Stephan Haggard and Robert Kaufman on Democratic Backsliding

Stephan Haggard
Stephan Haggard and Robert Kaufman


Stephan Haggard and Robert Kaufman join the podcast to discuss their new book, Backsliding: Democratic Regress in the Contemporary World. Stephan is the Lawrence and Sallye Krause Distinguished Professor at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California, San Diego. Robert Kaufman is a distinguished professor of political science at Rutgers University. 

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The way we conceive of democracy is being challenged by these regimes and, by that I mean, because the process of backsliding is so incremental, it’s difficult to see where these boundaries are.

Stephan Haggard

Key Highlights

  • Describes democratic backsliding
  • How polarization contributes to backsliding
  • The role of legislatures in backsliding episodes
  • What it means when authoritarians “reform” judiciaries
  • How can citizens reverse democratic backsliding?

Podcast Transcript

Today’s conversation touches on a common theme of this podcast. We’re talking about democratic backsliding. It’s a great introduction for any new listeners out there, because we discuss the most common threat to democracy today. We also touch on real world examples including the United States. But I also expect long time listeners will find my guests insightful as well. 

Stephan Haggard and Robert Kaufman are long time scholars of democracy and democratization. Their latest book is Backsliding: Democratic Regress in the Contemporary World. Unlike many other works on democratic erosion or backsliding, it offers a theoretical framework to explain how backsliding occurs. 

But before we begin I want to thank the podcast Democracy in Danger for reviewing Democracy Paradox on Apple Podcasts. They highlighted a past episode featuring James Loxton with an extensive review. Those who don’t know about Democracy in Danger need to check them out. Their podcast is actually one of the best to learn more about democratic backsliding around the world. Their recent series of episodes called “Some Fine States” did a great job showing how democratic backsliding occurs at the subnational level in the United States. So, it was cool to see they liked this podcast as well. 

I love to see reviews from other podcasts or organizations. So, write a short review of this podcast and I’ll try to read it aloud in a future episode. You can also reach out to me at jkempf@democracyparadox.com. But for now… this is my conversation with Stephan Haggard and Robert Kaufman…

jmk

Robert Kaufman and Stephan Haggard, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.

Stephan Haggard

I’m happy to be here.

Robert Kaufman

Thank you.

jmk

Well, Bob and Steph, this podcast has talked about democratic backsliding in a number of different ways, in a number of different contexts already. But what I really liked about your book was that it offered a model that really breaks down what we call democratic backsliding. I do want to talk about the model, but I’d like to use an example to kind of flesh it out. Because when we talk about abstractions, it can sometimes become difficult and go over people’s head. But I think it really brings it to life when we can use an example like Poland, where there’s obvious backsliding and it seems like one of the more paradigmatic cases from your book. So, why don’t we start there? Can you describe the process of backsliding in Poland and how it fits your model?

Stephan Haggard

Sure. I’ll start and Bob can jump in. Actually, Hungary and Poland should be seen as a kind of pair, because in fact, the model of European backsliding is probably Victor Orbán’s Fidesz in Hungary and Poland is also a little bit of a strange case because the autocrat, Jarosław Kaczyński, has actually managed to consolidate power through his control of the party rather than actually being prime minister of the country. He hasn’t held that position in the backsliding period and this case of backsliding started with the election of the Law and Justice party in 2015. It was a party that had been one side of a kind of political duopoly after the breakdown of the initial post-communist party system. And he and his brother took this party to the populist right over the course of the early 2010s.

But the backsliding episode itself really followed the standard playbook which is starting with a reform of the judiciary. Of course, these things are called reforms. This was very complex and difficult for publics to follow. It had to do with the way that judges were actually appointed and sanctioned and the conditions under which they could be removed. But essentially those powers were shifted from a relatively independent judicial council back to the parliament. So, you had more or less direct interference in the judiciary and that’s a kind of keystone in many of these cases. Because once you start to tamper with the judiciary, then the judiciary is not in a position to enforce rights and other cases that might be brought by oppositions.

