As Americans head to the polls in primaries across the country, many hope a new President will strengthen American democracy. But our research shows we should pity the winner who tries. America is not the first democracy to elect an authoritarian-tinged, populist leader. The pattern from countries with similar experiences is clear: Common types of damage, such as a weakened justice system, politicized civil service, and normalized corruption, will linger for decades. The extremes on both sides will probably gain strength. If a moderate wins, he can expect to leave after a single, unpopular term. And we should steel ourselves for the appearance of “Ivanka 2024” bumper stickers.
We looked at 11 case studies of polities that elected populist and authoritarian leaders, seven of which were subsequently able to restore democracy (Italy, Colombia, the state of Louisiana, South Korea, Peru, Argentina, and India) and four that, so far, have not (Hungary, Poland, Turkey, and Venezuela). Our research finds striking parallels. It also suggests both lessons and warnings for Americans who hope that a quick and easy return to a status quo ante is possible after President Trump leaves office. One thing is clear: Electing a different president is unlikely to solve the problem.
Countries that failed to bounce back lost the bedrock of a healthy democracy: real elections, functioning civil society organizations, and a free media. In Hungary, the ruling Fidesz Party at first won a legitimate landslide over a Socialist Party whose record was marred by corruption scandals and its handling of the financial crisis. Fidesz, however, moved quickly to hollow out Hungary’s democracy, adopting technocratic procedural changes that manipulated elections, gerrymandering districts, and dividing the opposition vote with puppet “opposition” parties. Targeted taxes and selectively blocking media mergers eventually forced 90 percent of the country’s media companies to sell themselves to government-friendly oligarchs. At the same time, new regulations targeted pro-democracy civil society organizations’ ability to operate. When Fidesz eventually relied on outright fraud to win elections in 2018, there was no way to protest and no independent media to cover the whimper of democracy’s demise.
Even in countries that did return to democracy, judiciaries came out the other side less trusted and more politicized. As the one institution designed to rein in an undemocratic leader, judges are always a target. Through stacking courts, manipulating appointments, or denigrating judges as partisans, a populist or authoritarian executive undermines the judicial system.
In Colombia, for example, when the courts stood in the way of his governing platform, newly elected President Uribe excoriated judges as “terrorists disguised as civilians,” accusing them of being leftwing enemy sympathizers in the country’s long guerrilla war. When the media uncovered corruption in his administration, revealed his use of the intelligence agency to wiretap opponents, and disclosed his support for paramilitaries accused of human rights abuse, Uribe pushed the idea of a leftwing judiciary even further, going so far as to bribe judges in order to discredit their decisions and legitimacy. Ultimately, the courts prevailed. By 2017 then-former President Uribe faced 28 cases against him. But the judiciary paid a heavy price: A 2017 Gallup poll found that 72 percent of the population had an unfavorable opinion of the Supreme Court and 63 percent viewed the constitutional court unfavorably.
Across every case we studied, leaders also co-opted prosecutors, domestic security, and intelligence agencies, either to prevent investigations against themselves or to weaponize investigations against opponents. A notable example is Louisiana populist Huey Long in the 1930s. The Long organization centralized the administration of justice and law enforcement in the governor’s office until eventually nearly every state and local office appointment—all the way down to schoolteachers—was a personal choice of the governor. Political opponents were likely to find themselves on the wrong side of the law or out of a job. The control over justice also allowed Long to corrupt statewide government, enriching himself without fear of prosecution. Long could simply ignore most state court proceedings—or, as once happened, have the state police kidnap a star witness.
After Huey Long’s politicization of justice, it took federal intervention by the Roosevelt Administration to begin to bring things back to order in Louisiana. But even today, the state has the greatest number of convictions for public corruption per capita, and its extreme history of police misconduct remains a legacy of that era.
Finally, though many consider capitalism to be an economic system that supports and mirrors democracy, populist authoritarians often transformed businesses into their accomplices. In all the cases we studied, leaders treated state institutions as extensions of their personal, private interests. They turned taxation, regulation, and other state powers against businesses that didn’t toe the political line while rewarding those that did.
During the early 1990s in Peru, President Fujimori gained the support of businesses by stabilizing an economy in free-fall and promising an end to the corrupt relationships between businesses and the state. Instead, he perpetuated the trend, particularly with the press. Peru’s government provided nearly a quarter of all advertising revenue for the media and directed it to pro-government outlets. Independent media weren’t banned, but they faced threats. Back taxes demanded of television stations curbed television news, leaving only independent print magazines (which were not read by many because they were too expensive for most Peruvians).
In this and our other cases, business leaders quickly learned that the business environment was more predictable, profitable, and easier to influence if they stayed on the right side of a single leader than if decisions were made through a more normal policy process. When Louisiana Governor Huey Long tried to use the leverage of tax policy and state printing contracts to pressure the newspaper companies into positive coverage, it took the intervention of the U.S. Supreme Court to set things right.
It is not difficult to see echoes of these events in the United States.
