Despite the decline of democracy and the rise of authoritarianism around the world, some things are different. Autocratic regimes today incorporate many democratic institutions. They also follow public opinion closely and even mobilize people to demonstrate genuine support for their policies. Most autocrats even engage in multiparty elections. Some elections remain entirely farcical with outlandish final results, but others look somewhat competitive. Of course, autocracy remains resistant to key aspects of democracy such as tolerance of the opposition and channels for genuine participation. Nonetheless, the evolution of autocracy brings new challenges to those who advocate for liberal democracy.
Autocracy has undergone many incarnations over the centuries. Ancient Rome went from a princeps under Augustus to an imperator under Diocletian. After the Bourbon Restoration in France, Louis XVIII described himself as the “King of the French” rather than the previous moniker “King of France.” Both monarchical traditions represented autocracy, but Louis XVIII represented a slight shift towards liberalism. Recent years have seen another shift toward what Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman call informational autocrats. They use less brutality and violence than their predecessors, however it’s not truly liberalization. They possess control over information through the media, surveil citizens through technology, and weaponize the law.
Still, informational autocracy is softer in many ways than previous incarnations of authoritarianism. They even use the language of democracy. This makes them harder to dislodge from power, because repression has become less overt. At the same time revolutions have become more numerous. So, the informational autocrat is likely a response to a more democratic international environment. Autocrats today try to avoid missteps that generate widespread public backlash. In this way the informational autocrat faces greater constraints than their predecessors. Nonetheless, the constraints they face are still a far cry from those in a liberal democracy.