One of the most striking features of the current authoritarian trend in the world is its lack of a common ideological rationale. When liberal democracy gave way in the 1920s and 30s, two rival systems of belief—communism and fascism—posed compelling, if repugnant, alternatives. During the post-colonial era of democratic breakdowns in the 1950s and 60s, authoritarian challengers continued to mobilize around communist or at least state socialist banners overtly hostile to market forces and private property. Or they made use of vague socialist and anti-imperial rationales to justify their aggrandizement of the state and quashing of political opposition, or pursued a counter-revolutionary agenda of suppressing trade unions and other popular forces in order to achieve the political stability they said was necessary to attract investment and generate rapid economic development.
Ideologically, today’s autocrats are a more motley and pragmatic crew. They generally claim to be market friendly, but mainly they are crony capitalists, who, like Putin in Russia, Orban in Hungary, and Erdogan in Turkey, are first concerned with enriching themselves, their families, and their parties and support networks. Increasingly, they raise a common flag of cultural conservatism, denouncing the moral license and weakness of the “the liberal West” while advancing a virulent antiliberal agenda based on nationalism and religion. But nationalism is by definition specific to each nation, and when they mobilize religion against liberalism, today’s authoritarian challengers exploit a variety of faiths, from Orthodox Christianity in Russia to Catholicism in Poland, Islam in Turkey, Buddhism in Sri Lanka and Myanmar, Hinduism in India, evangelical Christianity in Africa and the Americas, and even (on the far right in Israel) Judaism.
Certain common normative themes do resonate across many of these political movements, pushing back against the progressive liberal quest for tolerance, openness, inclusion, and equality across racial, religious, gender, and other identity divides. As Marc F. Plattner has explained in the case of Viktor Orban, they propound an illiberal model of “Christian democracy” (or whatever other religious form) that gives pride of place to religious values, social traditions, the family, and the nation, while suppressing individual rights, cultural and religious minorities, and, of course, immigrants. Some of these political leaders, like Erdogan, have long histories of religious conservatism and personal piety. For others, religion (like nationalism) is simply a political cudgel. In either case, identity ties are fervently activated to demonize the opposition as cosmopolitan weaklings, and thereby to whip up political support while polarizing the body politic. Unfortunately, as evidenced just this year in the landslide reelection victory of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in May, the reelection victory of the Law and Justice party in Poland in October, and the political comeback of the Sinhalese ethnic champion Gotabaya Rajapaksa in Sri Lanka’s presidential election last month, the strategy often works.
In 1978, the UC Berkeley political scientist Jyotirindra Das Gupta gave the term “A Season of Caesars” to the wave of authoritarian emergency regimes that were sprouting up in Asia (including, briefly, in India). The current season risks being longer and more global, as it is starting to buffet liberal democracy even in the West. Moreover, it makes no pretense of being temporary or even “developmental”. Above all, what autocrats of this current season share are two things as old as politics itself: a lust for power as an end in itself, and an instinct for demagoguery as means to acquire and retain it. The former impels them to eviscerate civic and institutional checks on their power once in office. The latter propels them toward populism as an electoral and governing strategy. Hence they draw visceral, polarizing distinctions, and they keep driving the wedge deeper and deeper. On the one hand are the good deserving majority of the people—those who share their religion (or ethnicity) and traditional values. On the other hand are the ruling elites who have cheated and betrayed “the people”, the security professionals who have failed to protect the people from immigrants and terrorists, and of course the immigrants themselves and all the other “outsiders” who are threatening to overwhelm them, to take their jobs, demean their values, marry their daughters, and destroy their nation. What this strategy needs to succeed is a stark narrative with vivid stories (however distorted or untrue), a compelling messenger, and one or more triggering developments: the corruption scandals and ruling elite exhaustion that helped sweep into power Orban in 2010, Modi in 2014, and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro in 2018; the surge of Syrian and other Middle Eastern and African refugees into Europe beginning in 2015; the increase in drug-related criminal violence before Rodgrigo Duterte’s 2016 election victory; the February terrorist attacks in Kashmir that seemed to validate Modi’s fearmongering about Muslims (who make up15 percent of India); and the ISIS-inspired Easter bombings in Sri Lanka that boosted the Rajapaksa campaign’s hardline platform on security. The trick is to drive the sharp wedge of identity division into the body politic at a point that will leave a majority (or at least winning plurality) of the electorate thinking they are the good deserving people that the illiberal populist is trying to save.
