Is Your Country Slipping Into Authoritarianism? A Checklist

How does a county fall from the podium of democracy? And is it always a sudden fall?

Psychology tells us that there’s power in naming what’s happening to us:

I’m experiencing shame. 

I’m very fearful.

I often feel helpless.

To be aware of our own emotions is the first step towards holding them with loving-kindness, Buddhism would say. 

That is all great and important to practice. I would add: just like in politics.

There is one concept I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, and I would love to see it popularised. I would love to hear it spoken as often as we hear words like “brunch”, “keto”, “barre classes”, “an exploding social media platform with a horrifying dark side”, or “hand sanitizer”.

It’s de-democratisation (sexy, I know).

If democratisation can be defined as an increasing strengthening of a country’s democratic institutions and practices, then you might guess what de-democratisation is.  

It’s the process of dismantling those same institutions and processes. Sledge-hammering the pillars of democracy itself, punching democracy in the face – whatever metaphor works best for you. To use a less violent metaphor, let it be softly tapping democracy on the shoulder and saying, “You’re out.” 

A quick dive into authoritarianism (for example, via a military coup) is easy to spot. It’s straightforward, it’s there, it’s outrageous. We sign petitions over it, we post on social media, we gather and talk amongst ourselves, “Have you heard what’s happening in X? It’s proper scary.”

Yet when it’s a gradual process it can be more difficult to spot, to point a finger to, and – hence my desire to popularise this word – to name.  

What can that gradual process entail? Well, what are those pillars of democracy that are being sledge-hammered, one might ask. Thank you, imaginary reader, let me answer this for you. 

In political science, the definition of democracy is not as straightforward as you might think. There’s an article I would recommend for the extra curious ones, by David Collier and Steven Levitsky, called Democracy with Adjectives: Conceptual Innovation in Comparative Research. Among other issues, it talks about conceptual stretching that may occur when trying to categorise regimes, how the quest to define and categorise democracies has resulted in “democracy with adjectives”, leading to such paradoxical subtypes like “authoritarian democracy” (exactly). 

In short, if political science can’t provide us with one single definition, I definitely can’t. However, there are surely elements of a political system that make it more democratic. There’s a number of attributes that, when accumulated, place a regime on a spectrum. It has some kind of an ideal liberal democracy on one end and authoritarianism on the other. 

Here are some examples of such attributes: 

  • Access to voting: let’s assess voting laws and voter suppression policies,
  • Media freedom: let’s look into media ownership and how concentrated it is; the physical safety of journalists,
  • Separation of branches of the government: let’s see if the courts are independent, and so on.

There are two attributes that I’d like to draw your attention to as they might be resonating with you more strongly these days. Perhaps it’s something you’ve witnessed but didn’t know how to call, under which conceptual umbrella to place it. What’s truly saddening is that it’s not a single-country issue. But let me get back to these attributes of democratic regimes:

  • Forces that are used for external protection should not be used for internal control: for example, is the army brought to the streets to suppress protests? 
  • How political losers deal with a loss: for example, does a party or an individual who lost an election accept their defeat, or do they claim the election was rigged? If they were in power before, do they agree to leave? In well-established democracies, the losers tend to accept the outcome better since they generally trust the political process.

In short, to see any of these happen is a big deal. It becomes more than concerning actions that someone within the system is taking. What you might be witnessing is a move towards a new system whatsoever. 

And it should be equally scary if these steps are being taken by someone you approve or disapprove of. It doesn’t matter. This is where we ring that de-democratisation bell. 

Protests in São Paulo, 2016

An important distinction (or the World’s Most Boring Disclaimer): de-democratisation doesn’t mean a party you didn’t support is in power. It doesn’t even refer to someone holding rather terrifying political beliefs being in power – even the most hateful politician might not engage in de-democratisation.  We shouldn’t be ringing that de-democratisation bell unfairly. But when it happens, we have to be vigilant. 

Protests in Budapest, 2018

There’s power in naming what’s happening. 

One essential difference here between naming our feelings and naming de-democratisation is that we shouldn’t hold it with loving-kindness (sorry, increasingly authoritarian regimes!). 

We should name it loud and clear, we should talk about it, and, most importantly, we should vote against it (if the regime still permits it).  

Why? 

Because have you heard what’s happening in X? It’s proper scary.  

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