The Short-Lived Life Expectancy of Autocratic Democracies

EDITORIAL, 29 Apr 2019

#584 | Prof. Richard Falk – TRANSCEND Media Service

Looking Backwards

In the Cold War Era there was a sharp polemical contrast drawn between the ‘liberal’ West and the rest of the world, which was regarded as either Communist or authoritarian, regardless of whether its constitution was framed in democratic language or not. And liberal in the West was used to signify the primacy of the individual citizen as well as policies and practices reflecting an overall commitment to an economy centered in the private sector, although unevenly modified by various measures of social protection. In the latter stages of the Cold War, the Western effort to hold the moral and political high ground in the ideological struggle emphasized freedom versus totalitarianism. When the Soviet Union gave in and then collapsed, the outcome was widely celebrated in the West as a victory for ‘the free world,’ and what it stood for.

Yet freedom in the United States and elsewhere had long cohabited with various forms of classism and entrenched racism, not to mention legacies of slavery, ethnic cleansing, and the annihilation of indigenous peoples. What gave ‘freedom’ some measure of plausibility was the acceptance of capitalist modes of organizing the economy and civil and political rights enjoyed by dominant ethnicities, including free elections. At the end of the Cold War it was common for mainstream thinkers in the West to speak of ‘market-oriented constitutionalism’ to make clear that its conception of freedom entailed property rights as well as political protections against an abusive state.

This outlook produced extravagant predictions of ‘an end of history’ because it was hoped and even believed that the triumph of the West would be soon universalized in the post-colonial South as well as throughout the fallen Soviet empire. This emergent global setting also produced more realistically cautious, even negative, projections as in Huntington’s ‘clash of civilizations’ and Kaplan’s ‘the coming anarchy.’ A more moderate portrayal of the future came to dominate the American led political landscape of the 1990s.

George H.W. Bush refusing ‘the vision thing’ and Clinton championing neoliberal globalization above all else, with a secondary emphasis on ‘enlargement’ (the strengthening of peace by the spread of democracy to more and more countries). It seemed to many as the wave of the future, with the major political actors in the South falling in line led by China’s turn toward ‘market-oriented socialism’ and Latin American governments seeking maximal participation in globalization, essentially accepting the  structures and acting within framework of ‘the Washington Consensus’ and accepting the discipline of Bretton Woods Institutions.

George W. Bush crudely extended these ideas of the Clinton presidency by the unabashed advocacy of ‘democracy promotion’ that was a neoconservative foreign policy priority designed to validate the American grand strategy goal of reshaping the Middle East. Actually, the extension of ‘democracy’ by regime-changing interventions was widely discredited in Iraq (2003), but what lingered on for several years was the belief that ‘democracy’ was the wave of the future, especially when its adoption was the outgrowth of indigenous political forces. The Arab Spring gave renewed support to this idea that the peoples of the world, if given the opportunity, would choose political democracy and an equitable economic order, that choosing democracy was to be situated on the right side of history. Of course, there were deeply problematic aspects of this democratization trend, including hiding injustice in many forms within a framework of ‘democracy.’ This includes the exploitative inequities embedded in the logic and operating experience of capitalism as well as the Euro-American tendency to intervene in foreign societies, somehow claiming that such political intrusions reflect enlightened values (even when the concrete realities accurately viewed as a setback for humane governance reflecting the will of the citizenry).

The De-Democratizing Backlash

It is no longer tenable to uphold the view that history is flowing behind a strong current moving in a democratizing direction. Various anti-democratic developments have converged to create a period of uncertainty, if not pessimism, about whether the global political future will exhibit further retreats from democratic values and humane governance rather than or resume a democratizing energy.

The initially extremely hopeful outlook of the national movements comprising the Arab Spring produced neither citizen empowerment nor humane government, but political regression. Rather these anti-authoritarian uprisings led either to a counterrevolutionary restoration of augmented authoritarian regimes as in Egypt or to chaos and turmoil as in Syria, Yemen, and Libya. It also led to intensified oppression elsewhere, especially in the Gulf countries, and to a still inconclusive outcome in Tunisia.

Yet the most severe shock to those who were the cheerleaders of this earlier global worldwide democratizing trend began being administered by most democratic of procedures—free and fair elections. The leaders chosen by the voting public in countries as varied as India, the Philippines, Japan, Brazil, Hungary, and Poland, without overlooking the United States or taking note of the rise of far right movements throughout the world create an impression that the people distrust the established order for a variety of reasons, and give their support to demagogic political figures.  Each national experience is of course distinctive, yet there seem to some shared touchstones of concern—global and national inequality, migration and severe poverty, identity politics. These issues assume different configurations yet blame the established order for their feelings of acute alienation and rage.