Thankfully, there has not yet been a comparable hollowing-out of civil society and media. And while there’s no question the President has used his office to enrich himself, the U.S. economy is too vast for one person to impose kleptocratic cronyism in just four years. Likewise, neglecting election security while tacitly welcoming foreign interference is a deeply worrisome sign, but our elections for the time being remain free and fair.
Nevertheless, serious damage has been done in other areas. When it comes to the independent judiciary, President Trump has frequently attacked judges who rule against his administration as partisan “Obama judges.” Judicial nominees increasingly come to the Senate backed by an ecosystem of ideological interest groups with clear partisan leanings. It should be no surprise that today, partisanship strongly affects citizens’ views of the courts. Republicans’ perceptions of the Supreme Court rose from a 30-year low in 2015 under Obama to the highest point in decades under Trump; by January 2019, Pew polling found that 82 percent of Republicans viewed the court favorably. Democrats’ favorable opinion of the courts dropped by 23 percentage points during the same period.
Notable as well is the erosion of norms around judicial nominations. After eight years of unprecedented use of procedural tools to block nominees, including refusing to hold hearings for Merrick Garland, since 2016 the Senate has reduced member rights to block judges, sped the process for putting them into office, and accepted nominees the American Bar Association calls unqualified. When U.S. leaders and the press treat courts as purely political actors or promote expanding the size of the Supreme Court to regain ideological control, they make democratic recovery more difficult.
President Trump’s politicization of the administration of justice has been subtler than Huey Long or Alvaro Uribe managed, but it is just as concerning. Today the Department of Justice insists that investigations of the president and his businesses, and subpoenas of staff and private citizens alike, are off-limits if the President opposes them. And on more than one occasion, the president’s personal associates or enemies have found themselves the beneficiaries of Justice Department procedural largess or critical attention.
Even if President Trump is not reelected, there is a strong chance that some of these patterns will deepen in American politics. We do not wish to be gloomy, but the trajectories of similar democracies suggests that America’s path to democratic recovery will very likely be long.
If moderate, pro-democracy leaders manage to get elected (as initially occurred in most of the countries we studied) they tend not to last. Voters see their efforts to rebuild democratic institutions as unexciting, and the slower, more deliberative policy progress leads the electorate to view them as less accomplished than their populist predecessors. Undoing a predecessors’ damage is difficult in part because populist and authoritarian leaders alter the expectations that citizens have about their government. Voters who grow accustomed to quick decisions made on personal whim rather than to bureaucratic policymaking become impatient with the give and take of democratic checks and balances. And if the economy crashes, as frequently happens when the bubble of populist policy bursts, new leaders are left holding the bag. The lesson for candidates committed to democracy like Matteo Renzi of Italy, Mauricio Macri of Argentina, or Morarji Desai of India? Expect to clean out the stables, but still get just one term.
What follows this is often wild, careening politics, as elections swing between extremes. Future leaders often adopt the populist political style. In 2018, Colombian voters had to choose between a far-right candidate and a former guerrilla for president. Italy was recently governed by a union of far-right nativists and the far-left. America’s weak political parties have slowly given up their gatekeeping abilities over time, and now have little power to weed out such candidates. The result is that political systems that were able to absorb the challenge of an authoritarian populist are unable to handle another legitimacy crisis so soon thereafter.
All of this sets populist leaders up for a comeback. Voters tired of the policy whiplash grow nostalgic: At least things were more predictable when they were in office! Famous, charismatic, and often unencumbered by the constraints of a real political party, their second act is frequently to elect a family member who can protect their legacy—or just keep them out of jail. In Argentina, President Nestor Kirchner’s wife Cristina Fernandez followed his two terms with two of her own. One term of a moderate reformer was followed, in 2019, by the election of a Kirchner confidant, with Cristina Fernandez Kirchner as his vice president. After slinking away in disgrace, Indira Gandhi was reelected as India’s Prime Minister a few years later before handing power to her son. The family still controls India’s Congress Party. In Peru, autocratic President Fujimori’s daughter came within a hair’s breadth of winning the presidency in 2016. After Huey Long’s assassination in 1935, a dozen family members held political offices in Louisiana well into the 1980s.
If President Trump loses reelection this year, do not be surprised to see one of his children running in 2024 against an unpopular incumbent Democrat. The chaos of today’s media and political landscape may simply create too much friction for a new American president to set the ship back on course in time for voters to recognize the benefits.
For many Americans, it is uncomfortable to critically assess the strength of our democratic tradition, and much less to compare our country to others overseas. Assumptions of American exceptionalism run strong. Yet for most of our 230-year history, we have struggled to build a democracy that reflects our best values. In many ways, our democracy is still young. After all, it was only in the late 1960s that most black Americans could vote without fear of violence, and that eleven states in the South emerged from de facto single-party domination.
Though it may be difficult to admit, admitting it is critical to fixing what is broken today: America is not the only democracy to dabble with populists and authoritarians. Recovery will be difficult, and things may well get worse before they get better. Still, we can learn from societies that have dealt with these kinds of leaders before, and by keeping their lessons in mind, perhaps we can make the task of restoring our democracy to health a little easier to carry out than it otherwise might be.