Introduction

Modern Authoritarianism: Origins, Anatomy, Outlook

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (left), Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Chinese President Xi in Beijing, May 2017. (Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)

As the world’s democracies confront a dangerous internal challenge from populist and nationalist political forces, it is imperative that they recognize the simultaneous external threat presented by modern authoritarian regimes. These 21st century authoritarians developed an arsenal of new tactics to use against their domestic opponents, and gone on the offensive in an effort to subvert and replace the liberal international order.

But modern authoritarian systems are not simply adversaries of free societies. They also represent an alternative model—a grim future for beleaguered democracies that have already fallen under the sway of illiberal leaders and have suffered an erosion of freedom.

Democracy under siege

Global democracy is currently facing the repercussions of what has been called the “decade of decline.” The phrase describes a 10-year-plus period, from 2006 to 2016, during which the state of freedom experienced more reversals than gains as measured by Freedom in the World, the annual report on political rights and civil liberties published by Freedom House.1

According to Freedom in the World, the crucial indicators of democracy experienced setbacks in each of the 10 years in question. In all, 105 countries suffered net declines, while 61 showed some measure of improvement. The decade marked the longest democratic slump of its kind in more than 40 years of Freedom House analysis.2

The decade of decline has been principally characterized by a steady erosion of political institutions in established authoritarian countries, or in countries that were clearly headed in that direction. In other words, repressive countries became even more repressive—the bad became even worse.3

However, a parallel pattern of institutional erosion has affected some more democratic states, pushing them into the category of “illiberal democracies.” In these societies, elections are regularly conducted, sometimes under conditions that are reasonably fair. But the state, usually under the control of a strong party or leader, applies much of its energy to the systematic weakening of political pluralism and the creation of a skewed electoral playing field. Opposition parties are often impotent, freedom of the press is circumscribed, and the judiciary tends to be dominated by the ruling party. Countries that fit this description include Hungary, Bolivia, Ecuador, and, if recent trends continue, Poland.

There are many reasons for the global decline in democratic indicators, but the statistical evidence from Freedom in the World suggests that modern authoritarian regimes have found a way to survive without resorting to democratic reforms, and that a number of democracies—as part of the general loss of liberal consensus—are engaging in their own antidemocratic experiments.

Modern authoritarianism

The traditional authoritarian state sought monopolistic control over political life, a one-party system organized around a strongman or military junta, and direct rule by the executive, sometimes through martial law, with little or no role for the parliament.

Traditional dictatorships and totalitarian regimes were often defined by closed, command, or autarkic economies, a state media monopoly with formal censorship, and “civil society” organizations that were structured as appendages of the ruling party or state. Especially in military dictatorships, the use of force—including military tribunals, curfews, arbitrary arrests, political detentions, and summary executions—was pervasive. Often facing international isolation, traditional dictatorships and totalitarian regimes forged alliances based on common ideologies, whether faith in Marxist revolution or ultraconservative, anticommunist reaction.

As the 20th century drew to a close, the weaknesses of both communist systems and traditional dictatorships became increasingly apparent. Front and center was the growing economic gap between countries that had opted for market economies and regimes that were committed to statist economies.

The political and economic barriers that had long sheltered the old dictatorships were soon swept away, and those that survived or recovered did so by making a series of strategic concessions to the new global order.

Modern authoritarianism has a different set of defining features:

  • An illusion of pluralism that masks state control over key political institutions, with co-opted or otherwise defanged opposition parties allowed to participate in regular elections
  • State or oligarchic control over key elements of the national economy, which is otherwise open to the global economy and private investment, to ensure loyalty to the regime and bolster regime claims of legitimacy based on economic prosperity
  • State or oligarchic control over information on certain political subjects and key sectors of the media, which are otherwise pluralistic, with high production values and entertaining content; independent outlets survive with small audiences and little influence
  • Suppression of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that are focused on human rights or political reform, but state tolerance or support for progovernment or apolitical groups that work on public health, education, and other development issues
  • Legalized political repression, with targets punished through vaguely worded laws and politically obedient courts
  • Limited, selective, and typically hidden use of extralegal force or violence, with a concentration on political dissidents, critical journalists, and officials who have fallen from favor
  • Opportunistic, non-ideological cooperation with fellow authoritarian states against pressure for democratic reform or leadership changes, international human rights norms and mechanisms, and international security or justice interventions
  • Knowledge-sharing with or emulation of fellow authoritarian states regarding tactics and legislation to enhance domestic control

China and Russia

The two major modern authoritarian powers are China and Russia.

