Skip to main content

Why is Democratic Backsliding on the Rise?

March 11, 2021 | Lindsay Morgan interviews Stephan Haggard

Recent analysis suggests that democracy is on the decline globally. Why and where is this happening—and what can be done about it? Here, Stephan Haggard, the Lawrence and Sallye Krause Professor of Korea-Pacific studies at UC San Diego, talks about his new book with Robert Kaufman Backsliding: Democratic Regress in The Contemporary World, and the role that polarization, acquiescent legislatures, and incrementalism play in democracy’s decline. 


Your new book with Robert Kaufman looks at democratic backsliding in 16 countries, from Zambia, Venezuela, and Brazil, to Hungary, Turkey, and the United States. What is democratic  backsliding and why is it happening in so many different places at roughly the same time?

Backsliding captures a new way in which democracies regress. If we look at the long history of the 20th century, most episodes of regression to authoritarian rule were driven by coups until quite recently. We've seen this in Thailand, and more recently in Myanmar. What makes backsliding peculiar is the fact that it's driven by duly elected incumbents. Once the autocrat is in power, he or she undertakes actions that then weaken democratic rule: removal of horizontal checks on the executive; diminution of rights that citizens typically enjoy; and, in extremis, going after the integrity of the electoral system itself.

Do these elected autocrats and their supporters believe they are damaging democracy?

The conception of liberal democracy that most of us have is one in which democratically elected governments are checked in a variety of ways. That's very much the Madisonian tradition: people—including politicians--are basically self-interested, and the way you check those tendencies is by building institutions that limit what executives can do. Hence the concept of the separation of powers and checks and balances.

But there is a completely different conception of democracy, which is sometimes associated with the Republican tradition or what I call a majoritarian tradition, in which the majority should have the power to do what they want, and shouldn't be checked by the “deep state,” by the courts, by rights, by other restraints. Part of what we're seeing in backsliding is the rise of a different conception of democracy in which the majority should more or less be completely unrestrained.

What conditions allow backsliding to take place?

A common feature of all our cases was polarization. Polarization was a kind of seedbed for backsliding because of the way it divides electorates and leads them to permit certain actions on the part of their leaders. Societies can polarize in a variety of different ways, but what really counts is the devolution in thinking about the opposition, from being a group that is essentially loyal but different, to one that is an enemy, that's traitorous, that's opposed to the interests of the nation.

In several of the cases covered in your book, polarization was preceded by economic crises or corruption scandals. To what extent does economic vulnerability create populations that are more susceptible to polarization?

In some cases, polarization was a result of deep economic cleavages. For example, in Venezuela, Hugo Chavez drove his path to power by focusing on economic grievances. In the United States, the 2008-2009 financial crisis had a big role in the emergence of a new wave of far-right thinking, reflected in the Tea Party Movement. But it also triggered anxieties that were racial and ethnic in nature. In other words, inequality is a piece of this, economic anxiety is a piece of this, racial anxieties and immigration are a piece of this, maybe even technological change is a piece of this. It's extraordinarily difficult to isolate the effects of economic crises and economic inequality from other points of division. 

What's most important is the way in which you view your political adversaries. Once you define an adversary as an enemy of the people or a traitor, you'll accept a lot of behavior that you otherwise wouldn't, because the other side is so much worse and poses so much risk.

That’s what opens the door for autocrats to say we are in an emergency. We're in a crisis. We can't trust the opposition. We've got to do things that are extreme. That was the American Carnage speech. In various ways, it was repeated in virtually all of our cases—from Bolsonaro in Brazil to Erdogan in Turkey.

Your book says that autocrats “Test the normative limits one initiative of time, with each derogation making subsequent steps easier to pursue” in a process that is incremental in nature. How do leaders get away with this?—And how do they keep getting away with it?

Incrementalism is a feature of virtually all the cases we examined, and appears to matter for two reasons. One is that the components of liberal democracy are mutually constitutive—the integrity of the electoral system depends on the courts; the courts rely on people having rights to bring cases without being being locked up; and those rights in turn depend on the courts.

Democratic rule is a bundle of mutually reinforcing features. Incrementalism affects democracy by picking that bundle apart.

Incremental changes are also normalizing and disorienting—they have the social psychological effect of getting people used to behavior, to language, to portrayals of the opposition which, five years ago in the United States we would have thought were virtually impossible.

