Is Authoritarianism on the rise as Bernie Sanders Claims?
Yes, and it has been for 10 to 15 years. It’s not just the US, though. At least 24 Western democracies have been falling in measures of democracy, slipping towards authoritarianism. This is occurring through a combination of executive aggrandizement, meaning that the leader of the nation is getting more and more power, often with the help of a willing legislative body; and various forms of voter suppression. I wrote a paper dealing with this subject for my Poli Sci degree. This is from the relevant part of my paper, and the sources I used will follow. It’s probably kinda dry, but it should give you some helpful information.
The term “democratic backsliding” is most commonly used in connection to research that is carried out by V-Dem and Freedom House, two research groups that each track hundreds of variables in determining the level of democracy within a nation. These researchers have identified democratic backsliding based on their wide-ranging indices, yet the phenomenon itself is, as of yet, relatively poorly understood.
Aside from how recent it is, there exists a challenge in defining anything that can involve a myriad of types of government and types of leadership, as well as the huge range of ways in which backsliding presents itself. It is also important to note that backsliding has taken different forms in this recent trend than it has in the past; sudden collapse of governments have been replaced by incremental shifts in democracy (Bermeo 2016).
For the purpose of this research, the term democratic backsliding will be meant as a reference to a decrease in democracy scores as measured by these research groups, but it would be unfitting to leave Bermeo’s research overlooked, however, as it serves to define what those lowered scores measure. This paper identifies three classic “dramatic” forms of backsliding that have been seen significantly less in modern times: “Coups d’état, executive coups by elected leaders, and blatant election-day vote fraud.” These, however, have been replaced by new distinct forms of democratic backsliding (Bermeo 2016).
Promissory coups take place when the head of the government is thrown out with the promise that elections to create a better democracy will occur at a future date. Most of these new post-coup governments held on to power for extended periods of time, sometimes for more than 6 years. The share of overall coups that fall into this category has risen from 35% before 1990 to 85% since then.
Executive aggrandizement is a rather common but unique form of democratic backsliding seen in recent decades. Unlike other forms, this does not replace the executive of the government, but instead takes place when an elected leader erodes checks and balances on executive power piece by piece. Importantly, Bermeo writes that “the defining feature of executive aggrandizement is that institutional change is either put to some sort of vote or legally decreed by a freely elected official-meaning that the change can be framed as having resulted from a democratic mandate.” To that end, the most independent checks, media and judicial systems, tend to be targeted the most heavily.
Strategic election manipulation is described as “a range of actions aimed at tilting the electoral playing field in favor of incumbents.” This is an intentional form of election manipulation that often occurs well before Election Day and does not appear as any sort of blatant manipulation. This type of decline is often found with executive aggrandizement and has been on the rise such that overall election manipulation globally has never really gone done, even in the age of international monitors, because it has merely shifted from blatant rigging to subtle manipulation.
Freedom House, founded in 1941, describes itself as “an independent watchdog organization dedicated to the expansion of freedom and democracy around the world.” This organization has published an annual report titled Freedom in the World since 1973 using a range of variables to measure “the real-world rights and freedoms” of individuals within nation (About us | Freedom House n.d.). Freedom House has recorded democratic backsliding since the 2006 report in which they first found that more countries were in decline than were improving, but the numbers of each were still fairly even. The 2018 report, which tracked 195 countries and 14 territories for the year 2017, found only about 35 countries improving to over 70 in decline, making it the most significant year to date for democratic backsliding.
Among those in decline were Turkey, Serbia, Hungary, Brazil, and the United States, to name a few, and is found in every region of the world (Freedom in the World 2018 | Freedom House 2018).
Varieties of Democracy (referred to as V-Dem) released its 2018 report using over 450 indicators from more than 200 “political bodies” in collaboration with more than 3,000 researchers. Examining 7 distinct democracy types, 5 main democratic indices, and over 50 individual measures of democracy as a whole, V-Dem has measured a growing trend of democratic backsliding since at least 2010, although their data finds that 2017 was the first year that there were as many countries in decline as there were improving.
The V-Dem data shows several countries in decline, including Turkey, India, Brazil, Russia, Ukraine, Israel, and the United States. The data show declining democracy in several countries that were, at minimum, classified as electoral democracies, but one of the most notable examples comes from Turkey, where their electoral-democracy index score fell from .69 to .34 (with 1 being full democracy and 0 being no democracy) from 2006-2016.
Other countries, notably Honduras, Zambia, Serbia, and Bangladesh fell into the ‘electoral autocracy’ category in that same time span, and Thailand went from dictatorship to electoral democracy and back to dictatorship again (Democracy for All? 2018). While the overall findings may not seem as severe as the Freedom House data, the trends found by both research groups are clearly in agreement that this is a pattern that has been growing over the last decade. It is also noteworthy that both sets of data identify decline in many of the same countries, showing the same variety of democracies in decline independently of each other.
Bermeo, Nancy. 2016. On DemOcratic BacksliDing. www.uky.edu/~.
“Freedom in the World 2018 | Freedom House.” 2018. Freedom in the World. https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/freedom-world-2018.
“The Nature of Democratic Backsliding in Europe – Carnegie Europe – Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.” https://carnegieeurope.eu/2018/07/24/nature-of-democratic-backsliding-in-europe-pub-76868.