The distinction between democracy and autocracy has become difficult to ascertain with the proliferation of so many hybrid regimes around the world. Most autocratic regimes hold multiparty elections. Of course, they are neither free nor fair. Nonetheless, they make efforts to demonstrate some form of electoral legitimacy. Moreover, the unfairness of undemocratic elections is different from the past. Rarely do autocrats simply manipulate the vote count. Instead, they employ tactics to guarantee an electoral outcome through machinations prior to the actual vote. Still, some regimes create an unfair process, but allow narrow pathways for the opposition to win. It’s not democratic, but it’s something short of an autocracy. In other words, for many political scientists regime type has become a continuum between liberal democracy and autocracy.
Jessica Pisano, however, offers a new way to think about politics. She recognizes political theater in different regime types such as fragile democracies like Ukraine and autocracies like Russia. It represents a form of political coercion “embedded in existing social and economic hierarchies.” Indeed, it’s more than just a tool to rig elections. Pisano writes, “Political theater can at once change what the state is and expand its reach in contemporary capitalism.” Ultimately, political theater is the use of economic vulnerabilities to compel political mobilization.
Clientelism has long used economic resources to purchase support in elections. However, clientelism rarely compels mobilization beyond elections. In this way political theater is a new phenomenon. It does not settle to merely win an election, but wants to show genuine support for political institutions. Yet the support is not genuine, because it’s staged. Staging Democracy is a must read for anyone interested in Ukraine and Russia. But it’s also required reading for anyone interested in the evolution of politics in the 21st century.