In April, Hungary’s authoritarian leader Viktor Orbán was reelected, despite being accused of rigging the election and deploying state power to control the media — including passing sweeping laws allowing journalists to be jailed for reporting on the Covid-19 crisis.
In April, France nearly elected far right populist Marine Le Pen — who has advocated for hard-line immigration policies and who pledged to ban Muslim women in France from wearing headscarves — over political centrist Emmanuel Macron.
Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and usurpation of the power of democratically elected President Volodymyr Zelenskyy continues unabated.
In the past year, authoritarian leaders have taken major steps to restrict the rights and freedoms of people within their own countries and have even crossed borders to impose their rule on others. These events are part of a troubling trend that has been accelerating across the globe for decades, in which authoritarian leaders have gained increasing popularity and power.
According to political scientist Larry Diamond, the world is experiencing what he has termed a “democratic recession.”
The world is in its 16th consecutive year of democratic decline, according to a report released in February 2022 by Freedom House, an organization based in Washington, D.C., that produces research on issues related to democracy, political rights and civil liberties. The report found that 60 countries suffered democratic declines in 2021, while only 25 improved, and that only 20% of the world’s population now lives in countries the organization designated as “free.”
Last year, a study found only 20% of the world’s population lives in countries designated as “free.”
“Authoritarian governments are getting better and more coordinated in their attacks on freedom,” said Nicole Bibbins Sedaca, executive vice president of Freedom House.
And it’s an issue that is not just affecting the rest of the world — but cropping up in America, too.
“Democracy is in retreat,” said Antonio Ugues Jr., director of the Center for the Study of Democracy at St. Mary’s College. “Authoritarianism is not just on the rise, but really flexing its muscles.”
‘Gas on the fire’
The pandemic has only made things worse.
“The pandemic has been like an accelerant, like gas thrown on the fire of democratic backsliding and erosion,” said Ugues.
This is in part because the pandemic created widespread uncertainty and fear.
“When you have disruption on such a grand scale, it makes people nervous,” said Darrell West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution. “They see a lot of chaos, and they often turn to strong leaders who claim that they can deal with the disorder.”
For those authoritarian leaders who were already in power, the health crisis provided a unique opportunity to curtail citizen’s rights and freedoms, perhaps indefinitely.
For example, China used sophisticated surveillance technologies — a network of security cameras, facial recognition software and even talking police drones — to rigidly control the movement of tens of millions of their citizens during the pandemic.
“It created an emergency where governments could vastly expand their power and had popular support for taking emergency measures they might not necessarily relinquish,” said Ben Dubow, a nonresident fellow with the Democratic Resilience Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis.
Is America next?
To understand the way that authoritarianism is manifesting itself in the American context, it may be most helpful to think of authoritarianism as a spectrum, rather than something a country “has” or “doesn’t have,” said Tom Costello, a psychological scientist and doctoral candidate at Emory University who has studied the psychology of authoritarianism.
To be sure, the United States is still a strong democracy with functioning institutions, elections and courts that work, and a free and open media, according to Sedaca of Freedom House. But increasingly there is “a questioning or an undermining of those institutions,” she said.
“We are seeing the early stages of authoritarianism in the United States,” said West, with the Brookings Institution. “There’s less freedom of the press. The courts are getting politicized, so there’s no guarantee of legal justice anymore. The political system has really deteriorated in its ability to function effectively.”
Legislative gridlock has made it nearly impossible for the country to address serious public policy challenges, which has left much decision-making power in the hands of the executive branch — giving the president more power than ever to make decisions by executive order.
Perhaps the most striking example of the erosion of American democracy occurred on Jan. 6, 2021, when armed rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol in an organized effort to overturn the results of the presidential election. After that day of violence, the continued insistence that the election was illegitimate by some people — including government officials — is concerning, said West.
Political polarization is a powerful driving force behind rising authoritarianism in the United States, said Yuko Sato, a postdoctoral fellow at the V-Dem (Varieties of Democracy) Institute, a research institution based at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden.
While most Americans have a pro-democracy orientation, there is also a high level of support for authoritarian rhetoric and organizing systems.
Political polarization can cause some people to vote for authoritarian leaders who might not otherwise do so because they believe they have no other option. For example, some people who voted for former President Donald Trump did so simply because they would not vote for a Democratic candidate, despite having objections to some of Trump’s policies, Sato said.
This polarization has fueled the rise of “authoritarian populism,” in which one leader or group of leaders claim to be a solution to a nation’s problems, and the people’s salvation from enemies both internal and external. Though populists may gain power through democratic means, they often promote limits of the power of the people and on checks on the executive.
“Authoritarian populist leaders often have to rely on non-democratic authoritarian practices or behaviors that are inherently counter to the democratic process,” said Ugues.
The fate of democracy
Despite rising authoritarianism, “popular demand for democracy across the world remains strong,” according the the Freedom House report. People continue to protest against authoritarianism and fight for their rights or leave their countries to seek freedom elsewhere.
In America, at least part of the problem may simply be the way we perceive one another — especially across political lines, according to a recent study by More in Common, a pro-democracy think tank. The study found that a force behind political polarization may simply be a distrust in and underestimation of the other party’s attitudes toward democracy.
The report showed that both Democrats and Republicans significantly underestimate the other side’s commitment toward basic democratic practices and underestimate how much the other side values living in a democratic society.
Asked to imagine the preferences of Democrats, 55% of Republicans said Democrats would be willing to get rid of elections if it meant their own political party would remain in power, when in actuality, only 10% of Democrats felt this way. Similarly, Democrats thought that few Republicans believe that elections in the country are generally conducted fairly and with integrity when over a majority of Republicans felt this way.
“The U.S. has a very serious threat that we need to grapple with,” said Dan Vallone, the U.S. director of More in Common. “There is an alarmingly high level of support for authoritarian rhetoric and organizing systems. At the same time, at the societal level, we still see most Americans have a pro-democracy orientation.”
This coming winter, the Biden administration plans to hold its second Summit for Democracy, in which leaders from government, civil society and the private sector will gather together to “set forth an affirmative agenda for democratic renewal.” The first summit was held in December 2021.
Gary Kalman, executive director of Transparency International’s U.S. office, an organization that works to fight political corruption, has high hopes for the summit.
“We are talking about the fate of democracy around the world,” Kalman said. “This is an opportunity to rally the global community to take some very specific actions to protect the kinds of people that we think are most at risk.”
But fighting against authoritarianism — both in America or abroad — is not just the province of government officials, said Sedaca, of Freedom House. Individuals also have an important role to play.
“This trend will only be reversed if democratic governments choose to push back on authoritarian governments,” said Sedaca. “We need a strong government in the United States willing to stand up to dictators, but we also need business leaders and citizens to push back against undemocratic processes at home and abroad.”