Once in power, illiberal populists behave in remarkably similar ways. In particular, they pursue what I have called in my book, Ill Winds, the Autocrats’ Twelve-Step Program. While the style and sequence may vary from country to country, it looks something like this:
- Demonize the political opposition as illegitimate and unpatriotic, part of the discredited or disloyal establishment, hopelessly out of touch with the real people; stir feverish, polarizing animosity toward constitutionally loyal opposition leaders.
- Undermine the independence of the courts—especially the constitutional court—by impugning their integrity and impartiality; then purge independent judges and replace them with political loyalists, or restructure the judiciary altogether so it can be packed and placed under partisan control.
- Attack the independence of the media, by denouncing them as “fake news” and “enemies of the people;” mobilize public outrage against critical publications and broadcasters, starve them of advertising revenue, and punish their owners with tax investigations and bans on government contracts; then finally take over their ownership through politically loyal businesses and party-linked crony capitalists.
- Gain control of any public broadcasting, politicize it, and make it an instrument of ruling-party propaganda.
- Impose government control of the internet, in the name of “fairness”, morality, security, or counterterrorism, thus further chilling free speech and the freedom to organize.
- Subdue other elements of civil society—civic associations, universities, and especially anti-corruption and human rights groups—by painting them as part of the arrogant, effete, selfish elite that have betrayed the people and the country. Make university professors afraid to criticize the government in their writings and classrooms. Render student groups liable to prosecution for peaceful protest. Create new, fake civic organizations that will be faithful to the populist leader and party.
- Intimidate the business community into ending its support for political opposition. Threaten to unleash tax and regulatory retribution on businesses that fund opposition parties and candidates—and then bankrupt them if they do.
- Enrich a new class of crony capitalists by steering state contracts, credit flows, licenses, and other lucre to the family, friends, and allies of the ruler and his clique.
- Assert partisan control over the civil service and the security apparatus. Start referring to professional civil servants and military officers faithful to the constitution as members of a conspiratorial “deep state.” Politicize the national police and intelligence services by demanding personal and partisan loyalty. Purge these instruments of law enforcement and national security and then employ them as weapons against the enfeebled opposition.
- Gerrymander districts and rig the electoral rules to disenfranchise opposition voters and make it nearly impossible for opposition parties to win the next election. Ensure that the ruling party can retain its grip on power even if it fails to win a majority of the vote.
- Gain control over electoral administration, to further tilt the electoral playing field and institutionalize de facto authoritarian rule.
- Repeat steps 1 to 11, ever more vigorously, deepening citizens’ fear of opposing or criticizing the new political order and muting all forms of resistance.
As I have traveled around the United States and the world the past two years speaking about global authoritarian trends, I’ve been struck by the number of people in democracies (even liberal democracies like the United States) who recognize many of these steps in the behavior of their own elected leaders and ruling parties. A crucial lesson of the creeping authoritarianism of the past decade is that this type of rhetoric and behavior must be called out and condemned early on, before it gains momentum and a kind of pseudo-legitimacy. But resistance to creeping authoritarianism should not morally condemn supporters of the incipient populist autocrat, for that only strengthens the populist by deepening polarization. It is important to bear in mind that most people who back illiberal populist campaigns do so for instrumental reasons—they want different government policies and programs, and in the face of polarizing political alternatives, they are willing to tolerate or excuse creeping authoritarianism to achieve them. Defenders of democracy can win over a portion of this constituency by exposing the fraudulent elements of the populist agenda and offering more appealing programs that do not compromise core liberal principles. But to do so, they must not allow illiberal populists to hijack traditional unifying values—which express pride in and devotion to the nation, family, and community.
To a degree that was hardly foreseen just a few short years ago, these are lessons and warning signs that Americans must bear in mind as we enter what will be one of the most important election years in our history.