Ricochet is the best place on the internet to discuss the issues of the day, either through commenting on posts or writing your own for our active and dynamic community in a fully moderated environment. In addition, the Ricochet Audio Network offers over 50 original podcasts with new episodes released every day.
Rachel Lu recently made the case that our political discourse of late has been overwrought, leading to panic rather than prudence. Colorful rhetoric, she writes,
is a journalist’s friend, but let’s be honest. Most Americans have no experience of true political oppression. The din of our bellicose public square persuades us that the situation is desperate, when really that’s a sign of comparative health.
The rhetoric itself, she argues, disproves the notion that America is in a terminal condition, because passionate and public political debate is only possible in a vibrant democracy. She appeals throughout to metaphors of illness: A temperature is a sign that the body politic is fighting off infection, not an indication that it’s time to “go for the defibrillator.”
Yesterday, King Prawn opened a debate about her arguments. I exchanged a few thoughts with BrentB67 about the best way to describe our affliction, whatever it is. I agree with Rachel that it’s preposterous to use words like tyranny and despotism. Likening the IRS to a soft Gestapo empties both our imaginations and our vocabularies: Rather than emphasizing the danger of a politicized IRS, it trivializes the horror of Nazi totalitarianism.
Proving the enduring value of a political science degree — for the first time, ever — I wondered out loud if we should think about a condition described in the literature as competitive authoritarianism. Given that this is the political disease of the 21st century, perhaps it would be useful to ask ourselves what’s caused the outbreak — and even to ask whether we might have caught a touch of the bug.
The term comes from Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way, who studied a type of regime that’s proliferated around the world in the post-Cold War era, much to the disappointment of those who hoped that the fall of the Berlin Wall had permanently settled humanity’s great political debates in favor of liberal democracy. “What began as a discussion of political scandals involving leaked tapes and autocrats in Peru and Ukraine,” they write, “led to a realization that the two countries’ regimes were surprisingly similar – and that we had no term for these regimes.”
And so they coined one. After carefully studying 35 similar regimes around the world, they came up with the term competitive authoritarianism. Such regimes are also described as illiberal democracies or hybrid regimes, and there’s much argument which term is best and what they describe, but in essence, they’re regimes that hold meaningful multiparty elections, but nonetheless engage in serious democratic abuse. The regimes in the countries they studied were competitive, they write,
in that opposition forces used democratic institutions to contest vigorously – and, on occasion, successfully – for power. Nevertheless, they were not democratic. Electoral manipulation, unfair media access, abuse of state resources, and varying degrees of harassment and violence skewed the playing field in favor of incumbents. In other words, competition was real but unfair.
The study of post–Cold War hybrid regimes, they continue, “was initially marked by a pronounced democratizing bias.”
Viewed through the lens of democratization, hybrid regimes were frequently categorized as flawed, incomplete, or “transitional” democracies. For example, Russia was treated as a case of “protracted” democratic transition during the 1990s, and its subsequent autocratic turn was characterized as a “failure to consolidate” democracy. Likewise, Cambodia was described as a “nascent democracy” that was “on the road to democratic consolidation”; Cameroon, Georgia, and Kazakhstan were labeled “democratizers”; and the Central African Republic and Congo-Brazzaville were called “would-be democracies.” Transitions that did not lead to democracy were characterized as “stalled” or “flawed.” Thus, Zambia was said to be “stuck in transition”; Albania was labeled a case of “permanent transition”; and Haiti was said to be undergoing a “long,” “ongoing,” and even “unending” transition. Such characterizations are misleading. The assumption that hybrid regimes are (or should be) moving in a democratic direction lacks empirical foundation.
To put it another way, Russia is not “on the wrong side of history.” In fact, it’s on the side that may be winning.
A level playing field, they write,
is implicit in most conceptualizations of democracy. Indeed, many characteristics of an uneven playing field could be subsumed into the dimensions of “free and fair elections” and “civil liberties.” However, there are at least two reasons to treat this attribute as a separate dimension. First, some aspects of an uneven playing field – such as skewed access to media and finance – have a major impact between elections and are thus often missed in evaluations of whether elections are free and fair. Second, some government actions that skew the playing field may not be viewed as civil-liberties violations. For example, whereas closing down a newspaper is a clear violation of civil liberties, de facto governing-party control of the private media – achieved through informal proxy or patronage arrangements – is not. Likewise, illicit government–business ties that create vast resource disparities vis-a-vis the opposition are not civil-liberties violations per se. Attention to the slope of the playing field thus highlights how regimes may be undemocratic even in the absence of overt fraud or civil-liberties violations.
They note that it’s important to distinguish between competitive and noncompetitive authoritarianism:
We define full authoritarianism as a regime in which no viable channels exist for opposition to contest legally for executive power. This category includes closed regimes in which national-level democratic institutions do not exist (e.g., China, Cuba, and Saudi Arabia) and hegemonic regimes in which formal democratic institutions exist on paper but are reduced to facade status in practice. In hegemonic regimes, elections are so marred by repression, candidate restrictions, and/or fraud that there is no uncertainty about their outcome. Much of the opposition is forced underground and leading critics are often imprisoned or exiled.
There’s now a huge literature about competitive authoritarianism, and no way for me easily to summarize all that’s been written about it. A good starting point is with the original book by Levitsky and Way, which you can read online. I’ll just quickly point out some important characteristics of such regimes:
- Assaults on civil liberties take more subtle forms, including “legal repression,” or the discretionary use of legal instruments – such as tax, libel, or defamation laws – to punish opponents. Although such repression may involve the technically correct application of the law, its use is selective and partisan rather than universal.