Until fairly recently, the conventional wisdom was that China’s one-party authoritarian system would gradually relax as the middle class expanded and the country became fully integrated into the global economic and diplomatic systems. The leadership did expand citizens’ freedom to travel, make money, and access information and entertainment that did not touch on sensitive subjects. But it has resolutely refused to give up control over the political sphere.

In fact, the state has become increasingly aggressive in its suppression of political dissent and information that might challenge the Communist Party narrative. The regime’s rhetoric and policies have become more hostile to democracy and “Western” values. Its propaganda asserts the superior efficiency of the one-party system and sneers at the messiness of democracy. And the focus of its repressive apparatus has steadily expanded from a relatively narrow segment of political opposition figures to encompass a broad collection of target groups, including human rights lawyers, ethnic minorities, Christians, women’s rights advocates, liberal academics, and independent journalists.

Russia is much smaller than China in terms of population and economic might, but it has emerged as a leader of modern authoritarian innovation. Under Vladimir Putin, the Russian regime pioneered the capture of the media through state enterprises and oligarchic cronies, the adoption of laws designed to dismember civil society, the use of the judiciary as an instrument of political harassment, and, perhaps most importantly of all, the development of modern propaganda and disinformation.

Russia has also been in the vanguard of a relentless campaign against liberal values, and has moved relentlessly to export authoritarian ideas and techniques to other societies, both in neighboring Eurasian countries and elsewhere in the world. While today there is nothing that resembles the Comintern of Soviet times, authoritarian countries have developed an ad hoc network of cooperation that has proven effective at the United Nations and in regional bodies like the Organization of American States.

Adapting to survive

Modern authoritarianism matured as regimes sought to defend themselves against the sorts of civil society movements that triggered “color revolutions” in Georgia, Ukraine, and elsewhere in the early 2000s. On their own, formal opposition parties were relatively easy to marginalize or co-opt, and traditional mass media could be brought to heel through pressure on private owners, among other techniques. But civil society organizations presented a formidable challenge in some settings, as they were able to mobilize the public—especially students and young people—around nonpartisan reformist goals and use relatively open online media to spread their messages.

It is now a major objective of modern authoritarian states to suppress civil society before it becomes strong enough to challenge the incumbent political leadership. Yet whereas dissidents were dispatched to the gulag or explicitly exiled by the Soviets, or jailed and murdered by traditional dictatorships like Augusto Pinochet’s Chile, today’s activists are checked by NGO regulations that control registration and foreign funding, laws that allow arbitrary restrictions on public protest, and trumped-up criminal charges for key organizers that serve to intimidate others.

Modern authoritarianism has also devised special methods to bring the internet under political control without shutting it down entirely. While old-style dictatorships like Cuba long prevented the widespread use of the internet out of fear that online communications would pose a threat to the state’s monopoly on information, modern authoritarians understood that a high rate of internet penetration is essential to participation in the global economy. However, once online media emerged as a real alternative to traditional news sources and a crucial tool for civic and political mobilization, these regimes began to step up their interference.

The Chinese government has developed the world’s most sophisticated system of internet controls. Its so-called Great Firewall, a censorship and filtering apparatus designed to prevent the circulation of information that the authorities deem politically dangerous without affecting nonsensitive information, requires tremendous financial, human, and technological resources to maintain. Other regimes have not attempted anything approaching the scale of China’s system, but some have constructed more limited versions or simply relied on inexpensive offline techniques like arrests of critical bloggers, direct pressure on the owners of major online platforms, and new laws that force internet sites to self-censor.

