I don’t like to write about American politics. Anything I say becomes interpreted through the lens of partisanship rather than as political theory. At the same time, it’s become difficult to discuss the global decline of democracy without mentioning the United States. Of course, it does help to limit the discussion to specific countries like India or Hungary. The detachment allows Americans to think through concepts without the usual partisan bias. Unfortunately, discussions on democratic backsliding in other countries have begun to parallel experiences in the United States so closely that astute readers find these analyses merely as a euphemism for politics in their own country.
Freedom House has identified a consistent democracy gap for the past fifteen years where the number of countries with score declines outnumbers those with gains. Moreover, the democracy gap has accelerated in recent years. Most notably the United States has suffered significant score declines over the past ten years. Of course, critics claim this is an overreaction. Elections go on. Even Donald Trump found it impossible to overturn an election.
But democratic backsliding is not the same as a breakdown.The distinction between the two is important to understand. It’s easier to recognize a breakdown of democracy. Elections get cancelled. Executives close legislatures. Backsliding, on the other hand, “yields situations that are fluid and ill-defined” according to Nancy Bermeo. It reduces the quality of democratic institutions and governance, but does not abandon them. In other words, it merely diminishes democracy. In their new book, Backsliding: Democratic Regress in the Contemporary World, Stephan Haggard and Robert Kaufman offer some clarity through a theoretical framework designed to help explain this political phenomenon.
Haggard and Kaufman argue democratic backsliding begins in an environment of political polarization. Moreover, the polarization extends beyond political elites into the general public. Béla Greskovits notes, “Backsliding is usually traced to the radicalization of sizeable groups within the remaining active citizenry.” Further research from Milan Svolik has shown how polarization diminishes the importance of democratic values in voting behavior. A polarized electorate places greater importance on ideological positions from candidates rather than their commitment to the democratic process.
A pivotal moment in a backsliding episode revolves around the control of the executive. So long as democratic leaders remain in control of the executive, the backsliding period has limited potential. Of course, democratic institutions may weaken over this period. For example, the United States began its backsliding episode during the Obama administration. However, the election of Donald Trump accelerated the process. It helps to recognize “backsliding is typically associated with the ceding of discretionary powers to the executive.” So long as anti-system parties remain out of power, the backsliding episode has constraints and limitations.
Once an anti-system leader seizes control of the executive, they look for opportunities to remove checks on their power. I don’t think anti-system parties or politicians oppose democracy in principle. Rather polarization shifts political priorities to policy preferences rather than the political process. In other words, parties pursue their political agenda at any cost without consideration of the implications on institutions or the system as a whole. Moreover, the distance between parties incentivizes leaders to “lock in their policy preferences.”
The greatest obstacle, according to Haggard and Kaufman, for executives to centralize their authority is the legislature. They view the most serious form of backsliding as a “collapse in the separation of powers.” In other words, the legislature gradually cedes powers to the executive and permits the control of other institutions through the “appointment of loyalists and sycophants.” It is the legislature who preserves the independence of institutions such as the courts, election officials, and other officeholders.
The United States demonstrated the importance of an independent judiciary in the 2020 election. The most egregious examples of backsliding involve the corruption of the judiciary through political reforms. Both Poland and Hungary reformed their courts in ways the executive would influence their decisions. But their experiences demonstrate why democracies should not rely on independent institutions to counter backsliding. Unless the legislature stands up to the executive, other institutions remain vulnerable.
It’s worth taking a moment to consider whether presidential or parliamentary systems face the greater risk from democratic backsliding. Many theorists have argued presidential systems face greater risks of backsliding and breakdown. Indeed, it’s natural to view presidential elections as plebiscitarian. They provide legitimacy for leaders with autocratic tendencies to centralize power. However, parliamentary systems face a unique challenge because the distinction between the executive and legislature is always less clear. Nonetheless, Haggard and Kaufman find little democratic backsliding in established Western parliamentary democracies so far. Still, this is likely due to the nature of coalition governments where minor parties exercise an important check on the executive despite the lack of a formal separation of powers.
Periods of backsliding chip away at democratic institutions. They weaken institutions until they can no longer effectively govern. Over time, the needs of the public get ignored. People look to centralize authority to simply get things done. In other words, people lose faith in democracy itself without even realizing it. It’s easy to believe democracy exists so long as elections happen. But democracy is so much more than elections. Institutions continue to matter, but they cannot withstand an ongoing assault on its foundations. The people must eventually stand up for democratic governance.
Democracy in its most elemental form is the government of the people. In other words, the people have the final say over whether their government remains democratic or devolves into some form of authoritarianism. Democratic institutions can only do so much when political opinion turns against them. At the same time, the people have the power to reverse episodes of democratic backsliding so long as they do not allow it to go too far. Indeed, periods of backsliding do often stop before a full breakdown occurs. But Haggard and Kaufman emphasize, “Barely surviving as a liberal democracy should not be considered an accomplishment but rather a reminder of the risks that face both liberal and electoral democracies.”
Stephan Haggard and Robert Kaufman join the Democracy Paradox tomorrow to discuss democratic backsliding in greater depth.
Further Reading on Democratic Backsliding
Nancy Bermeo (2016) “On Democratic Backsliding,” Journal of Democracy
Douglas M. Gibler and Kirk A. Randazzo (2011) “Testing the Effects of Independent Judiciaries on the Likelihood of Democratic Backsliding,” American Journal of Political Science
Béla Greskovits (2015) “The Hollowing and Backsliding of Democracy in East Central Europe,” Global Policy
Stephan Haggard and Robert Kaufman (2021), Backsliding: Democratic Regress in the Contemporary World
Stephan Haggard and Robert Kaufman (2021) “The Anatomy of Democratic Backsliding,” Journal of Democracy
Valeriya Mechkova, Anna Lührmann, and Staffan I. Lindberg (2017) “How Much Democratic Backsliding?” Journal of Democracy
Aníbal Pérez-Liñán (2020) “Impeachment or Backsliding Threats to Democracy in the Twenty-First Century,” Revista Brasileira de Ciências Sociais
Wojciech Przybylski (2018) “Can Poland’s Backsliding Be Stopped?” Journal of Democracy
Sarah Repucci and Amy Slipowitz (2021) Freedom in the World 2021: Democracy Under Siege
Milan Svolik (2020) “When Polarization Trumps Civic Virtue: Partisan Conflict and the Subversion of Democracy by Incumbents,” Quarterly Journal of Political Science