ISU scholar lays out how autocrats steal democracy in new book

ISU scholar lays out how autocrats steal democracy in new book

Nearly a third of the world's population [29%] lives in countries that are not free. Another 28% live in partly-free countries.

That's according to the nonpartisan think tank Freedom House. And the trend is not encouraging as more countries slide away from democracy, and autocracies replace existing governmental systems.

Illinois State University political scientist Ali Riaz has co-authored a new book that looks at how that happens, How Autocrats Rise: Sequences of Democratic Backsliding.

Riaz and co-author Sohel Rana write there have been different waves of democratization and backsliding. In waves of democratization, one country or a set of countries has pushed for democratic ideals and other countries are swayed. In the most recent wave in the 1970s, Riaz said both the U.S. and Europe pushed for expansion of democratic rights.

Since 2005, the pendulum has swung the other way, with democratic practices and institutions eroding in several countries, he said.

How democracies fade

There’s no single reason to identify why each wave has happened. In each case, a complex set of factors played out, said Riaz. The process of backsliding is the theme of the book. Several factors lead to backsliding, including polarization of the electorate. Divisions based on ideology are common in democracies, but they become problematic, Riaz said, when polarization becomes emotionally fraught.

“Not only do I disagree with you, but you are my enemy. When we start to see this kind of pernicious polarization, that becomes the trigger point in some ways, or at least creates the environment within which we can see the rise of would-be autocrat,” said Riaz.

A second important social factor in the rise of an autocrat, Riaz said, is the strength of democratic institutions. When people think the institutions aren’t delivering services, particularly with respect to their rights, they become disillusioned and critical of democracy. At that moment, nations are vulnerable to an autocrat.

Closeup of man speaking into microphone on table stand
Ali Riaz is an Illinois State University professor.

In the end, though, Riaz said when democracies fail, it is always a suicide because the people give away their rights in the hope of change for the better.

The book has case studies from Bolivia, Turkey, Hungary, and Bangladesh.

Each has different things that sparked deterioration of working democratic institutions. Most scholars agree the slide is not a single event, but an incremental shift that sets up the conditions for a coup, a takeover, or an election of an autocrat who then subverts the system to preserve him or herself.

Riaz said the book’s contribution is to lay out common themes of that process and why people accept it — at least at first.

“It is a slow process. It is not as if one fine morning you see the autocrat has arrived from somewhere,” said Riaz.

The power of speech

The context that leads to the rise of an individual includes the rhetorical position of the soon-to-be autocrat, who positions himself or herself as the final word, and the only solution for their followers.

“They are the savior. They are the ones who are going to do it. They cannot be criticized. They cannot be wrong,” said Riaz.

Riaz and Rana claim institutional and ideological drivers must act in tandem. They are dependent on each other because the population needs to be willing to give authority away. Riaz noted the mechanisms of winning an election, subverting the bureaucratic mechanism to keep oneself in power, forcing media to become more pliant, co-opting the judiciary, stifling competition by suppressing dissent, limiting opponents’ ability to communicate, and then stealing elections are well understood. A lot of scholarship focuses on those institutional levers.

“Executive aggrandizement. The executive branch captures the power. It makes the legislative body pretty much a rubber stamp. We have seen how they capture the judiciary, so to speak. And we have seen how they persecute opposition through legal and extralegal measures,” said Riaz.

His caution is how answering the question about how autocrats get there and how they keep their power, how they get people to go along with it is also necessary to explain what happens. And the answer to that varies by country, but always includes a rhetorical and ideological position.

“They have to sell this product, whatever they are selling. And they have to stay in power,” said Riaz.

Such cons happen on the left and right.

Evo Morales in Bolivia has justified seizing more authority on the populist basis of making sure everyone has a fair share in the economy. In the case of Hungary, Riaz said, it's an appeal to xenophobia and nationalist identity. In Bangladesh the justification is a sacrifice of rights on the altar of economic development. In the case of Turkey, Riaz said, Recep Tayyip Erdogan is talking about Pan-Islamism and restoring the Ottoman Empire.

The start of every autocracy is a suicide of a democracy.

“There are institutional aspects of course, but the most important thing to a democracy is that it protects the minority,” said Riaz. “And they have to have a voice.”

By slow steps, citizens give up that voice and then have more taken from them. In the 1970s, Riaz said autocrats tended to rule by fiat. The neo-autocrats arising more recently have put on new clothes.

“They have come up with various mechanisms. Most importantly, they use legal measures. They create the law, and then they use it,” said Riaz.

They pass laws that give rise to censorship and slowly silence the media. They pack the courts as in Hungary and Turkey. They hold elections, but the results are manipulated, so they don’t actually have to beat opponents to win, said Riaz. The process includes quashing opposition, hollowing out the judiciary and eliminating the legislative ability to contend.

“The executive power becomes so consolidated in one individual it becomes not only an autocracy, it becomes a personalistic autocracy,” said Riaz.

Social media is a two-edged blade in all of this. It can be used as a voice of dissent. It also can be a bludgeon to stifle dissent and spread propaganda. In either case, neo-autocrats are paying attention to it.

“In previous autocracies they didn’t care what people thought. Now they tend to at least pretend to,” said Riaz.

Second-term inflection point

One key moment in the rise of the autocrat is the polarization and external conditions of upheaval — economic or cultural — that lets the prospective autarch win. More concerning to Riaz is the second term. He said this is true in Narendra Modi’s India, Vladimir Putin’s Russia, as well as in the four countries that are the main cases in the book.

“Every time when they come back for the second term, these autocrats become more lethal, more devastating,” said Riaz. “Because they learn. Their ideology has allowed them to create a following who will follow them to hell, so to speak.”

Counterpressure and optimism

The U.S. has some warning signs — a pronounced trend toward toxic polarization, the concentration of economic gains and control of the economic system in the hands of a small elite, and rising inequality, Riaz said.

“We’re in a difficult spot,” said Riaz. “We’re in a very crucial stage in terms of preserving the democracy. There is a responsibility not only for the people of the United States, the citizens for themselves, but also for the global state of democracy that they have to make a clear choice as to whether this is the path they want to go.”

He said there is reason to believe polarization and disparity in the U.S. could cost not only the U.S., but the global state of democracy as well.

Yet Riaz said he remains an optimist. Each wave of democratic backsliding in the last two centuries, has been followed by a re-assertion of the value of democracy that spreads from an initiative by one or several countries.

The ability of the U.S. to affect this global calculus is unclear. Riaz said U.S. policies sometimes do not live up to the nation’s stated ideals. If the U.S. falters, he said, Europe could be another option to stand up for democracy. Some smaller countries offer him hope as well.

“It is not only the large countries, but in the smaller countries in which democratic erosions are taking place, there is resistance to it,” said Riaz.

How Autocrats Rise: Sequences of Democratic Backsliding by ISU political scientist Ali Riaz and co-authored with Sohel Rana of Indiana University is published by Palgrave Macmillan.

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