U.S. democracy slides toward ‘competitive authoritarianism’

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idea”Competitive authoritarianism” has been around for two decades. It was coined by political scientists Steven Levitsky and Luken Way in a 2002 essay in the Journal of Democracy to describe the specific phenomenon of “hybrid” governance that has been gaining attention since the end of the Cold War. Bucking the optimistic vogue of the 1990s, he argued that polities around the world should not be seen as countries undergoing a decent transition to democracy, but rather as a form of semi-authoritarianism entrenched through largely ordinary electoral structures.

“In competitive authoritarian regimes, formal democratic institutions are widely seen as an important means of obtaining and exercising political power,” Levitsky and Way wrote, gesturing to governments like Yugoslavia’s Slobodan Milosevic or Peru’s Alberto Fujimori. Their favor through a submissive or cow medium and other abuses of state power. “Officials frequently violate those rules, and to such an extent, governance fails to meet traditional minimum standards of democracy.”

In 2020, he updated his work, noting that a good number of the “competitive authoritarian” regimes he had previously singled out remained intact, but new countries joined the club. Think Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Or the regime built by the late Venezuelan demagogue Hugo Chavez. Or the liberal dominance of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

“Competitive authoritarianism is not only developing but also moving westward. No democracy can be taken for granted,” Levitsky and Way wrote. “Similar trends have reached the United States, where the Trump administration has used it to justify purges of dictators in Hungary and Turkey and the packing of courts and other key state institutions.” Borrowing the Deep State’ discourse.”

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Are you ready to vote? This toolkit will help you prepare for midterms.

As Americans vote in the midterm elections, the specter of “competitive tyranny” looms. This can cause anxiety for many in a country that still sees itself as a democracy with no equal, wrapped in myths of exceptionalism and supremacy. But for years, analysts examining the health of democracies in a global context have been sounding the alarm. He points to the toxicity of polarized politics in the United States, the partisan bias of the Supreme Court, the prevalence of gerrymandering that tilts election results in districts in favor of the party that draws the maps, and the electoral denial of the Republican Party. Various Republican-controlled states have seen steady progress of the legislation, which critics call anti-democratic measures that could undermine popular sovereignty.

It’s now entirely predictable that Republican incumbents in a number of battleground states have plenty of power — and enjoy plenty of power. To throw out the 2024 election results in their constituencies if the results are against their interests. At the state level, Republicans are gaming the system in a way that draws attention: Although Wisconsin, for example, is a 50-50 state, a gerrymandered Republican map gives the GOP a veto-proof, majority in the legislature. Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Michaels quipped last week that, if elected, his party would “never lose another election” in the state.

This was achieved by design, argued Rachel Kleinfeld of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Anti-democratic politicians backed by safe seats and polarization have stepped in and started implementing the authoritarian playbook,” he wrote. “This playbook has massively accelerated the disintegration of democracy over the past five years.”

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Democrats have played their part in this polarization, but the “rapid decline has been asymmetrical” and “driven primarily by a very different Republican Party,” according to former President Ronald Reagan.

The troubling paradox of US democracy

A Consensus of democracy scholars Fear of Guardians of the American democratic system are steadily eroding. The decline of US democracy has been charted in several forms. Freedom House has shown how the United States has been in rapid decline as a “free” society in recent years; The Economist Intelligence Unit listed the United States as a “flawed democracy” in 2017, while Europe’s International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance now calls the United States a “backsliding democracy”.

The Varieties of Democracy Index, organized by the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, has tracked growing “automation” in the United States over the past decade, as Trump denied the legitimacy of the 2020 election and the Republican Party broadly embraced that denial. It separately mapped on the grid how Republicans, closely related to ruling nationalist factions in countries such as India and Turkey, and right-wing parties in the West, drifted deeper into the liberal right. (The traditional conservative counterparts of the GOP in Western Europe, meanwhile, are closer to the Democrats.)

Seeing all this, Democrats, including President Biden, have made a desperate appeal to voters to pick up the ballot boxes and protect the nation’s democracy. But these appeals may prove insufficient, suggested Mark Kopelovich, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, at a time when the Republican message about gas prices and economic pressures has consumed the conversation. “There’s a more obvious ‘in your face’ aspect than ‘democracy is about to collapse’ or ‘Wisconsin’s electoral and legislative institutions no longer meet the basic standards of democracy,'” he wrote in an email to me.

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Kopelowicz points out how Polish voters gave a substantial majority to the opposition right-wing populist Law and Justice Party in 2015 after successfully campaigning on the public’s economic concerns. It remains in power after consolidating its grip on the Polish state and judiciary with a liberal ruthlessness that has seen EU officials stoke fears about the future of democracy and the rule of law in Poland.

“If Republicans win big on Tuesday, it will likely be because some meaningful voters switched or flipped their votes to the GOP — in patterns we’ve seen in Poland and elsewhere — in the belief it will improve their economic prospects,” Kopelowicz said.

For their part, Levitsky and Way are less afraid of a competing dictatorship taking hold of the United States. He wrote earlier this year that the United States still has a strong civil society, private sector and media scene, a robust political opposition (in his formulation, that’s the Democrats), and enough institutional capacity in its decentralized federal system to prevent true authoritarianism.

But there is some reason to cheer. “Rather than tyranny, the United States is moving toward the instability of local government,” he wrote in Foreign Affairs. “Such a situation is marked by frequent constitutional crises, including contested or stolen elections and intense conflicts between the president and Congress … the judiciary … and state governments. … The United States can swing back and forth between periods of dysfunctional democracy and periods of competing autocracy, During this time incumbents abuse state power, tolerate or encourage violent extremism and tilt the electoral playing field against their rivals.


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