Global democracy declined for the 12th consecutive year in 2017. According to a new report from Freedom House, twice as many countries registered reversals in political rights and civil liberties as scored improvements. The countries enduring declines included superpowers (Russia, China, the United States), new democracies (Hungary, Poland), and regional powers (Turkey, Venezuela, Egypt, Kenya).
Freedom’s retreat has drawn remarkably little attention from America’s political and intellectual leaders. Perhaps the addition of the United States to the list of at-risk countries will provide a wake-up jolt. Until now, however, there has been a reluctance to link the international aggressiveness of China, Russia, Iran, and Venezuela with systems that are fueled by domestic repression. Furthermore, even those who acknowledge a disturbing level of democratic erosion around the world often argue that things are really not as bad as they appear. They advance two arguments to back up their skepticism.
First, they downplay conditions in autocracies like Russia, China, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia on the grounds that things today are better than was the case during the 20th century.
Second, while conceding that the electoral playing field may be tilted or even rigged in Russia, Hungary, Turkey, and Egypt, they argue that Putin, Orban, Erdogan, and Sisi would win even if elections met international standards and the opposition was not smothered by unfair laws or outright repression.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these assertions.
Clearly, modern authoritarian states are less prone to the violence, mass atrocities, or totalitarian methods that once defined the rule of the dictator. There are no gulags, leadership purges may entail the occasional show trial for corruption but do not end with a bullet to the back of the head, and it is unusual for poets or novelists to be dispatched to prison for their writings (except in China). There are no cultural revolutions.
Modern authoritarian systems are more sophisticated, less violent, and above all more integrated into the global economic and diplomatic systems. They maintain an illusion of pluralism while working assiduously to neuter the institutions that protect pluralism—the courts first and foremost, then the media, then civil society.
Modern authoritarians prefer to retain control without resort to violence. But beating and killing remain part of their arsenal. When harsh measures are employed, they tend to be limited, selective, and often hidden. Who assassinated Boris Nemtsov, the Russian opposition leader? Who murdered Anna Politkovskaya, the crusading journalist? In fact, Chechen criminals were arrested and prosecuted in both cases. But there was no serious effort to ascertain who ordered the killings, so the cases remain unsolved and murky, object lessons for others who oppose President Putin or pry into the leadership’s dark corners. In Russia, there is an impressive, Hall of Fame-style list of assassinated journalists, opposition politicians, and civil society activists. And Russia is hardly the worst case. In Egypt, security forces killed some 800 protestors in one day after the coup that placed General Sisi in power.
Political prisoners were another defining feature of 20th-century dictatorships. After the collapse of communism, the prisoner of conscience became a rare phenomenon, found only in China, Cuba, and a few countries in the Middle East and Central Asia. Today political prisoners can be counted in the thousands in Turkey and Egypt alone, with over 400 in Venezuela, until recently a democracy. There are more political prisoners in the sovereign states of the former Soviet Union today than there were in the Brezhnev era.
Modern dictators have intensified their domination of the media. Opposition or neutral outlets have been shuttered or forced to sell their assets to the leader’s cronies. Media pluralism barely exists in Russia, Venezuela, Egypt, or Hungary, and internet freedom is now being whittled away. The regime press devotes full time to the fine art of character assassination by depicting critics as clownish, sinister, or unpatriotic. Opposition figures are portrayed as umbilically attached to the enemy of the hour: George Soros, the American ambassador, or some other hate object from the NGO universe. Or they will be linked to the hordes of refugees or migrants swarming at the gates, ready to rape wives and daughters, commit acts of terror, and destroy Christian culture. This may not be red pencil censorship of the Pravda variety. But in some respects today’s authoritarian media model is worse: a system that conveys the illusion of modern news presentation while appropriating the most cynical strategies of Madison Avenue.
So yes, modern autocrats are less violent and not as prone to overt repression. They are, in fact, smarter and more diligent than their predecessors—the Pinochets, Chernenkos, and Honeckers. Their preference is for nonviolent coercion. If threatened, however, they will roll out the secret police, the hired mobs, and the military. As a kind of failed state, Venezuela may stand as an outlier among today’s autocracies. But presented with the prospect of losing power, President Maduro has summoned forth the specters of South American military juntas past. Can anyone doubt that other autocrats would behave similarly if confronted with a loss of power and possible prosecution for crimes against the people?
Would the strongmen who have wrecked their countries’ democracies actually win if elections were free, fair, and honest? In fact, a number of authoritarians won their first major victories under legitimate conditions. Erdogan won several elections, as did Viktor Orban.
Increasingly, however, the first election triumph is the last election waged under fair conditions. The ruling party follows a playbook meant to ensure that, once secured, power is retained indefinitely. The election laws are changed to favor the ruling party. The press is brought under control and ultimately transformed into a propaganda instrument. The judicial system is made into an appendage of the ruling clique. The state audit office imposes huge fines on the opposition party for alleged campaign violations (as is happening right now in Hungary). The courts assess massive judgments against critical media outlets (as happened in Turkey, Ecuador, and more recently Poland). The opposition—ordinary voters as well as leaders—are demonized as “not real Poles,” “the wrong kind of Hungarians,” or “lackeys of American imperialism.” The government exploits its resources to support the ruling group by giving away household goods forcing television stations to broadcast the leader’s speeches, or directing welfare benefits to supporters. Tax policies and government contracts are manipulated to reward regime oligarchs and punish the rest.
True enough, elections in modern authoritarian settings do not correspond to the mythical model, often referred to in discussions about Islamist parties, of “one man, one vote, one time.” They are more complex, more nuanced, and therefore more insidious. The subtlety of 21st-century strongmen has enabled them to plausibly argue that they, too, are democrats, just like their critics. As long as this deceit goes without serious challenge, democracy’s losing streak is destined to continue.