as countries transitioning to democracy, but rather as countries where some form of quasi-authoritarianism was enshrined through largely normal electoral structures.

“In competing authoritarian regimes, formal democratic institutions are widely regarded as the primary means of gaining and exercising political authority,” Levitsky and Way wrote, gesturing to governments such as those of Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia or Alberto Fujimori in Peru, who have taken the field. in their favor by a passive or intimidated media as well as other abuses of state power. “However, the incumbents violate those rules so often and to such an extent that the regime does not meet the conventional minimum standards for democracy.”

In 2020, they updated their work, noting that many of the “competitive authoritarian” regimes they had previously picked remained as such, as new countries joined the club. Think of Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Or the regime of the late Venezuelan demagogue Hugo Chávez. Or the illiberal dominance of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

“Competitive authoritarianism is not only thriving, but also creeping west. No democracy can be taken for granted,” Levitsky and Way wrote. “Similar trends have even reached the United States, where the Trump administration borrowed the ‘deep state’ discourse that autocrats in Hungary and Turkey used to justify purges and the packing of the courts and other key state institutions.”

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As Americans vote in midterm elections, the specter of “competitive authoritarianism” looms. That may be troubling to many in a country that still sees itself as a democracy without equal, shrouded in myths of exceptionalism and superiority. But analysts examining the health of democracies in a global context have been warning for years. They point to the toxicity of the polarized politics of the United States, the partisan bias of the Supreme Court, the prevalence of gerrymandering that skews election results in districts in favor of the party drawing the cards, and the electoral rejection of the Republican Party, it has seen steady progress in legislation in several Republican-controlled states criticized by critics as anti-democratic measures that could undermine popular sovereignty.

It is now quite conceivable that Republican officials in a number of battlefield states will wield sufficient power – and feel sufficiently empowered to throw out the 2024 election results in their constituencies if the results go against their interests. At the state level, Republicans play up the system in glaring ways: For example, while Wisconsin is a 50-50 state, a gerrymandered Republican card could give the GOP a veto-proof, super-majority legislature. Republican governor Tim Michels joked last week that if elected, his party “will never lose another election” in the state.

This was achieved on purpose, argued Rachel Kleinfeld of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Anti-democratic politicians, buoyed by safe seats and polarization, have walked through it and started to craft an authoritarian playbook,” she wrote. “This roadmap has greatly accelerated democratic disintegration over the past five years.”

The Democrats have played their own part in this polarization, Kleinfeld noted, but the “rapid decline is asymmetrical” and “driven mainly by a very different Republican party” than the one that existed under former President Ronald Reagan, for example.

The Difficult Paradox of American Democracy

A consensus of scholars of democracy fear that the crash barriers protecting the system of American democracy are steadily eroding. The democratic decline in the US has been charted in many forms. Freedom House has shown how the United States has undergone a rapid regression as a “free” society in recent years; the Economist Intelligence Unit called the United States a “defective democracy” in 2017, while Europe’s International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance now calls the United States a “declining democracy.”

Hosted by the Swedish University of Gothenburg, the Varieties of Democracy Index has tracked growing “autocratization” in the United States over the past decade, accentuated by Trump’s denial of the legitimacy of the 2020 election and wider embrace of that denial. by the Republican Party. It has charted separately on a grid how Republicans have drifted deeper into the illiberal right, closely related to ruling nationalist factions in countries like India and Turkey and far-right parties in the West. (The GOP’s traditional conservative counterparts in Western Europe, meanwhile, are closer to the Democrats.)

Seeing all this, Democrats, including President Biden, have made a desperate appeal to voters to step into the electoral ramparts and protect the country’s democracy. But these pleas may prove insufficient, suggested Mark Copelovitch, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, at a time when Republican reports of gas prices and economic pressures have consumed the conversation. “There is an ‘in your face’ aspect to it that is much more tangible than ‘democracy is about to collapse’ or ‘Wisconsin’s electoral and legislative institutions no longer meet the basic criteria of democracy,'” he wrote to me in an email. .

Copelovitch pointed out how Polish voters provided a significant majority to the opposition right-wing populist Law and Justice party in 2015 after it successfully campaigned against the public’s economic concerns. Since then, it has remained in power, tightening its grip on the Polish state and judiciary with an illiberal ruthlessness that has caused EU officials to express fears about the future of democracy and the rule of law in Poland.

“If Republicans win big on Tuesday, it will be largely because a significant portion of voters have transferred their votes to or come for the GOP — in patterns similar to what we’ve seen in Poland and elsewhere — believing that this will improve their economic prospects,” Copelovitch said.

For their part, Levitsky and Way are less concerned that competitive authoritarianism will take hold of the United States. They wrote earlier this year that the United States still has a strong civil society, private sector and media world, robust political opposition (in their formulation, that is the Democrats) and enough institutional capacity in its decentralized federal system to support genuine authoritarianism. to thwart.

But there is little cause for celebration. “Instead of autocracy, the United States appears to be headed for endemic regime instability,” they wrote in Foreign Affairs. “Such a scenario would be characterized by frequent constitutional crises, including contested or stolen elections and serious conflict between presidents and Congress… the judiciary… and state governments. …The United States would likely switch back and forth between periods of dysfunctional democracy and periods of competitive authoritarian rule in which incumbent officials abuse state power, tolerate or encourage violent extremism, and tilt the electoral playing field against their rivals.”



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