Well before 2016, the United States was becoming increasingly polarized around racial, ethnic, and economic grievances. From the time he descended the golden elevator, Donald Trump generated support by skillfully stoking these grievances. His appeals became increasingly strident over time, putting at risk the rights of refugees, immigrants, and US minorities. During Trump’s presidency, a compliant Senate supported key priorities, such as nominating conservative judges, and stood by while Trump sought to limit horizontal checks on his authority, for example by firing James Comey and removing inspectors general. By the end of Trump’s term, incremental but cumulative assaults on the defining features of democratic rule—rule of law, civil liberties, and a free press—culminated in an unprecedented attempt to overturn the results of the presidential election and block the transfer of power.
Americans have been transfixed by this political spectacle, and no other advanced industrial democracy has been shaken to this extent. But the surprising fact is that the US experience is far from unique. From Turkey, Brazil, and Hungary, to Venezuela, Russia and the Philippines, many countries have and continue to experience democratic backsliding.
Backsliding is a novel form of political change. For most of the post-World War II period, functioning democracies fell to the classic coup d’etat. Coups are most likely to occur in countries—like Myanmar—that are not particularly democratic to begin with. Backsliding, on the other hand, is initiated by autocratic executives who have been duly elected, in elections that clear some bar of being “free and fair.” Once in office, however, they attack the core feature of liberal democratic rule and ultimately the integrity of the electoral system itself.
How does democratic backsliding happen? A new systematic survey of backsliding in 16 countries—including the US—suggests some common elements. The first is polarization. Countries become polarized for a variety of reasons. Arguments about the relative weight of economics, race and ethnicity, and cultural resentments have been played out in some detail. In our judgment, the search for a common taproot is likely to fail; unhappy countries are each unhappy in their own way. What all democratic backsliders share in common, however, are widening social and political cleavages that go beyond policy or ideological differences to fundamental identities.
Whether through subtle religious messaging in Turkey and Brazil, or as a result of economic crises and inequality in Venezuela, polarization pushes partisans into hostile “us-them” binaries. Once this occurs, loyal oppositions are portrayed as traitorous enemies of the state. From there, it is only a small step to political acquiescence and support for “strong measures” that would otherwise be unthinkable—from threats and harassment of critics to systematic violations of civil liberties.
A second key, but often overlooked, factor in backsliding centers on legislatures. Autocratic personalities get all the press—Duterte, Orbán, Trump, Chávez, and Putin—but both parliamentary and presidential systems are vulnerable to backsliding, and legislatures are highly complicit in their own demise. In almost all of the cases we examined—with Brazil as the main exception—control of the legislature has played a pivotal role in collapsing the separation of powers.
Legislatures play both a passive and active role in the backsliding process. Even with partisan majorities, an executive may face oversight and checks from the legislature. But when illiberal presidents or prime ministers control their parties in the legislature, checks can dissolve outright and the potential for mischief rises dramatically.
Hungary, for example, was once considered an exemplar of a successful post-communist parliamentary democracy, characterized by peaceful competition and rotation of parties in office, shared support for a market economy, and integration into the European Union. After Victor Orbán gained a two-thirds parliamentary majority in 2010, however, the legislature provided a platform for a steady concentration of executive power that mimicked the path of Russia under Putin. Constitutional and regular legislative “reforms” weakened the independence of the judiciary, shackled the press, and imposed restrictions on civil society. Today Hungary has probably crossed the line into authoritarianism, with Orbán seizing on the COVID pandemic to extend emergency powers.
The final feature of backsliding is its incremental nature or “stealth.” Smart autocrats do not go after the democratic political system in one fell swoop. They take small bites, each one providing the basis for the next. And because the pillars of democracy are mutually constitutive and reinforcing, chipping away at one part affects the whole. Rights depend on institutional checks and balances, such as independent judiciaries. Those in turn rest on the integrity of the electoral system, which itself is undergirded by civil liberties: the ability to assemble, organize, and speak freely. Incrementally eroding critical pieces of this interwoven whole makes the next step easier.
Clear sequences are difficult to discern, but the media and courts are typically early targets in the cases that end up regressing to autocratic rule. Delegitimizing or shutting down the media creates an alternative reality that strengthens autocratic discretion. And control of the courts sets the stage for more direct attacks on the opposition.
Incrementalism also has psychological effects. Small derogations are disorienting, both for outsiders and for citizens, who often do not fully grasp that democratic erosion has taken place until it is too late to respond. Was Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan an autocrat at the end of his first term in 2007? What about at the end of his second in 2011? Or was it only when he assumed the presidency in 2014? When exactly were lines crossed? Without knowing, it is hard for oppositions to rally forces, and for outsiders to send up early warning signals. Governments in both Poland and Hungary have been masterful at manipulating ambiguity to their advantage, blocking the broader European censure that both governments so richly deserve.
If we believe in the advantages of a democratic landscape, backsliding poses a serious foreign policy challenge. The great power autocracies—China and Russia—have an interest in stoking democratic division, forging new partnerships and disrupting the integrity of multilateral and regional institutions. Democracy promotion needs resuscitation, but with new foci such as finding ways to block disinformation campaigns that stoke polarization, providing more extensive support for parties committed to the integrity of democratic rule, and creating early warning systems against incremental abuses of power.
At a more fundamental level, however, the physician must heal himself. In a globalized world, news travels fast. The deterioration of American democracy during the last decade has eased the way for backsliding elsewhere. If the United States wants to be emulated, it must be worthy of emulation. That goal requires finding ways to restore, not only the US commitment to democracy promotion globally, but also the reality of American democracy at home.
Stephan Haggard is the Lawrence and Sallye Krause Professor of Korea-Pacific studies at UC San Diego. Robert R. Kaufman is a distinguished professor of political science at Rutgers University. Their new book, Backsliding: Democratic Regress in the Contemporary World, is available at Cambridge University Press.