Authoritarian Takeover

Table of Contents

  1. Methods of Authoritarian Takeover
  2. How Autocratization Unfolds (V-Dem Democracy Report 2021 Page 22)
  3. The Authoritarian Playbook (Protect Democracy)
  4. Six Ways Authoritarians Rig Elections (Cheeseman and Klass)
  5. Managed System of Entrenched Minority Rule (Christopher R. Browning)
  6. How Democracies Die (Levitsky and Ziblatt)
    1. Modern Democracies Die Gradually
    2. Gatekeepers
    3. Democratic Norms
    4. Signs of Authoritarian Behavior
Methods of Authoritarian Takeover
  • A demagogue is elected president who gradually dismantles US Democracy by
    • Installing personal loyalists in top government positions
    • Politicizing nonpartisan agencies, in particular the Justice Department
    • Spreading disinformation
    • Distracting people with cultural issues
    • Questioning or denying the legitimacy of elections won by the opposition
    • Having Congress investigate political opponents
    • Getting loyalists to run elections
    • Tolerating or encouraging violence
    • Undermining or counteracting the independent free press
    • Gaining unquestioning support of allied politicians
    • Constraining civil servants, e.g. by changing their protected status to at-will employees.
    • Promoting and installing military leaders who will acquiesce to questionable orders.
How Autocratization Unfolds
(V-Dem Democracy Report 2021 Page 22)
  • When V-Dem data on the indicators comprising the LDI are analyzed to decipher how contemporary autocratization unfolds, a striking pattern emerges. The playbook of “wannabe” dictators seems to have been shared widely among leaders in (former) democracies.
    • First, seek to restrict and control the media while curbing academia and civil society.
    • Then couple these with disrespect for political opponents to feed polarization while using the machinery of the government to spread disinformation.
    • Only when you have come far enough on these fronts is it time for an attack on democracy’s core: elections and other formal institutions. 
  • Figure 11 shows those indicators that tended to deteriorate first and ultimately the most, among the top 10 autocratizing countries. Vertical dashed lines indicate if a democratic breakdown took place, meaning that autocratization has gone so far that the country is downgraded to an electoral autocracy.
The Authoritarian Playbook
(Protect Democracy)

Link to The Authoritarian Playbook

  • Outline
    • Politicizing independent institutions
    • Spreading disinformation
    • Aggrandizing executive power and undermining checks & balances
    • Quashing dissent
    • Delegitimizing vulnerable communities
    • Corrupting elections
    • Stoking Violence
Six Ways Authoritarians Rig Elections
(Cheeseman and Klass)
  • How to Rig an Election, by Nic Cheeseman and Brian Klaas , Yale University Press, 2018
  • Election rigging can be broken down into six subcategories of manipulation.
    • The first is gerrymandering, in which leaders distort the size of district boundaries so that their parties have a head start in legislative elections. By these means, opposition parties can end up with fewer seats even if they receive more votes.
    • The second is vote buying, which involves the direct purchase of citizens’ support through cash gifts or, as it is often referred to in Africa, ‘something small’. This can be an effective way to secure votes that could not be earned, but it is an expensive strategy and – when the ballot is secret – one that is difficult to enforce. Voters may be able to take bribes from one candidate and then vote for another without consequence.
    • Autocrats may also employ a third type of rigging, engaging in repression to prevent other candidates from campaigning, deny them access to the media, and intimidate rival supporters in order to stop them going to the polls.
    • If these strategies don’t work, counterfeit democrats have two main options left open to them:
      • digitally hacking the election in order to change the debate and, in some cases, to rewrite the result; and
      • stuffing the ballot box – adding fake votes or facilitating multiple voting in order to improve a given candidate’s performance.
    • To get away with such tactics, they may also need to play the international community, duping donors into legitimizing poor-quality polls. Because the latter three options can easily backfire, the most effective autocrats don’t leave election rigging to the last minute.
Managed System of Entrenched Minority Rule
(Christopher R. Browning)
  • How Hitler’s Enablers Undid Democracy in Germany, Christopher R. Browning, Professor of History Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill  Atlantic
    • The American political system has some built-in vulnerabilities to illiberal, antidemocratic actors—flaws that the Republican Party exploited even before Donald Trump took it over. Since 1992, Republicans have won the popular vote in a presidential election only once. But the U.S. Constitution has provided them with intrinsic advantages in the forms of the Electoral College and the Senate: Both bodies overrepresent parts of the country where Republicans are strong (less-populated states and areas) and underrepresent more Democratic-leaning localities (populous states and urban areas). As a result, the Democrats have to win the popular vote by a disproportionately large margin to prevail in either the Electoral College or the Senate.
    • The post-2010 gerrymandering of state legislature and U.S. House redistricting—executed with unprecedented precision through sophisticated data processing—has hugely exacerbated the problem. (Democrats are guilty of the practice too, but Republicans are unrivaled in the ruthlessness they’ve brought to the task.) The only electoral suspense in what should be toss-up states such as North Carolina and Wisconsin is whether Republicans can attain veto-proof supermajorities in state legislatures based on roughly half the popular vote. Supreme Court decisions gutting crucial parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 have cleared the way for a host of voter-suppression measures. The purging of electoral officials and the Republican nomination of election deniers for governor and secretary of state in battleground states are even more ominous warnings. This pattern of GOP activity adds up to an effort to rule by executing a specifically American form of legal revolution.
    • But the twin humiliations of Trump’s electoral defeat in 2020 and the failure of the insurrection he fomented have raised the stakes. They have cemented the connection between Trump’s obsession with the myth of a stolen election and the long-term project of transforming American democracy into a managed system of entrenched minority rule.
    • In the immediate postelection period, Trump and his inner circle plotted to create fake electors, pressured state election officials to “find” the necessary votes to reverse the outcome, and ultimately instigated the January 6 insurrection. More broadly, 147 congressional Republicans voted against certifying Biden’s election, and 17 Republican state attorneys general joined a suit to overturn the election results in four battleground states; the party then rallied together to condemn and withdraw support for Representatives Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger for daring to expose the Big Lie.
    • The GOP has now embraced an accelerated strategy of legal revolution to control the outcome of future elections.
How Democracies Die
(Levitsky and Ziblatt)

Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt are Harvard professors who have spent twenty years studying the breakdown of democracies in Europe and Latin America

Modern Democracies Die Gradually
  • Since the end of the Cold War, most democratic breakdowns have been caused not by generals and soldiers but by elected governments themselves. Like Chávez in Venezuela, elected leaders have subverted democratic institutions in Georgia, Hungary, Nicaragua, Peru, the Philippines, Poland, Russia, Sri Lanka, Turkey, and Ukraine.
  • Democracies may die at the hands not of generals but of elected leaders—presidents or prime ministers who subvert the very process that brought them to power. Some of these leaders dismantle democracy quickly, as Hitler did in the wake of the 1933 Reichstag fire in Germany. More often, though, democracies erode slowly, in barely visible steps.
  • Gatekeepers in a democracy are the institutions responsible for preventing would-be authoritarians from coming into power.
  • In designing the Constitution the founders were concerned with gatekeeping. They wanted an elected president, reflecting the will of the people. But they did not fully trust the people’s ability to judge candidates’ fitness for office.
  • “History will teach us,” Hamilton wrote in the Federalist Papers, that “of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the great number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.” For Hamilton and his colleagues, elections required some kind of built-in screening device.
  • The device they chose was the Electoral College, made up of locally prominent men in each state who would be responsible for choosing the president. Under this arrangement, Hamilton reasoned, “the office of president will seldom fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.” The Electoral College thus became our original gatekeeper.
  • The rise of political parties in the early 1800s changed the way our electoral system worked. (The Constitution does not mention political parties.) Instead of electing local notables as delegates to the Electoral College, as the founders had envisioned, each state began to elect party loyalists. Electors became party agents, which meant that the Electoral College surrendered its gatekeeping authority to the parties.
    • Party gatekeeping helped confine George Wallace to the margins of politics.
    • In the 1980s the Democratic Party created “superdelegates” to serve as a mechanism for party leaders to fend off candidates they disapproved of. The GOP opted to maintain a more democratic nomination system.
    • Parties sometimes accept short-term political sacrifice for the good of the country. In 2016, Austrian conservatives backed Green Party candidate Alexander Van der Bellen to prevent the election of far-right radical Norbert Hofer. And in 2017, defeated French conservative candidate François Fillon called on his partisans to vote for center-left candidate Emmanuel Macron to keep far-right candidate Marine Le Pen out of power.
Democratic Norms
  • Norms are the soft guardrails of democracy.
  • Unwritten rules are everywhere in American politics, ranging from the operations of the Senate and the Electoral College to the format of presidential press conferences. But two norms stand out as fundamental to a functioning democracy:
  • Mutual Toleration
    • Mutual toleration is the idea that as long as our rivals play by constitutional rules, we accept that they have an equal right to exist, compete for power, and govern.
    • In almost every case of democratic breakdown we have studied, would-be authoritarians—from Franco, Hitler, and Mussolini in interwar Europe to Marcos, Castro, and Pinochet during the Cold War to Putin, Chávez, and Erdoğan most recently—have justified their consolidation of power by labeling their opponents as an existential threat.
  • Institutional Forbearance 
    • A second norm critical to democracy’s survival is institutional forbearance, avoiding actions that, while respecting the letter of the law, violate its spirit.
Signs of Authoritarian Behavior
  • We’ve developed a set of four behavioral warning signs that can help us know an authoritarian when we see one. We should worry when a politician
    • 1) rejects, in words or action, the democratic rules of the game,
    • 2) denies the legitimacy of opponents,
    • 3) tolerates or encourages violence,
    • 4) indicates a willingness to curtail the civil liberties of opponents, including the media.
  • Table 1 shows how to assess politicians in terms of these four factors. A politician who meets even one of these criteria is cause for concern.
  • What kinds of candidates tend to test positive on a litmus test for authoritarianism? Very often, populist outsiders do. Populists are antiestablishment politicians—figures who, claiming to represent the voice of “the people,” wage war on what they depict as a corrupt and conspiratorial elite. Populists tend to deny the legitimacy of established parties, attacking them as undemocratic and even unpatriotic. They tell voters that the existing system is not really a democracy but instead has been hijacked, corrupted, or rigged by the elite. And they promise to bury that elite and return power to “the people.”