And then the second feature of this, which I think also is quite common. I’m not going to go into more detail than this, but was a kind of assault on the media. And this is a very complex process. Involved literally hundreds of regulatory actions on the part of a national media council that made it extremely difficult for media to operate completely freely, interestingly also by attacking foreign media as kind of intervening in the Polish political system. And so, in tandem, these kinds of actions just made it extremely difficult for oppositions to operate.

I will make one more point. COVID provided additional opportunities, because as we’ve seen in a number of these autocratic cases, the administration used the COVID lockdown to go after public protests even if they’re outside, you know, socially distanced and so forth. And so, gradually Poland may still be democratic because the electoral system… we still don’t know. We’ve got elections coming up in a couple of years, but right now it’s clearly regressed from the democracy it once was.

jmk

What about Hungary? Would you consider that a democracy still? I know Victor Orbán has taken exceptional powers during the pandemic. Do you consider Hungary to still be a democracy today?

Robert Kaufman

The short answer is no. Actually, some of these rating agencies, institutions like Freedom House or Polity or V-Dem have gone for quite a while without downgrading Hungary. But a lot of the people who look at Hungary closely argue that it became authoritarian well before 2020. It has been finally downgraded by most of these institutions to non-democratic, but that’s been very recent. But I think Orbán very subtly and I think Steph makes the important point here that all of these are kind of incremental steps that are hard to detect and hard to mobilize opposition.

But almost immediately Orbán began to make changes in all of the pillars of a liberal democratic system including the judiciary, harassing the press, harassing civil society, manipulating electoral laws to put the opposition at a serious disadvantage and this has been going on almost as soon as they took office for the second time in 2010. Justin, if I can come back to Poland for a moment and kind of zoom out a little bit. I think there’s some background both to Poland and Hungary and then there’s a kind of a puzzle. The background is first of all polarization. That these were deeply divided societies. I think they emerged from the post-communist era divided, but then those divisions were stoked from above by right-wing populists. And this, I think, sets the stage for the kinds of abuses that Steph has described.

The second thing that sets the stage in both of these cases and almost all of our other cases as well is the capture of a majority of the legislature. That’s a very important part of our general model, because once you have control of the legislature whether through a ruling party or coalition and, once you have control, the legislature becomes a platform for all these other abuses. First of all, it eliminates oversight. So, it frees the executive from any kind of accountability and secondly, it authorizes new powers for the executive and you see this in particular in Hungary, but also in Poland. Control over the judiciary. Control over the police. Control over official monitoring of the press and civil society and it just gets tighter and tighter.

jmk

There’s a lot to unpack in the account that you just gave to Hungary, obviously. And there’s a lot of different things I want to touch on, but the first thing I’d like to kind of delve into is we’ve got two examples now. We have Hungary and Poland and obviously your book names a number of additional examples, but just to start with Hungary and Poland. We’ve got Hungary. That is a clear example where backsliding has brought about democratic breakdown. Then we’ve got Poland which is an example of democratic backsliding that may or may not have produced breakdown. Steph, let me jump over to you on this one. How is democratic backsliding different from a full-blown democratic breakdown?

Stephan Haggard

Yeah, the phenomena of backsliding itself is distinctive from the standard way in which authoritarian regimes have typically been installed in the second half of the 20th century which was through the military coup. So, typically democratic governments would be displaced by coalitions of actors that included economic elites and the military, typically right-wing interventions, some left-wing interventions, or just self-interested military interventions. But the distinctive feature of backsliding is that at least in the first instance these regimes are brought to power by elections which are, again in the first instance, free and fair which is sort of a curious feature of these systems.

So, you know, that’s really the first point, you know, that they come to power in this distinctive way and we have to understand why voters would vote for autocrats. The way we conceive of democracy is being challenged by these regimes. And by that, I mean, because the process of backsliding is so incremental, it’s difficult to see where these boundaries are. We have a very clear sense of what backsliding to authoritarianism would be which is that the chance of an opposition coming to power basically falls to zero. But at the time it’s very difficult to see that. It’s very difficult to judge right now what the prospects of the Hungarian and Polish oppositions might be in upcoming elections. You only see that after the fact.

