There is no more important work in comparative politics in the last ten years than Competitive Authoritarianism. Its ideas completely disrupted conceptual expectations about democracy. Some of the intellectual currents existed before its publication. Indeed, Levitsky and Way had published an article which outlined their ideas as early as 2002 in the Journal of Democracy. But the book consolidated these ideas into a single text which serves as a landmark for comparative political study.
It helps to revisit the idea of democracy adopted by Huntington in The Third Wave where he quoted Schumpeter to define democracy as “a competitive struggle for people’s vote.” I think it helps to reinterpret Schumpeter through Huntington to show how this definition of democracy influenced a generation of scholars including some of the giants of political science. Even Dahl placed enormous faith in political majorities. Looking back upon his earlier work, it is evident he trusted vertical forms of accountability more than horizontal forms like the judiciary. It is true Dahl set many conditions beyond the presence of elections for his idealized form of liberal democracy called polyarchy, but he never truly challenged elections as an institution of democracy.
Of course, scholars have long recognized a significant difference between the Potemkin elections in totalitarian nations like Russia where voters were never given a choice. But democratization was largely considered the liberalization of this institution to include genuine competition. Levitsky and Way challenged this notion by showing how competitive elections may remain unfree and unfair. They explain, “Elections are ‘won’ in the weeks and months prior to the actual vote, as opposition forces are debilitated by repression, denial of resources, co-optation, and a variety of other legal and illegal machinations.” These ideas have been elaborated in a recent work from Brian Klaas and Nic Cheeseman, How to Rig an Election. But the brilliance of Levitsky and Way was in the recognition of how a competitive electoral process was not enough to constitute democracy. It remained authoritarian in a way nether Schumpeter nor Huntington may have envisioned. Elections may offer the possibility of regime change but this is not enough for true democratization.
Back in 1997, Fareed Zakaria wrote a classic article in Foreign Affairs called “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy.” He identified how the proliferation of democracy had allowed it to grow apart from liberalism with disturbing results. Many of the nations he referred to as illiberal democracies were reclassified as competitive authoritarian regimes. Zakaria was focused on how these electoral governments had abandoned a commitment to the rule of law and human rights. Levitsky and Way recognized these governments were not simply illiberal but erected obstacles for opposition candidates which made elections unfair. They challenged Zakaria’s acceptance of these governments as democracies.
Marc Plattner had written the original response in the pages of Foreign Affairs. He argued liberalism and democracy were necessary complements to one another. It was dangerous to decouple liberalism from democracy because it ultimately resulted in the proliferation of neither. Zakaria had argued American foreign policy had already decoupled democracy from liberalism but his solution was to promote liberalism rather than democracy. Plattner argued this strategy was defective because the modern conception of liberalism relied on democratic governance. But he failed to dislodge the notion of the illiberal democracy. Was it possible for democracy to foster an illiberal form of government?
Levitsky and Way undercut the Schumpeterian definition of democracy through clear demonstrations of how competitive elections were not enough to foster democracy. The book goes beyond this initial notion to show how competitive authoritarianism can transition into democracy or hegemonic authoritarianism. Subsequent work has challenged their ideas of linkage and leverage as determinants of democratization. The backsliding of democratic norms within Eastern Europe, especially Hungary, have challenged their idea of linkage to Europe as key to democratization. The events of the past ten years have made the study of competitive authoritarianism more nuanced and complex. Moreover, competitive authoritarianism may persist far beyond the collapse of the Soviet Union. Levitsky and Way saw its emergence as a temporary phenomenon brought about from a Western emphasis on elections. But many regimes have found elections serve as effective institutions of legitimization. And other countries seem to believe their practices are simply competitive rather than authoritarian.
Steven Levitsky recently wrote a new book with Daniel Ziblatt where he emphasized the role of norms and customs within democratic governance. His book How Democracies Die emphasized how the unwritten rules of democracy may have a larger affect on the political system than its formal institutions and laws. These ideas have their genesis in Competitive Authoritarianism, “In much of the developing world, formal rules of the game – including core state, regime, and market institutions – are unstable and weakly enforced. Constitutional rules and procedures are routinely circumvented, violated and dismantled.” Recent literature has expanded this insight to advanced democracies where these bonds have become challenged and at times have weakened. Competitive Authoritarianism is not simply a possibility for political systems on the precipice between democracy and authoritarianism. It may reflect a real possibility for those who take democracy for granted.
jmk, carmel, indiana, email@example.com
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