Image Credit: How Democracies Die, Page 23 (Indicators in Large Print)

As Trump hints at 2024 comeback, democracy advocates fear a ‘worst-case scenario’ for the country, Sep 2021, Ashley Parker  WaPo

  • The Big Lie
    • A majority of Republicans still support Trump leading their party, according to polls. A CNN poll released in September found that 68 percent of Republicans and those who lean Republican say democracy is under attack, with about 7 in 10 of them believing that President Biden didn’t win the 2020 election. One side’s nightmare scenario — Trump running in 2024 and reclaiming the presidency — represents to the other side simply the democratic system working as it should.
  • Democracy at Risk
    • Perhaps the most insidious threat that Trump critics envision is a sort of slow-boiling frog of American democracy. In this case, Trump — or an acolyte with similarly anti-democratic sensibilities — runs and wins legitimately in 2024, emerging newly emboldened and focused on retribution. Then, the new president, intent on strengthening his own position and punishing critics, begins remaking the political and electoral system, using legal means to consolidate power and erode democratic institutions.
    • “We often think that what we should be waiting for is fascists and communists marching in the streets, but nowadays, the ways democracies often die is through legal things at the ballot box — so things that can be both legal and antidemocratic at the same time,” said Daniel Ziblatt, a professor at Harvard University and the co-author of “How Democracies Die,” who is working on a successive volume. “Politicians use the letter of the law to subvert the spirit of the law.”
  • Example of Hungary
    • Perhaps the most relevant modern example, several democracy experts said, is Hungary under the rule of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who returned to power in 2010 after a previous stint as Hungary’s leader about a decade before.
    • Tucker Carlson — who regularly articulates the intellectual heart of Trumpism — traveled to Hungary in August to broadcast his prime-time Fox News show from there, at one point lauding Hungary as “a small country with a lot of lessons for the rest of us.”
    • Upon taking power in 2010, Orbán “has steadily chipped away at the linchpins of a liberal democratic system,” said Michael Abramowitz, the president of Freedom House, a nonpartisan, pro-democracy organization.
    • “He stacked the courts, he engaged in gerrymandering, he had friends and allies take over the media,” Abramowitz said, referring to Orbán. “So while he has elections, they start from a very, very stacked deck. While it’s not impossible, it’s going to be very, very difficult for him to be dislodged in the normal democratic system.”
  • Trump’s History in Office
    • Trump, for instance, installed a number of acting Cabinet secretaries when he could not win Senate confirmation for his picks; made clear he expected the attorney general to act as his own personal lawyer rather than represent the interests of the United States; implied that the Supreme Court justices he nominated should rule in his favor out of personal loyalty; and tried to leverage U.S. foreign policy to influence his own political fortunes — resulting in the first of his two impeachments.
    • A number of traditionally apolitical and nonpartisan federal agencies, too, became embroiled in politics and controversy during Trump’s tenure, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
  • Freedom House
    • Indeed, Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2021 report gave the United States a score of 83 — alongside countries such as Mongolia and Ghana — marking an 11-point decline from its score of 94 a decade ago, when it appeared alongside established democracies like France and Germany. Freedom House’s scores are on a scale of 0 to 100.
  • Threat to American democracy
    • Experts said that perhaps the most precipitous recent threat to American democracy, however, remains Trump’s election claims.
    • “Democracy depends on the belief of losers in a given election to trust the process, and to marshal support so they can win another day,” said Nate Persily, a professor at Stanford University and co-director of the Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project. “If we have entered a phase where the process is simply not trusted, that is a dangerous situation to be in, where people do not trust elections as being the way that we replace authority.”
    • A number of Republicans have used Trump’s false claim as a catalyst for overhauling election and voting laws, even in states where the 2020 election ran smoothly. At least 250 laws being proposed in at least 43 states would limit mail, early in-person and Election Day voting, changes that Democrats say could especially disenfranchise minority voters. There are also some Republican-led efforts pushing to allow state legislatures to overturn election results.