So, I think one of the challenges that backsliding poses is that line between democracy and authoritarianism is very fluid and slippery and autocrats exploit that. And you frequently hear victims or citizens in autocracies asking this question, ‘Is this happening? Is this legitimate? How do we think about some particular change that the autocrat has made?’ And I think that’s one of the reasons why it’s difficult to judge whether any given system has regressed all the way to authoritarian rule.

jmk

There’s a line in your recent article in the Journal of Democracy titled, “The Anatomy of Democratic Backsliding,” where you write, “Even if opposition groups are aware of what is happening, the wider public may not recognize that the playing field has been decisively tilted until it is too late to mount a meaningful defense.” And this is really the danger that you bring up about democratic backsliding. The fact that the moment that you’re positive that it’s actually occurring is the moment that it’s too late to actually do anything about it.

So, I wanted to kind of like dip in deeper into some of the ideas in terms of this process. And one of the things Bob that you mentioned about democratic backsliding that I thought was so key to it is everything begins with polarization under your model. And you mentioned how Poland and Hungary were both deeply polarized societies. Why does backsliding begin with polarization? Does it have to? Is it a situation that the society is already polarized and the executive exploits it? Or is it a case where a leader can create that sense of polarization within the society?

Robert Kaufman

We see a lot of cases where polarization is profoundly exacerbated by the appeals of would-be autocrats and that may be a key to their election in the first place. But, of course, there are real reasons already out there in society, so the sequence actually varies a lot from one case to the next. I mean, if you take the United States, you see profound signs of polarization before Donald Trump enters the picture. And then, of course, he stokes that and exaggerates that. And other cases, for example, I would argue Poland to some extent it really comes from above. There are a number of cases where it is really stoked from above.

But the main point, there’s a two-way flow here. So yes, there have to be real grievances and people have to be polarized to some extent around those grievances. But there have to be political entrepreneurs that are in a position to kind of take advantage of that. Exaggerate that. Build support around that.

Stephan Haggard

Yeah. We spend a fair amount of time trying to figure out whether there was some kind of polarization which was common across these cases and essentially, we gave up. Because you see polarization on the left, for example, in the Andean cases with a Venezuela or an Ecuador with Correa, arguably in Nicaragua. You see right polarization interestingly in Russia as well as Poland and Hungary. And then you see, in some cases, racial and ethnic animosities playing a central role. That’s clearly a piece of the US story. These things compounding around immigrants and around race.

But the main point is that this kind of polarization creates a series of government disfunctions and views of the opposition as traitorous or outside the nation. Not true Americans, not true Poles, not true Brazilians or Turks. And in fact, almost all of these leaders will use that kind of language. You know, talking about the real people. The people that are true country x, whatever country x is.

jmk

So, to avoid democratic backsliding, is it incumbent on the leaders of political parties? Is it dependent on political elites to tone down the sense of polarization? I mean, I look at the United States where in the presidential election, they chose the most moderate candidate that they had to be able to run, which was Joe Biden. And yet, it didn’t tone down the sense of polarization within the United States. It still continued to be highly polarized. People were still extremely frustrated. People on the right saw him as even farther to the left than he was before. Is there anything that people can do to turn down the volume of polarization, so it avoids the process of democratic backsliding to begin with?

Robert Kaufman

I wish I knew the answer to that. It’s a great question and we’re sort of scratching our heads to try to think that through. Here’s the problem. I mean, it’s not only polarization. That’s part of it. It’s also polarization that kind of infects the party system. So, one of two things happened in our cases. Either the established parties kind of wither away and they’re displaced by kind of new political movements that are illiberal authoritarian, that’s a lot of the Latin-American cases, or one of the major parties goes authoritarian. That’s what happened in Poland. That’s what happened to some extent to Fidesz in Hungary. And it’s certainly what’s happened in the United States to the Republicans.

Once the party system is divided across a kind of authoritarian-liberal cleavage, it’s hard to sort of see how that gets resolved in the short term and I don’t have a good answer. I suppose, for example, in the United States, the Republicans were to be devastatingly defeated in the next election, which seems unlikely, they might rethink their strategy. But I haven’t seen to my knowledge… I mean I can’t think of any instance where that’s happened.

