Not Your Father’s Dictators
The decline in democracy is accelerating. We should be afraid, very afraid.
The annual Freedom House report on the state of global democracy has just been released, and the message is disturbing. According to Freedom in the World, democracy has declined for each of the past fifteen years. More countries experienced an erosion of freedom in 2020 than in any other year this century. Only 20 percent of the global population lives in what Freedom House designates as “free” societies, a kind of surrogate indicator for stable democracy.
India, the world’s most populous democracy and a country frequently cited as evidence that elections and civil liberties can flourish in less wealthy environments, dropped from “free” to “partly free” on the Freedom House scale. The global campaign against minority groups intensified, as the People’s Republic of China widened a project combining cultural genocide and ethnic cleansing against the Uighurs and other groups and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi deepened his efforts against his country’s 195 million Muslims, a campaign that could develop into another massive ethnic cleansing enterprise.
An underlying narrative of the Freedom House report is that the methods devised by what have been called modern authoritarians have proved highly effective in enabling strongmen to gain and, more significantly, retain power, in some cases indefinitely. In the early years of this century, the “dictator’s playbook” focused on securing control over the institutions that undergird pluralism and the rule of law: the judiciary, media, civil society. But Freedom House data suggest that, over the past five years, elections themselves have become less free, fair, and honest and more susceptible to rigging and fraud, especially elections of heads of state. These trends suggest that would-be autocrats who used to be uneasy about fixing election mechanics have become more oblivious to international opinion and more creative in their techniques to undermine the most fundamental of all democratic institutions, the ballot box.
Another indicator that has suddenly lurched downward is the measure of states’ interference in private communications. This indicator once assessed whether citizens could speak freely about political matters on the phone, in a pub, or at a family gathering without having to fear dire consequences from a totalitarian state. Today, the indicator usually reflects the use of criminal charges, harassment, and other reprisals to punish critical speech on social media by either ordinary people or prominent figures whose punishment deters others. The decline reflects intensified state measures to punish people for insulting the state’s leader, criticizing the political system, or planning demonstrations. In Soviet times, people could be sent to the gulag for smuggling copies of 1984. Dictators are now less likely to fear books than Twitter messages. And while social media was initially hailed as an instrument for advancing freedom, as with the Arab Spring, wily strongmen have made Twitter and other platforms into a control mechanism, a powerful surveillance weapon, and a propaganda vehicle par excellence.
Points of Comparison
How low have conditions sunk? Earlier in this century, when democracy began to erode in Hungary, Turkey, and Venezuela, it was often noted that, while the overall trajectory was troubling, conditions were clearly better than in the 1970s, when Freedom House told a story of a world dominated by totalitarians and dictators, with stable democratic societies pretty much restricted to North America, Western Europe, and a few scattered locales like Japan, Israel, and Costa Rica. Back then, violent methods were widely employed to suppress critics. There were not only gulags for Soviet dissidents, but death squads for the opposition in Argentina and El Salvador. When military juntas took power, the first order of business was often the murder of thousands of oppositionists, machine-gunned in stadiums or dropped from airplanes.
After Southeast Asia fell to Communist forces, the world witnessed the exodus of the boat people from Vietnam, followed by the Cambodian catastrophe. The United States was often on the sidelines—recovering from Watergate, a polarized decade of often violent protest, and the Vietnam military defeat. President Carter declared that America had gotten over its “inordinate fear of Communism,” and the country was consumed by self-doubt and confusion over its role as leader of the free world.
Global politics has still not sunk to a 1970s level; but the gap is steadily narrowing, and the pace has accelerated over the past several years.
True, the new authoritarians have shown a reluctance to shed blood, at least on the massive scale that marked the Argentine junta, Mengistu’s regime in Ethiopia, or the Khmer Rouge. This is less a step toward a more humanitarian autocracy than a reflection of the abandonment of Marxist revolution, and the development of sophisticated methods of political control that enable regimes to suppress protests without bloodshed; eavesdrop on critics’ phones, emails, and social media messages; and pump out propaganda that is more interesting and credible than the dross that appeared in Pravda. Their methods of political control are undergoing constant refinement, with the goal of choking off manifestations of opposition before they require the deployment of security forces. Today in Russia, China, or even Venezuela or Turkey there is little space for the development of a nationwide protest movement à la Poland’s Solidarity.
The past few years have also seen an upsurge in political prisoners, a phenomenon redolent of a bygone era and a useful measure of global human rights. In China, hundreds of thousands of Uighurs and other Muslims have been incarcerated in reeducation camps that Beijing likens to social work. The roster of political prisoners in Turkey extends to the many thousands and includes journalists, academics, government workers, civil-society activists, elected officials, and people who simply read the wrong book or attended the wrong school. Something similar has happened in Egypt since the 2013 coup that brought Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to power: There are many more political prisoners under el-Sisi than during the reign of the former president, Hosni Mubarak. Similar conditions prevail in Venezuela, Nicaragua, Belarus, Saudi Arabia, and a growing number of quasi-democracies like India and the Philippines.
