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Does the Rise of Autocratic Leaders Signal the End of Democracy?

Welcome to the “Age of Autocracy.”

Donald Trump speaks to supporters during a campaign rally on April 28, 2018 in Washington, Michigan.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was viewed by many on the right as the seminal event in the history of democracy. Political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History” thesis proclaimed the wall’s demise was the “end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” In this view, Western liberal democracy had triumphed over monolithic communism as the Cold War came to an abrupt end. A tsunami of democratization ensued as former satellite states in Eastern Europe distanced themselves from Soviet influence or declared complete independence. In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed, and despite a few outliers (China, Vietnam, Cuba), democratization had reached its apex; the future would be marked by peace and capitalist-inspired prosperity. Democracy was set to establish universal dominance as a political ideology.

But a 2018 report by the democracy watchdog group Freedom House suggests that the “end of history” was short-lived. According to the report, democracy is facing its “most serious crises in decades.” Seventy-one countries experienced net declines in the guarantee of political and civil rights. For the 12th consecutive year, global freedom declined. Since 2006, 113 countries have reduced their commitments to individual and collective freedom. Welcome to the “Age of Autocracy.”

Democracy Is Not Static

The “Age of Autocracy” has emerged in several countries with historical commitments to democratic practice. France, the Netherlands, Britain and the United States have experienced the rise of extremist groups and rising intolerance toward ethnic minorities and immigrants. Germany and Italy have seen a resurgence of neo-fascism. Systematic measures to weaken the rule of law, attempts to eradicate judicial independence, curtail civil liberties, restrict voting rights and intimidate journalists have occurred in Poland, Hungary, Turkey and the United States.

According to a 2017 report by the Swedish V-Dem Institute at the University of Gothenburg, “more governments than before are acting in disregard of constitutional limits with impunity.” Roberto Stefan Foa, the principal investigator of the World Values Survey, and Yascha Mounk, lecturer on political theory at Harvard University, have observed that in North America and Western Europe, growing criticism of political leaders, increasing cynicism about the values of democracy and hopelessness about their efficacy to influence public policy has germinated support for authoritarianism as an alternative political system among many citizens. For example, Foa and Mounk observe that one in three Dutch millennials (born since 1980) claim “maximal importance to living in a democracy,” while in the United States, around 30 percent have expressed this view.

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán may be the prototypical autocratic leader. Since coming to power in 2010, Orbán has turned an emerging liberal democracy into an illiberal one through a series of strategic steps to consolidate power: First, he has demanded strict party loyalty among members of his party (Fidesz). Second, he has turned state-run media into a propaganda machine for the party’s political agenda. Third, he has focused attention on outside threats (immigration, EU bureaucracy) and framed them as threats to national sovereignty. Fourth, he has engaged in hate speech and scapegoated marginalized groups (the Roma and Jews) and immigrants. Fifth, he has infused the government bureaucracy with ruling party loyalists. Sixth, he has weakened the judicial system, stacking the courts with judges favorable to the party in power. All this accomplished by legislative fiat; no military force or civil war. Call it a democratic coup d’état.

It is a myth that democracy is a linear process: the altruistic endpoint of political ideology. Hungary is only one example of countries that have backtracked on democracy. Poland, Thailand, Turkey and Pakistan all established democratic institutions only to abandon them. Anti-democratic policies often are instituted through democratic processes and framed in democratizing language to convey the perception that these policies will expand democracy or protect citizens from government abuse. The erosion of democracy is not perfunctory. As the rise of Hungary’s illiberal democracy illustrates, it occurs incrementally, has multiple dimensions and is transformative.

Crises and Right-Wing Extremism

The Great Recession of 2008 was the social and economic context for the emergence of contemporary autocracy in Europe and the United States. The reaction to the recession by the European and US far right reflects what Harvard economist Dani Rodrik calls the “political trilemma of the global economy”: the incompatibility between democracy, national determination and economic globalization. Right-wing extremists were able to effectively link job loss, “uncontrolled” immigration and loss of national identity with globalization. Each was posed as evidence of national decline, and blame was attributed to disconnected political elites from both the left and the center-right who ignored the detrimental impact these forces had on the “people.” The only salvation for the state was for the people to take back the reign of power. A populist backlash was the ultimate result of this reactionary response.