So, I think that the only hope is that you have elections in which the Democrats with a small-D gain office and are able somehow to address polarization by addressing the grievances on which it’s based. But again, I’m not sure we’ve seen instances where that’s happened.

jmk

It’s hard for me to imagine that the society is fully democratic if every time you enter the poll booth, that the decision is between, ‘do I want democracy or do I want authoritarianism?’ If you believe in democracy, you’re stuck with only one choice in an election. And obviously in a lot of the countries that you talk about there’s multiple parties. It isn’t as clear as a two-party system, the way it is in the United States. But at the same time, a lot of countries distill that electoral process down to really one of two choices in the end. In a lot of countries, you have a runoff for the presidency.

So, even if there’s ten different parties running presidential candidates in Brazil, you’re going to have a choice between two candidates. And we saw recently in Peru where the voters were left with either an extreme far left candidate or an extreme far right candidate. And it was difficult to even tell which one of them might be the better democratic option in that situation. They both seem to have undemocratic tendencies at the same time. So, what does it really say about democracy when you’re left with so few choices as a citizen to be able to protect that democracy, Steph?

Stephan Haggard

Yeah, well, this permits me to say one other thing about these autocrats that I think often gets overlooked. Which is that they don’t typically come to power with overwhelming majorities. I mean, this is a quite interesting feature of backsliding that took us into the bowels of different electoral systems. But one of the features we found in a number of these cases is either this is a razor thin majority. But often it wasn’t even a majority. These were governments that were elected because of disproportional features of the electoral system. I was looking at the data on PiS and, you know, it’s interesting, their share of the vote In 2015 was about 37%. That’s what they’re polling now, you know, seven years on.

But they were able to prevail because of a combination of two things. One, that the opposition splintered quite dramatically. And second, because they began in a system where there were some disproportional elements. And then, of course, they took advantage of being in office to make the system more disproportional. So, let me just offer one little ray of hope, and this is getting into new work that Bob and I are doing, but I think that one of the ways out of this actually has to do with coordination on the part of the opposition. Because autocrats exploit opposition fragmentation and what we’re seeing in a number of these countries, it’s true in Hungary, it’s true in Poland, it’s true in Turkey, the opposition coalesces finally around a democratic platform.

So, they bury other ideological differences and they say, ‘Look, you know, we may have ideological differences. You may be on the right. You may be on the left. But we have to come together for the purpose of defeating the autocrat.’ And I think that a key thing to look for is whether oppositions are capable of coalescing because these autocrats are electorally vulnerable unless they’ve rigged the system so dramatically that the opposition is permanently disadvantaged as appears to be the case in places like Venezuela, which just had elections or Russia.

Robert Kaufman

So, the first step in kind of reversing this is to get rid of the autocratic government and to replace it with a democratic one. And we’ve seen in a lot of cases including again the United States that’s possible. But that’s only the first step. And to your point earlier, Justin, as long as you’ve got a system where the alternative, whether it’s in power or in opposition is fundamentally anti-democratic, this is not going to be a very robust or effective democracy. So, the second step is that once the good guys win, the democrats win, they have to govern and they have to govern in a way that will start to diffuse these underlying grievances and, weaken the incentives for the other side to make autocratic appeals. I think we’re a long way in most of these cases from that actually happening,

jmk

So, after the potential autocrat loses election, we saw that with Donald Trump, if you want to label him, and to be fair, I mean, there’s debate as to whether or not we want to impose that harsh of a label on him. But regardless, when somebody who’s a potential autocrat finally loses an election, is the danger from the backsliding over? I got from your answer, Bob, that it probably wasn’t. That there’s still a long way to go. What type of steps does a society, does a country have to be able to take, to be able to at least stabilize the democracy where it is at the moment and hopefully make some progress towards recovering itself and making some forward momentum once again?

Stephan Haggard

Remember that one of the first things that needs to happen is simply to reverse actions which the autocrat has taken. So, some of this at least in principle is roadmapped to make it a verb. In the sense that if you have changes in the judiciary which weaken its independence and you need to reverse that if you’ve had changes in electoral laws which provide opportunities for autocrats to come to office, those need to be reversed, the same with civil liberties and political rights.

