No, Autocrats, the U.S. Election Does Not Prove the Inferiority of Democracy

As democratic political systems absorb the shocks of social and economic change, authoritarian powers must confront similar pressures with far less flexibility.

lincoln memorial democracy symbol

The Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. (Wikimedia Commons).

As democratic political systems absorb the shocks of social and economic change, authoritarian powers must confront similar pressures with far less flexibility.

The unusually ugly and divisive U.S. presidential election has been met with a certain amount of gloating in authoritarian capitals. Chinese state media have dismissed U.S. politics as a “farce,” Iran’s supreme leader said the campaign was “enough to disgrace America,” and the Kremlin’s chief propagandist said it was “so horribly noxious that it only engenders disgust towards what is still inexplicably called a ‘democracy.’”

Many Americans would agree with such sentiments. Both of the main candidates were rather unpopular and plagued by scandal. One of them, now the president-elect, made numerous statements that raised doubt about his commitment to fundamental democratic principles like press freedom, judicial independence, the rule of law, and the rights of women and minorities.

But it is important to remember that the institutions of democracy are designed to perform multiple, sometimes contradictory tasks. One is to protect the rights of individuals and minorities against the potential abuses of the state or the majority. Another is to channel public grievances into peaceful changes in leadership and policy. Donald Trump’s victory arguably addresses the latter function while potentially threatening the former. In the election’s aftermath, the new administration, the U.S. Congress, the courts, the media, and civil society will each have to play their parts to ensure a positive outcome on both fronts.

Authoritarian states are clearly failing to deliver on either goal. They offer few peaceful outlets for public grievances, and citizens’ basic human rights are routinely violated with impunity. Some of the structural problems they face—industrial dislocation or overcapacity, mass migration, income inequality—are similar to those now unsettling the world’s democracies. But their ability to accommodate the associated public anger is quite limited.

Consider the following examples:

  • In China, the one-party regime has spent years avoiding painful economic reforms, including the closure of old or loss-making industrial facilities, partly because it has no way to peacefully absorb the frustrations of laid-off workers. As it is, the number of strike incidents has been on the rise in recent years, more than doubling from 2014 to 2015, according to the China Labour Bulletin. Meanwhile, political dissidents, religious minorities, and independent journalists face worsening repression under President Xi Jinping.
  • Russia’s government is also struggling to prop up its industries and maintain costly social benefits to escape the political consequences of mass layoffs and a declining standard of living. In addition to low oil prices that harm its export revenues, it is hampered by systemic corruption among the unaccountable ruling elite as well as economic sanctions stemming from President Vladimir Putin’s secret, unchallenged decision to invade Ukraine and illegally annex Crimea in 2014. The persecuted Russian opposition and victims of the state’s campaign against broadly defined “extremism” have little or no ability to shape public policy or seek justice through the courts.
  • The leadership in Iran is wise enough to give the electorate some influence over the direction of government policy, but voters regularly see their favored candidates disqualified by unelected clerics and their elected officials hamstrung by hard-line judges, security agencies, and the supreme leader himself. This has continued despite the easing of economic sanctions under the international nuclear agreement, which many hoped would empower liberal and moderate politicians. The result has been simmering discontent and small, daily acts of defiance among the liberal middle class. Also unchanged is the regime’s institutionalized discrimination against women and religious and ethnic minorities, reinforced by grossly unfair prosecutions of those who attempt to defend their rights.
  • The government of Egypt recently secured a vital loan from the International Monetary Fund to address its economic crisis, but the terms require it to weaken its currency, cut public-sector salaries, and reduce subsidies on food and fuel. Public anger is already mounting, but it has no peaceful, legal outlet, and the regime’s only response has been further repression. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who seized power in a 2013 coup, presumably has no plans to allow free elections or even an open discussion in the media.
  • Venezuela’s economic crisis is still more acute, and frustrated voters handed opposition candidates a majority in last year’s legislative elections. However, authoritarian president Nicolás Maduro and his allies in the judiciary and security forces have effectively stripped the new parliament of any meaningful power and blocked a presidential recall referendum, preventing the elections from translating into a change in leadership and policies. As economic conditions continue to deteriorate, the country is facing a humanitarian emergency.

These cases raise a third major priority for democratic governments. In addition to channeling public grievances into productive change and protecting the rights of individuals and minorities, democracies must maintain their own security in a world roiled by authoritarian disorder. They can only do this by sticking together, and by seeing through the bluff and bravado of autocrats who project strength in order to hide their regimes’ inherent weaknesses.