We’ve talked about two of the three facilitating factors you discuss in your book—polarization and incrementalism. The third involves the role that the legislature plays.

Legislators, certainly in presidential systems, but to some extent in parliamentary ones as well, are crucial checks on what the executive can do. So the question of how acquiescent and pliant legislators are and the extent to which they're willing to delegate powers is really crucial. A curious feature of backsliding is that legislators, which are duly elected, also play a crucial role in delegating power to the executive, which then ironically ends up reducing their capacity to check the executive. 

The American example is one we see replicated in other cases, but the U.S. is interesting because, in some ways, the institutions in the United States held to a surprising extent. The Republicans, when they enjoyed majorities, were unwilling to hold Trump to account for certain obvious derogations of his constitutional responsibilities, like making a phone call to the president of Ukraine inviting him to interfere in the election. But the United States Congress was never going to delegate the kind of powers weak legislators in Russia or Venezuela delegated to Putin and Chavez.

You write that the political systems of the advanced industrial states are under greater threat today than at any time since the 1930s. That's a big statement. What can be done about it?

Our analysis of backsliding suggests a few things. Number one is that, if polarization is really so central to this process, and if polarization is increasingly playing out, not on the street, but in social media and the virtual realm, then clearly cleaning up social media is a crucial piece of trying to check democratic regress. That work has to involve actions on the part of governments in terms of protecting the system from outright illicit hacks; it has to involve the cooperation of social media companies to police content in ways that don't damage the vibrancy of these communities; and it has to involve a new kind of nongovernmental organization (NGO) focused on tracking these kinds of derogations, and revealing them.

What surprised you and your co-author Rob Kaufman as you got deeper into this topic?

The fact that this is going on across such a diverse set of countries is surprising. And we're talking about countries that had already achieved a modicum of electoral and even liberal democracy. People forget that Venezuela was considered one of the most democratic countries in Latin America for decades before it fell apart. Everyone thought Hungary and Poland were nestled in the bosom of the European Union. Russia—we forget the hopefulness; Yeltsin was a character, but there was this outpouring of desire for greater freedom and overcoming the shackles of authoritarian communist rule in the Soviet Union, and boom, within a decade of that transition it was reversed.

It’s tempting to think about political progress as linear—that things just keep getting better and freer and more inclusive. It's unnerving to remember that oftentimes, they don't.

The Enlightenment belief was that things are on the upward march. Particularly following the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was a sense of hopefulness, as if there weren't any alternatives. What we're learning is that there are alternatives. They're just very protean and hard to define. They’re in the space of what we call “populism,” which combines this anti-cosmopolitan, anti-enlightenment view that’s majoritarian, that's tribal, that’s strongly nationalist, that's anti-liberal, and takes a lot of different guises. But the alternative is emerging as a new political type that's deeply anti-liberal.

What do you and your co-author still not know about this topic that you wish we understood?

One of the things we found surprisingly difficult was how to measure the decline of democracy when you're not moving towards an obviously autocratic system. How do we take the temperature of democracy when the changes we've seen are extraordinarily subtle?

Take just one dimension—a common feature of all of the backsliding cases is that autocrats move very quickly to try to do something about the media. They either try to control it directly or they try to discredit it. The media fights back and in some cases is quite successful. You can't say that Donald Trump wasn't covered over the last four years. But at the same time, he delegitimized the media. He wasn’t capable of silencing the media or taking it over, yet something went wrong—and that something was crippling. But how do measure it?

The fact that we don't know how to think or talk about these derogations intelligently is part of what makes them so threatening.

If there was one thing that you could tell American leaders or the new administration about protecting democracy, what would you tell them? And what would you tell the American people?

It's hard to avoid cliches, but one quite central thing is the significance of the truth—of being able to share facts. Once you introduce the capacity to claim anything and allow that to stand, everything else follows. We need to be able to check outright falsehood and recraft the political discourse. This isn't a one-sided game. When power shifts hands, it's also important for those who come back in as Democrats to understand that there are large numbers of people in the country and in the countries that we study who believe what they believe. We need to figure out how to bring them into a competitive fold where we can compete and still go out at the end of the day and drink a beer. Those fundamental issues of truth and a willingness to accept an opponent, and not see him or her as an enemy, are really key.

Backsliding: Democratic Regress in the Contemporary World, is available at Cambridge University Press.