But the challenge is that if that polarization continues and the opposition has a motive to continue to make government dysfunctional. And one of the reasons why polarization has the adverse effect it does is because it tends to grind government activity and productive government activity to a halt. Because you just can’t get consensus and make deals across these partisan divides. They become very, very strong and my favorite example of this is the Infrastructure Bill.

I mean, the Infrastructure Bill in the United States was something that had, you know, a significant minority of Republican support and you can’t get people to vote on a bill which delivers pork across the entire country. Why? And the reason why is because it’s seen as handing a victory to the incumbent. And so that’s the kind of dysfunction which can continue even after someone with autocratic tendencies has been removed from office.

jmk

I think it goes deeper than that though. Because when we look at the Democratic Party today, it’s become a vastly larger tent, so large that it’s somewhat uncomfortable. For instance, Bill Kristol, who is a noted conservative columnist, now describes himself as a Democrat and says, ‘You know what? I think I just need to help Joe Biden succeed at this point.’ And so, when you’ve got people that literally cross the political spectrum on different levels, it’s really difficult for them to be able to agree on things. And I think we’re seeing this with the social spending bill and we’re seeing this with the Infrastructure Bill in some ways. That it becomes difficult even for the Democrats to be able to agree amongst themselves.

And I think we’re going to see this in the midterm election. The way that it’s going to be difficult for them to hold that coalition together. To get at Bob’s point that when you have these democratic coalitions there’s sometimes such a broad tent that it’s difficult to have a sense of what the political program will be going forward.

Robert Kaufman

A democratic backsliding system is not out of woods until not only when the small-d democrats are in office, regain office, but also when the opposition rejoins the democratic system. As long as the opposition party is authoritarian, as long as a significant opposition party is authoritarian, it’s hard to say that the democracy has recovered. So, I take your point, Justin, it’s a kind of a duel. You know, on the one hand, the democratic coalition is broad, therefore unwieldy and the opposition takes advantage of that and has an incentive to continue to try to undermine the democratic system.

So, the question is how do you… not just what do you do when you get back on power if you’re a democrat? How do you create incentives for the opposition to start playing the democratic game again or be replaced? And, I think that we need to do some hard thinking about how that happens.

jmk

So, when we think about the case of the United States, we see a parallel to get back to our original example, which was in Poland, where the judiciary has been heavily tilted towards the Republican Party. And a lot of writers have explained this as somewhat of a takeover of the judiciary. The way that they held up a lot of appointments under the Obama administration and then were able to fill the judiciary very broadly during the Trump era, because you had a lot of vacancies that they were able to fill and then, of course, the natural vacancies that happen during the Trump Era. In your book you write, “Rights in turn depend on independent judiciaries, the rule of law, and the accountability provided by elections.”

If the judiciary is captured, if you will, by the authoritarian political party, what should small-d democrats, people who believe in democracy, do to be able to bring the judiciary back to a level that it starts to reinforce the rule of law, that it starts to become truly an independent judiciary. Do they do nothing so that the judiciary stays independent or do they step in and take active reforms to be able to change the judiciary again?

Stephan Haggard

Well, this is an incredibly complex question because, you know, judicial systems vary quite dramatically and this is actually an issue, interestingly, where Bob and I have had some disagreements between ourselves, you know, on how to characterize the American system. Because, in the first instance, you can argue that the Republicans have been largely within their rights to make judicial appointments as they see fit. I mean, that’s a feature of the system, but we do have these irregularities as well, holding up the Merrick Garland appointment. But I think the larger danger in the United States is really that the judiciary has been overtly politicized and to some extent on both sides of the aisle by basically having litmus tests of loyalty to particular pieces of legislation or ideas as the basis for judicial appointment.