In his recent book, The Retreat of Western Liberalism, Edward Luce argues the “belief in an authoritarian version of national identity is staging a powerful comeback. Western liberalism is under siege.” A vile, racist form of identity politics has emerged, promoting the perception that national cultures are confronting an existential threat. The response to this supposed threat by right-wing extremist parties has been calls to close borders, deport undocumented immigrants, ban or restrict immigration, build walls and curtail civil liberties.

Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s National Front Party, declared she would restrict immigration and make “France more French” in her failed campaign for the French presidency. Likewise, Geert Wilders, Dutch leader of the far-right Party for Freedom, referred to Moroccan immigrants as “scum” and declared that, “Islam and freedom are not compatible” in the last Dutch national election. Meanwhile, Hungary’s Orbán has stated that, “There is no way back from a multicultural Europe. Neither to a Christian Europe nor to the world of natural cultures.”

The reaction to a borderless world from the far right has been rage. Immigrants are framed in racist terms as criminals who steal jobs, weaken national values and threaten Christianity. Donald Trump proclaims “caravans” of immigrants are coming to the United States, stressing it is time to pass “tough laws, NOW.” In this “clash of civilizations” perpetuated by right-wing extremists, the infringement of the rights of marginalized groups has been the first casualty of the “Age of Autocracy.”

The Trump Factor

The rise of autocracy has a strong correlation with leadership. In their book How Democracies Die, Harvard researchers Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt identify four indicators of an emerging autocrat: a rejection of democratic rules, a denial of political opponents as legitimate, toleration of violence, and a willingness to curtail civil liberties of opponents and the media. Donald Trump is assuredly the first president to exhibit all these autocratic traits and has been the most blatant in trying to implement them. Yascha Mounk has argued that what has prevented Trump from becoming a full-fledged autocrat is his incompetence. It could be added that with the unmitigated corruption occurring in his administration, Trump is turning the United States into a kleptocracy. Trump’s influence should not be underestimated. His lack of decorum and firebrand messaging has been a boost for autocratic leaders throughout the world.

Currently, the Trump administration has moved into a more perilous situation concerning the rise of autocracy: The president has surrounded himself with an inner-circle of extremists. All of the moderating influences in his administration have either been fired or resigned. Trump will now be exposed to radically conservative forms of “group think” with no dissenting voices to temper his authoritarian impulses. It is conceivable that the longer Trump is in office, the more likely he will develop the autocratic skills of an Orbán.

In a recent speech to the European Parliament, French President Emmanuel Macron, reflecting on the growing influence of right-wing populism in Europe, declared: “I want to belong to a generation that has decided forcefully to defend its democracy.” Macron’s declaration to defend democracy raises an important question for the United States: Who will defend democracy here?

The political party system can possibly play a role. Levitsky and Ziblatt argue that political parties are democracy’s gatekeepers. Unfortunately, the Republican Party, the party that promoted Trump’s ascendency to the presidency, has clearly been complicit in Trump’s assault on democratic institutions and norms.

The Democratic Party is resisting Trump, but their coalition is splintering. To effectively combat an autocratic agenda, Democrats must develop a plan to reinvigorate democratic norms and institutions that Trump has tarnished. In addition, the party must address the concerns of its own constituency, and offer a real alternative to Trump’s economic policies that are devastating the working class under the guise of “creating jobs.”

Most importantly, civil society has a crucial role in resisting Trump’s descent into autocracy. Activists must continue to take to the streets to promote immigrant rights, protect the rights of women, enhance the rights of workers, protect the environment, enhance the pay and working conditions of teachers, and promote sustainable communities. Civil resistance must simultaneously oppose Trump’s agenda while advocating one that protects the most vulnerable and marginalized members of society — a truly democratic agenda.

Citizen engagement has become the dominant fault line in US politics in an age of Trump. There is no place for apathy when facing the prospect of dark hole of autocracy.

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