Alternative values

While modern authoritarians initially mobilized for defensive purposes, to thwart color revolutions or the liberal opposition, they have become increasingly aggressive in challenging the democratic norms that prevailed in the wake of the Cold War, and in setting forth a rough set of political values as an alternative to the liberal model. Examples of this phenomenon include:

  1. Majoritarianism: A signal idea of many authoritarians is the proposition that elections are winner-take-all affairs in which the victor has an absolute mandate, with little or no interference from institutional checks and balances. Putin, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and the Venezuelan chavista leadership all behave as if there are no valid controls on their authority, the opposition has no rights, and the system is theirs to dismantle and remake from top to bottom. Disturbingly, the leaders of some democratic societies have begun to embrace the majoritarian idea. The Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has instituted a thorough overhaul of the country’s constitution and national legislation with an eye toward measures that will insulate his party from future defeat.
  2. Sovereignty: A number of governments have invoked the doctrine of absolute sovereignty to rebuff international criticism of restrictions on the press, the smothering of civil society, the persecution of the political opposition, and the repression of minority groups. They claim that the enforcement of universal human rights standards or judgments from transnational legal bodies represent undue interference in their domestic affairs and a violation of national prerogatives.
  3. Dictatorship of law: Initially articulated by Vladimir Putin, this phrase has come to signify the adoption of laws that are so vaguely written as to give the authorities wide discretion in applying them to regime opponents. Such measures are typically paired with a court system that uses law merely to justify political instructions from the executive branch, making a mockery of due process and international conceptions of the rule of law.
  4. History revised: A number of countries have undertaken a refashioning of history to buttress the legitimacy and aims of the current government. Historians and journalists are forbidden to cross certain redlines set by the authorities. In China, the state has prevented the publication of full, accurate, or critical accounts of the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, or the Mao Zedong era in general. In Russia, Joseph Stalin has been rehabilitated. He is now officially portrayed as a strong if mildly flawed leader rather than as the man responsible for the deaths of millions of his own people. In Turkey, Erdoğan has decreed that high school students should study the defunct Ottoman language, challenging a nearly century-old reform linked to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, modern Turkey’s founder.4
  5. Democracy redefined: It is a testament to the power of the democratic idea that authoritarian leaders around the globe have claimed the mantle of democracy for forms of government that amount to legalized repression. Even as they heap disdain on the liberal order, they have often insisted on the validity of their own systems as types of democratic rule. They even devise terms to describe their special variant, such as “sovereign democracy,” “revolutionary democracy,” or “illiberal democracy.”
  6. Return of the leader for life: Among the changes invariably instituted by modern authoritarians is the de facto or de jure removal of constitutional limits on presidential terms. Preventing the concentration of power in a single leader is a fundamental goal of democratic governance, but authoritarian propaganda has presented term limits as artificial constraints, associated them with foreign origins, and claimed that they do not suit every country’s unique historical, cultural, or security conditions.

While these ideas may not amount to a coherent or complete ideology, they do form the basis for an impressive degree of collaboration and alliance-building that has brought together modern authoritarian regimes with significantly different economic systems, official creeds, and sources of political legitimacy.

A loose-knit league of authoritarians works to protect mutual interests at the United Nations and other international forums, subverting global human rights standards and blocking precedent-setting actions against fellow despots. With the formation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Russia, China, and a number of Central Asian governments have come together to discuss common regime-security strategies.5

More disturbingly, modern authoritarians collaborate to prop up some of the world’s most reprehensible regimes, apparently reasoning that the toppling of one dictator thins the herd, inspires imitation, and endangers them all. This is most visible in Syria, where Russia, China, Iran, and Venezuela at various times have offered diplomatic support, loans, fuel, or direct military aid to the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

Dashed hopes

Democracy recorded unprecedented gains during the 20th century’s last decades. In 1975, Freedom House found that just 25 percent of the world’s sovereign states qualified for the Free category; by 2000, the share of countries rated as Free had reached 45 percent.6

The numbers told an optimistic story, and a series of accelerating social trends suggested that the recent improvements would hold firm and expand as the new millennium dawned.