But let me just get back to a wider lens here for a moment, because it gets back to the question of the legislature. I think for many other cases and I don’t know if this is true in the United States. The first task of democrats is really to reverse so-called judicial reforms that took place under these autocrats which clearly deviated from their independence. And I’ll just give one small example. A number of judicial systems have something like a national judicial council in which judges are selected on the basis of quality and merit as seen by other judges while shifting those appointment powers into the hands of the parliament, a parliament which has larger, even super majorities is clearly a piece of judicial reform in quotes that needs to be reversed, if you’re going to get back to a more independent judiciary.

And by the way, I should just note a very interesting story going on as we speak that the EU and both Poland and Hungary have been engaged in this pitched battle which is now two years in, in which Poland, for example, recently has challenged the primacy of EU law in certain areas in ways which are just directly in contradiction with Poland’s commitments as a member of the EU. I mean, there’s just no question about it. And the European Court of Justice has ruled to that effect on Poland. It’s actually fining them as we speak, I think, a million euros a day for certain derogations in that regard. So, I think a first step in many cases is really just rolling back things that the autocrat had done.

Robert Kaufman

So, this depends a lot on how subverted the judiciary has become and so, in Hungary, and to a lesser extent in Poland, there’s been extensive sort of restructuring and subversion of the judiciary. And you see that in a lot of cases. In those instances, it’s pretty clear that you really have to undo the damage before you do anything else. I think that the United States, however, is a little bit different from that because the main change has been personnel, you know, not institutional structure. And so, I think in some ways that’s more hopeful, but also more complicated. I think if you start adding justices to the Supreme Court or changing their term that raises real questions about judicial independence. If you don’t do that, you’re stuck with a very conservative Supreme Court.

My own view on this is that the way you maneuver around this is by taking into account the fact that even a conservative court and even a larger judiciary that’s stocked with conservatives continues to value its independence and continues to some extent to respond to public opinion. And so, the Supreme Court is political and not just to the conservatives. I mean, they want to retain their institutional autonomy by retaining their legitimacy in the general public.

 Stephan Haggard

Can I just add one sort of hopeful note on the United States when seen in comparative perspective and it shouldn’t be forgotten? Recall that President Trump sought to use the courts for the purpose of subverting the elections and there was not a single case which he brought which was successful before any judiciary at any level. I think there might’ve been one case where there was a small issue in Arizona where the court sided with the President on one issue. but remember that in comparative context you would not get courts in a Turkey or Venezuela, you know, or a Hungary siding with the opposition in a contest over an electoral result. So, you know, we do have to keep in mind that the institution in the United States have been significantly more robust than those in other backsliding cases.

jmk

Yeah, and obviously the United States. is not the only case where we see issues with the judiciary. And like you said, that it’s got more of an issue with personnel than it does about the actual system itself. But, of course, that’s going to always be a question in the minds of people that have seen substantial changes within the judiciary. At what point are they now tinkering with the independence of the judiciary versus at what point are they actually trying to reinforce and strengthen the institution of an independent judiciary. And sometimes the line between the two can be gray, especially for the opposition parties that you’re trying to draw back into democracy.

But one of the other institutions that’s really fascinating that you believe very strongly in is the legislature. And there’s a lot of debate about presidential systems and parliamentary systems. And I don’t want to delve into the full extent of that debate. But we see backsliding in countries that are parliamentary systems, but we also see backsliding in countries like the United States and Brazil where they do have presidential systems. At the same time, it seems like it’d be easier to have a backsliding process in a parliamentary system where the executive is the prime minister, that they’re actually a member of the parliament itself. Do you find any benefit or any difference in how backsliding occurs between presidential and parliamentary systems?

Stephan Haggard

Yeah, it’s funny. We spent a lot of time talking about the question of whether presidential or parliamentary systems mattered and I guess as a first pass I came to the conclusion that they actually didn’t. That the sources of the problem were elsewhere. And the reason is as follows, because, of course, in a presidential system with separate election you have the possibility that you can get an opposition which divides power. That’s what happened with the 2018 elections in the house. On the other hand, you can also have control of, the two branches of government by the same party and the president can control the party in the legislature.

