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The Dictators’ Last Stand Why the New Autocrats Are Weaker Than They Look

Author: Yascha Mounk

Affiliation: Johns Hopkins University    

Organization/Publisher: Foreign Affairs 

Date/Place: September, 2019

Type: Analysis 

Number of Pages: 12 pages 


Key words: Decline of Democracy, The rise of Populism, Sustainability of Legitimacy  


The overall focus of this article is how the rise of populist leaders has affected democracy negatively in numerous countries in the last decade, and the sources and the sustainability of the legitimacy of populists. The last decade has been good for dictatorship and a terrible decade for democracy. While the global influence of the world’s most powerful authoritarian countries such as China and Russia has grown rapidly with cumulative GDP equal or greater than that of Western liberal democracies, the later witnessed consecutive years of a global recession with dramatic collapse of democracies in every region including in countries where they once seemed stable and strong. According to the author, this trend of decline of democratic institutions is associated with growing rise of populist parties and candidates, in both countries of infant democracy and countries with strong traditions of democracy. The scholarly consensus that demagogues either would never win power in the long-established democracies of North America and Western Europe, or would be limited by strong democratic institutions and vibrant civil societies, is dead. The ascent of Donald Trump in the United States, Matteo Salvini in Italy, and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil has proved that populists can win power in some of the most rich and long-established democracies in the world. Similarly, the rapid decline of democracy in countries such as Hungary, and Venezuela has shown that populist leaders can turn their countries into either competitive authoritarian regimes or dictatorships. The populist authoritarian rulers in these countries share two important features: they came to power through free and fair elections with an anti-elitist and anti-pluralist discourse, then subsequently used their victories to concentrate power in their own hands by weakening institutions such as the judiciary, opposition parties and critical media outlets. Despite this fact, the author contends that presenting populist leaders as a threat to liberal democracy, once considered as the obvious endpoint of mankind’s political evolution,  is a one-way street and overlooks a crucial factor – i.e. the source and sustainability of legitimacy. While the legitimacy of populist autocrats hinge on their ability to maintain the impression that they speak for “the people,” the more power these leaders acquire, the less plausible that pretense appears. This increases the possibility of a vicious cycle of populist legitimacy. When domestic crisis or an external shock challenges a populist regime’s popularity, that regime must resort to overt oppressions to maintain its power. The more overt the populist’s oppression grows, the more it discloses the disguise of its claim to govern in the name of the people. As a majority of the population becomes aware that they are in danger of losing their individual liberties and collective self-determination, resistance to the regime may grow higher and higher. Although the ultimate result of this struggle is by no means predestined, if the past decade has been gloomily bad for democracy, the next one may well turn out to be shockingly hard to autocrats.

By: Jemal Muhamed, CIGA Research Associate



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