There was, to begin with, a strong identification of free societies with free markets. The degree of economic freedom varied from one society to the next, and corruption was a problem in practically all of the new democracies. But there was no longer a major bloc of countries that rejected capitalism, and practically every country sought to deepen their participation in the global economic system, as witnessed by the number of governments seeking admission to the World Trade Organization. Authorities in the United States and elsewhere predicted that as countries came to accept the rules of the game set down by the WTO, they would also be more amenable to accepting the norms of liberal democracy, including fair elections, freedom of expression, minority rights, and the rule of law.

A second development was the introduction of the internet and other digital media. In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, communist governments in Eastern Europe, and military dictatorships elsewhere, there was an explosion of newspapers, radio and television stations, and other independent media with diverse editorial policies. But the internet in particular was seen as an irresistible force that could render censorship of any kind impossible. In 2000, President Bill Clinton compared China’s efforts to control internet content to “trying to nail Jell-O to the wall.”7

Third, a growing number of experts began to identify a new instigator of democratic change in global civil society. Unlike the “people’s movements” of earlier decades, in which well-known leaders mobilized mass demonstrations and often insurrectionary violence with the goal of overthrowing despotic regimes, the phenomenon that was labeled civil society consisted of organizations that were often committed to a single cause or a few causes united by a particular theme. Most activists were young, with little prior involvement in politics, and many regarded themselves as part of a global effort to advance goals like reducing carbon emissions, empowering women, or fighting corruption.

In a prescient 1997 article, Jessica T. Mathews predicted that in the future global civil society would be the triggering force behind liberal change.8 She suggested that in many cases civil society organizations would play a more important role than governments. Her words seemed prescient in light of later events in Serbia, where student activists organized a campaign that eventually brought about the downfall of President Slobodan Milošević in 2000, and in Ukraine, where young reformers played a pivotal role in ensuring that the 2004 elections were not stolen through fraud.

In declaring that dictatorships or even authoritarian methods were destined to succumb to this triad of new social forces, commentators were also expressing optimism about the universal appeal of liberal values. The decade after the end of the Cold War was a heyday for democratic ideas and norms. It was increasingly expected that countries would not only hold elections, but that their elections would meet international standards and be judged “free and fair.” There was also an expectation that political parties would be able to compete on a reasonably level playing field, that opposition leaders would not be harassed or arrested, and that minorities would be able to pursue their agendas through normal political channels and not find it necessary to wage perpetual protest campaigns.

However, there were nagging questions. It remained unclear whether most societies would have access to multiple sources of political ideas, multiple interpretations of the news, and open scholarly inquiries about the past. Would there be honest judicial proceedings, especially in cases with political implications? Would property rights be secure?

Beyond these primarily domestic issues, there was another series of questions related to individual governments’ relations with their neighbors and the rest of the world. The end of the Cold War had brought a peace dividend, both financial and psychological, for all sides. At the time, most assumed that peace would prove durable. But would the general decline in military budgets hold? Would the new national boundaries that divided the former Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia be sustainable?

As modern authoritarianism has taken root and expanded its influence, the answers to these questions are increasingly negative.


Footnotes

1 Freedom in the World 2016 (New York: Freedom House, 2016), https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/freedom-world-2016.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 Ceylan Yeginsu, “Turks Feud Over Change in Education,” New York Times, December 8, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/09/world/europe/erdogan-pushes-ottoman-language-classes-as-part-of-tradtional-turkish-values.html.

5 Eleanor Albert, “The Shanghai Cooperation Organization,” Council on Foreign Relations, October 14, 2015, http://www.cfr.org/china/shanghai-cooperation-organization/p10883.

6 “Freedom in the World at 41,” in Freedom in the World 2014 (New York: Freedom House, 2014), https://freedomhouse.org/sites/default/files/Freedom%20in%20the%20World%202014%20Booklet.pdf.

8 Jessica T. Mathews, “Power Shift,” Foreign Affairs (January/February 1997), https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/1997-01-01/power-shift.