- Although “legal” and other repression under competitive authoritarianism is not severe enough to force the opposition underground or into exile, it clearly exceeds what is permissible in a democracy. By raising the cost of opposition activity (thereby convincing all but the boldest activists to remain on the sidelines) and critical media coverage (thereby encouraging self-censorship), even intermittent civil-liberties violations can seriously hinder the opposition’s capacity to organize and challenge the government.
- Incumbents use the state to create or maintain resource disparities that seriously hinder the opposition’s ability to compete. This may occur in several ways. First, incumbents may make direct partisan use of state resources. Incumbents also may use the state to monopolize access to private-sector finance. Governing parties may use discretionary control over credit, licenses, state contracts, and other resources to enrich themselves via party-owned enterprises, benefit crony- or proxy-owned firms that then contribute money back into party coffers, or corner the market in private sector donations. The state also may be used to deny opposition parties access to resources.
- When opposition parties lack access to media that reaches most of the population, there is no possibility of fair competition. Media access may be denied in several ways. Frequently, the most important disparities exist in access to broadcast media, combined with biased and partisan coverage. … Although independent newspapers and magazines may circulate freely, they generally reach only a small urban elite. … In other cases, private media is widespread but major media outlets are linked to the governing party – via proxy ownership, patronage, and other illicit means.
These regimes, they hold, are a genuinely novel, post-Cold War phenomenon. They don’t think this is a coincidence. They posit many reasons for their rise, but in essence, hold that it’s because the international environment changed, raising the minimum standard for regime acceptability. The new standard, however, was multiparty elections — not democracy.
Other researchers point out that authoritarians learned from the failure of totalitarianism: It’s too costly vigorously to repress an entire population, and it’s viewed internationally as bad form, creating a world of hassles for regime leaders. Soft authoritarianism is more cost-effective, and widely viewed as reasonably legitimate, or at least, no real cause for excluding and ostracising these leaders. Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman elaborate on this idea in a paper titled, How Modern Dictators Survive: Cooptation, Censorship, Propaganda, and Repression:
How do dictators hold onto power? The totalitarian tyrannies of Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, and others relied largely—although not exclusively—on mass terror and indoctrination. Although less ideological, many 20th Century military regimes—from Franco’s Spain to Pinochet’s Chile—used considerable violence to intimidate opponents of the regime. However, in recent decades, a less carnivorous form of authoritarian rule has emerged, one better adapted to the globalized media and sophisticated technologies of the 21st Century. From the Peru of Alberto Fujimori to the Hungary of Viktor Orban, illiberal regimes have managed to consolidate power without isolating their countries from the world economy or resorting to mass killings.
Instead of inaugurating “new orders,” such regimes simulate democracy, holding elections that they make sure to win, bribing and censoring the private press rather than abolishing it, and replacing ideology with an amorphous anti-Western resentment. Their leaders often enjoy genuine popularity—albeit after eliminating plausible rivals—that is based on “performance legitimacy,” a perceived competence at securing prosperity and defending the nation against external threats. State propaganda aims not to re-engineer human souls but to boost the leader’s ratings, which, so long as they remain high, are widely publicized. Political opponents are harassed and humiliated, accused of fabricated crimes, and encouraged to emigrate.
The new-style dictators can brutally crush separatist rebellions and deploy paramilitaries against unarmed protesters. But compared to previous regimes, they use violence sparingly. They prefer the ankle bracelet to the Gulag. Maintaining power, for them, is less a matter of terrorizing victims than of manipulating beliefs about the world. Of course, shaping beliefs was also important for the old-style dictatorships, but violence came first. “Words are fine things, but muskets are even better,” Mussolini quipped. Recent tyrannies reverse the order. “We live on information,” Fujimori’s security chief Vladimir Montesinos confessed in one interview. “The addiction to information is like an addiction to drugs.” Montesinos paid million dollar bribes to television stations to skew their coverage. But killing members of the elite struck him as foolish: “Remember why Pinochet had his problems. We will not be so clumsy.” When dictators are accused of political murders these days, it often augurs the fall of the dictatorship.
We develop a model of dictatorship to capture the logic that governs the survival of such regimes. As in “career concerns” models of democratic politics, the ruler may be either competent or incompetent. Only the dictator and a subset of the public—“the informed elite”—observe his type directly. But citizens update their beliefs about this based on the information available to them from the state media, independent media, and their own living standards. Citizens’ living standards depend on the tax rate set by the dictator and on economic performance, itself a function of the leader’s competence and a stochastic shock. If enough citizens infer, based on these various signals, that the incumbent is incompetent, they rise up and overthrow him in a revolution. Members of the elite—if not coopted—would also prefer to replace an incompetent incumbent but cannot do so without the masses to back them up.
It’s worth it to read at least the book and the paper; if you’re curious about this, I can suggest a longer reading list.
Now, no one — but no one — describes the United States as a competitive authoritarian regime. But here are my questions for Ricochet.
1. Might this concept be useful in describing aspects of what we sense to be going wrong in the United States? Or is the United States so exceptional that it’s absurd to study other countries to spot trends and for comparison?
2. If you think it’s useful, would you agree that we see early warning signs of this pattern in America? In what way, exactly?
3. If you agree, would you conclude that contra Rachel, this is indeed reason to run around with our hair on fire, given the empirical evidence that this pattern tends to lead to a highly undesirable endpoint?
3. Why has this kind of regime proliferated in the aftermath of the Cold War? Levitsky and Way think the key reason is a change in international standards of legitimacy. But perhaps there are other causes? If so, might figuring out what they are, precisely, help us to understand what’s going on in America?
5. For the sake of the argument, say we accept the diagnosis: We’re suffering from early-onset competitive authoritarianism. What’s the most important thing to do to ensure the disease progresses no further? Which policies have best halted the progression of the disease elsewhere?
What policies, elsewhere, have led to metastasis?Published in