And if you look at parliamentary systems, you can also have these different outcomes. It’s possible that a party can get an outright majority and maybe even a super majority, but many parliamentary systems in fact are multi-party. They have multi-member districts and the result of that is you’ve got to form coalitions and those coalitions impose a constraint on what governments can do. You know I think one thing that’s interesting is outside of the Eastern European cases, Bob and I were scratching our head to find any evidence of what we would consider backsliding in the other advanced European democracies.

And one argument is that even where you have right-wing parties coming into existence, they’re shunned. They constitute minorities. No one wants to have them in governments. I mean, there’ve been some exceptions like Austria and so forth, but for the most part, you know, no one wants to deal with the Alternative for Deutschland in Germany. And so that raises an interesting question of whether just the emergence of rightwing parties is adequate to constitute a phase in backsliding. And I think the tentative conclusion we came to was they may do other damage, but it’s pretty hard for small minority parties, even if they’re extreme to directly affect the course of institutional change in a democracy, because they don’t typically sit in governments and certainly don’t enjoy majorities.

jmk

So, when I’m thinking about the causes of democratic backsliding, based on your work, I see two different pivotal variables. On the one hand, we have the behavior of the citizens and kind of the makeup of society. Whether or not a polarized electorate exists, that’s one ingredient. But the second ingredient seems to involve the institutions themselves. Whether or not you have strong institutions or whether or not there are weak institutions.

In the case of the United States, we had very strong institutions coming in to Donald Trump. So, the institutions more or less held until we had another election. Other countries don’t have that same level of institutional strength. Countries in Latin America, for example, have very weak institutions oftentimes. What’s the importance of institutional strength or developing strong institutions when democracy is working well so that you can avoid those periods or at least stave off those periods a little bit longer when you do have episodes that could produce significant democratic backsliding?

Robert Kaufman

So in our book, we distinguish between backsliding cases with strong and weak institutions and what we find is that the majority of weak institution countries slide all the way back to autocracy where none of the strong institution countries do. Now, we have to amend that because Hungary we considered a strong set of institutions and it slid into autocracy.

jmk

Hungary was also an eleven-year period, though.

Robert Kaufman

According to some observers. Others thought it happened more rapidly. So, I think institutions do make a difference. Again, I would consider not only the Western European and US, but also Brazil. Which I’m not optimistic about Brazil exactly, but at least I’m hopeful in some respects because of the strong institutions. Strong institution countries are also vulnerable. And yes, the strength of the institutions may stop the slide before you get to autocracy, but they may not. I’m worried about the United States in that respect. You know, if you keep kind of chipping away at these institutions long enough, not only at the rules of the game, but at the norms, eventually they weaken and fold. So, there are no guarantees there.

Stephan Haggard

No, I absolutely agree with that and besides the only problem that a democracy faces is not simply sliding all the way back to authoritarian rule. The whole concept of backsliding is saying that we can have diminished democracies that are equilibria, as political scientists would say, you know, that managed to survive. But let me close by throwing one other thing into the mix which is that in addition to publics and polarization and how they vote and institutions formally conceived, there is this factor of leadership. How certain politicians choose to make appeals to publics.

And one of the things we see in all of these cases is the emergence of what we call a majoritarian approach to democracy. Which is this idea that democratic niceties and procedures get in the way of the people, whoever the people are, having their way. And that democracy is actually, as currently constructed, is actually a negative to achieving the will of the people. And I think these arguments are just incredibly dangerous and they’re not appropriately appreciated because democracy is ultimately a system of governance that rests on compromises.

And if you say basically, we can’t compromise with our opponents because they are enemies of the people, then the prospects for democracy are, just by that very fact, that very appeal, I think are fundamentally diminished. So, that’s something we also have to be on the lookout for is populist ideologies that essentially say that the checks, the rights, the rule of law are barriers to the majority having its way. That’s a dangerous discourse.

jmk

There’s a fascinating line that comes at almost the end of the book where you write, “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.” So, just to bring home the point that you just made Steph, you’re right, it’s not enough to say, ‘Hey, we barely hung on.’ There should be more than that. We should hold ourselves to a higher standard. So, thanks so much for coming onto the podcast. And thank you so much for writing the book.

Stephan Haggard

Justin, it was really fun.

Robert Kaufman

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