Against this background, I put forward a simple interpretation of these developments that rests on the belief that these regimes that openly defy democratic procedures and human rights are highly unstable and will not endure. In my view, retaining over time the formal framework of democracy without delivering satisfactory results with respect to popular demands and expectations, will produce either a robust renewal of a more genuine democracy or give rise to fascism in various forms.

A Conceptual Odyssey

A mainstream media figure, Fareed Zakaria, has used the label ‘illiberal democracies’ to identify this autocratizing trend. In effect, he points to the fact that there is adherence to the main rituals of democracy, including elections, legislative and judicial performative roles, and political parties, while a hollowing out of substance is taking place as well as hostility to the democratic spirit being flaunted. Traditional ideas about ‘separation of powers,’ ‘checks and balances,’ and political community seem ineffectual and incapable of preventing anti-democratic policies from being manipulated and implemented. Instead the leader blames and punishes ‘enemies’ while making the public fearful.

What emerge in societies subjected to such a dynamic are various toxic forms of polarization. Such a polarizing dynamic replaces adherence to certain moderating values such as truth, decency, and above all some sense of the common good with a politics of pure alignment, substituting the ‘right and wrong’ debates of a healthy democracy with ‘win and lose’ alignments of opposing political parties.

The party with the backing of the demagogic leader acts as if it is part of an all or nothing struggle with its adversaries. As such, the membership enjoys little choice but to follow along, to break ranks over an issue of principle is to risk being thrown into outer darkness. Those in opposition, whether within the format of a political party or movement, are likely to encounter smear tactics or prison if their challenge gains political traction. In other words, resistance will generate denunciation and illiberal responses.

So much is true, but the idea of ‘illiberal democracy’ is a cover for an oxymoron. To be a democracy is to encourage citizens of conscience rather than behave like subjects entrapped by alignment. As earlier suggested, every genuine democracy carries disturbing baggage from its past into the present. These features of ‘democratic’ societies make true or real democracy a mirage, but this reality is usually obscured if not altogether denied. Contending political forces conspire to conceal these defects that draw into question the authenticity of democracy as enacted. The present threats to democratic claims are more radical, and are not capable of rationalization. A constitutional system cannot long accommodate profound contradictions of such magnitude.

The American experience with racism is illuminating. The civil rights movement succeeded in overcoming the most overt contradictions between creed and practice, but only because there was a willingness of both sides of the mainstream to reach a social, political, and cultural consensus based on the equality of all. There were debates, but few disagreements challenging the social and ethical core of this consensus. This was symbolized by the bipartisan martyrdom of Martin Luther King, Jr., memorialized by a national holiday. In contrast, it is the deeply divisive immigration policies and judicial appointments of Trump that produce sound and fury, and erode still further the constraints of republican democracy, which are intended to constrain potential hegemonic leaders as well as the tyranny of the majority. Trump mobilized the dormant minority political culture of fascism in a situation where other factors allowed him to achieve an upset victory in the 2016 presidential election. To sustain political ascendancy he must keep this alt-right base mobilized and the rest of society polarized, which by its character will produce some countervailing tendencies that mount resistance that goes beyond former liberalism to advocate a progressive alternative.

In my judgment, illiberal democracy has always been the real character of so-called democratic states due to their systemic failure to be inclusive toward those living within sovereign boundaries as well as being exploitative and oppressive toward many societies beyond their territorial limits. What liberals are now calling ‘illiberal democracies’ are more truly identified as pre-fascist, or more hopefully, as pre-democratic in the sense of approximating democratic ideals more vigorously than in the past.

What Next for Autocratic Illiberal Democracies

My main contention is that this marriage of autocracy and democracy cannot endure. It will either become avowedly fascist in character even if not in name, or experience a progressive backlash that will move democracies away from the extremes of capitalism, the denial of human rights, and autocratic modes of governance. In effect, autocratic governance of constitutional democracies is unstable and will be soon replaced. In effect, the various autocratic democracies now dominating the political landscape of the world are doomed as a political form, but what will come after them cannot now be foreseen. It could be either an occasion for celebration or despair, or both if different societies move in opposite directions, some toward a deeper democracies, some toward fascist governance.


Richard Falk is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, an international relations scholar, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, Distinguished Research Fellow, Orfalea Center of Global Studies, UCSB, author, co-author or editor of 40 books, and a speaker and activist on world affairs. In 2008, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) appointed Falk to a six-year term as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on “the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967.” Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies, and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. His most recent book is Achieving Human Rights (2009).

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 29 Apr 2019.

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