Conditions have notably worsened in China. After Stalin, the Soviets handed out seven-year sentences or ten-year stints in the gulag, sometimes offering exile as an alternative. In China today, sentences of fifteen or twenty years are not unknown. In some cases, like that of the distinguished Uighur intellectual Ilham Tohti, life sentences have been handed out; and exile is not an option. The authorities have chased down Hong Kong democracy activists fleeing to Taiwan and have grown increasingly determined to seek the return of Uighurs who have defected to other countries, either demanding action from neighboring governments or sending thugs abroad in kidnapping operations.
Thus, notable in the Freedom House findings is the phenomenon of autocracies and dictatorships whose rankings, already quite bad, defy political logic and continue to decline, with the worst getting even worse. Even China and Russia, countries where political rights and civil liberties are near rock-bottom, find it necessary to squeeze even harder in their relentless drive to stifle relatively small opposition movements and signs of dissent and to bring independent-minded minority groups to heel—or, as with Alexei Navalny, to use whatever means are at hand, be it poison or a compliant justice system, to nullify a single critic.
A League of Their Own
In the latter stages of the Cold War, there was much speculation about liberalized or relaxed autocracy, a description often applied to the Soviet Union during the Brezhnev years as well as to the East European satellites during the same period and to post-Mao China. In our times, the idea of liberalized autocracy is flatly rejected by Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Nicolás Maduro.
This implacability is largely due to the determination of today’s strongmen to avoid the Gorbachev phenomenon, the rise of a reformer whose faulty efforts at change threaten the entire edifice. While many in the West ascribed the remarkably complete collapse of the Soviet system to corruption, geriatric leadership, and an inability to compete with capitalism, the Chinese Communists and other despots saw different dynamics: weak leadership and an unwillingness to use an iron fist to stem crises and save the system, no matter the human cost. The forces that hold sway in modern autocracies show little evidence of serious factional divisions in which liberalizers face off against hardline forces. There are no Gorbachevs today, and while some regimes have faced serious street protests, they invariably succeed in neutralizing, and in some cases crushing, opposition movements.
Today’s autocrats never apologize and seldom compromise. They muzzle critics, destroy private-sector adversaries, and treat opponents as traitors who owe their allegiance to the United States or the EU. They ensure that the key institutions of security, the police, secret police, and military are in competent and loyal hands. The system has worked well. That an oafish dictator like Belarus’ Alexander Lukashenko can survive an upsurge in nationwide protest is a sign that even the most incompetent modern dictator can brazen it out if he controls the security apparatus and holds firm long enough. An even more unsettling lesson is the survival of the Maduro regime in the face of a politically engineered economic catastrophe that has brought a once prosperous country to the point of near starvation.
And what of the many countries that embraced freedom during the final years of the Cold War in Central and Eastern Europe, South and Central America, Asia, and Africa?
Here, the news is less pessimistic. Most new democracies remain committed to honest elections; their citizens enjoy an impressive array of civil freedoms. Few have rejected liberal democracy as in Hungary, where Viktor Orbán has created something akin to a one-party state by gaining control of the administration in its entirety. But many of these countries are plagued by endemic corruption, weak parties, and a disturbing rise of populist alternatives. Their political futures are unclear, as is the fate of their democratic institutions.
Under the Trump Administration, the United States treated the adversaries of democracy like Putin, Orbán, and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro as friends and potential allies. The Biden Administration has promised changes in America’s relationships with the world’s dictators and strongmen and will no doubt speak out vigorously on the persecution of Uighurs, the treatment of Navalny, and similar outrages. But the new administration faces a murderers’ row of autocrats who are smarter than yesterday’s tyrants, more sophisticated, harder working, and less likely to give ground before world opinion. They are a collection of despots who work in cooperation to develop new methods of communication, new surveillance techniques, and updated strategies to smother civil society before it produces full-blown opposition. If the Biden Administration is to stem the steady expansion of modern authoritarianism, much less roll back the unsettling number of gains, it must recognize that it is dealing with leaders who are not only smart but anticipate a lifetime in power. Democracy will require a new playbook to compete with adversaries who have already won out over serious threats and are armed with the most advanced political weapons of the 21st century.
Arch Puddington is senior emeritus scholar at Freedom House. He has written widely on global democracy, and is author of the Freedom House Special Report, Breaking Down Democracy: Goals, Strategies, and Methods of Modern Authoritarians (2017).
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