Dean's Discussion logo.In the final Dean’s Discussion of the semester, part of a series on Democracy, Dialogue, and Division, Sarah Wald, chief of staff for the dean, welcomed Erica Chenoweth, Tarek Masoud, and Pippa Norris to discuss the challenges to democracy around the world.

Pippa Norris headshot.“I wanted to know how we actually should understand authoritarian cultures,” began Norris, the Paul F. McGuire Lecturer in Comparative Politics. “When thinking about authoritarian regimes, governments rule in different ways,” she explained. “One is through coercion—we can all think of the cases of the violations of human rights, the imprisonments of oppositions, and the suppression of dissent, especially independent thinking. Another way is through corruption, making sure that other people go along with the ruler by handing out different sorts of benefits like patronage and jobs. But there's a third way that autocrats can rule, which is through popular legitimation.”

But is there good evidence of genuine popular support for authoritarian regimes? The Russian invasion of Ukraine illustrates these issues. Polls in spring report that Putin’s popularity in Russia rose by about 20 points after the invasion and that the military action is supported by a majority of ordinary Russians. But how do we interpret these poll results?  The results may be unreliable due to state censorship of independent polling companies; there might be self-censorship among respondents limiting the expression of critical views on sensitive issues; they may reflect patriotism and long-standing cultural beliefs; or they may arise from state-control, propaganda, and censorship of independent media.

Norris finds control of the media the most important factor. “Think about the claim that Putin has put forward that he's de-Nazifying Ukraine,” she said. “We all say that's ridiculous. We've watched the pictures, the flattening of the cities and the massacres of the civilians. We can say, ‘How can anyone believe that?’ But polls report that this claim is widely believed in Russia. And we only have to look to our own country to understand the role of misinformation and disinformation. In America, you have all sorts of media available, and yet many believe the ‘Big Lie’—about electoral fraud—so that 70% of Americans say Biden was elected through legitimate processes.”

“What we know based on all of the political histories is that democracy is much more of a process than a destination.”

Erica Chenoweth

We all may be subjected to this problem. But none more so than those under authoritarian rule, Norris argued: “We really need to get a grip on this, the role of the independent media, and how we can counter misinformation.”

Tarek Masoud headshot.Addressing whether democracy is in trouble around the world, Masoud, the Ford Foundation Professor of Democracy and Governance and co-editor of the Journal of Democracy, presented data from the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) project that suggests the level of liberal democracy has been in decline. According to Masoud, this is particularly a problem in lower- and middle-income democracies, but it’s even true in the advanced, industrialized ones.

Masoud said the decline is likely due to multiple factors, but one is what he perceives as a loss of faith in democracy. “Democracy’s legitimacy around the world feels more contested than at any time in recent memory,” he said.  In support of this claim, Masoud showed public opinion data from the Arab Barometer project and from the World Values Survey, which indicate that in fledgling democracies like Tunisia and Indonesia, support for democracy is at a low ebb. “The question for us, then, is what do we do to increase faith in democracy?” Masoud asked.  One suggestion, Masoud noted, is for “the developed democracies to offer greater economic support to countries that have just made it to democracy, and in which the fate of their democratic experiments is in doubt, so that the average citizen comes to associate democracy decisively with improvements in their daily life.”

Erica Chenoweth headshot.Chenoweth, the Frank Stanton Professor of the First Amendment and Susan and Kenneth Wallach Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies, discussed the rise of authoritarian movements within democracy in the United States. “What we know, based on all of the political histories is that democracy is much more of a process than a destination,” Chenoweth said. “Democracies require continual renewal and champions in each generation, in part, because when democracies fail it's because people within democracies choose authoritarianism.”

Chenoweth also agreed with Norris’ research; democracies in decline often sustain attacks on democratic norms, institutions and practices by organized movements or even political parties.

Referencing How Democracies Die, by Harvard colleagues Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, Chenoweth outlined three basic things a democracy needs to survive. “First, according to Levitsky and Ziblatt, all parties have to be willing to unambiguously accept defeat,” said Chenoweth. “Second, they have to openly eschew violence as a form of political competition and contest.” And the third thing all parties need to do is to openly and repeatedly break with extremists. “Extremists arise all the time,” Chenoweth said. “And political parties have to openly break with them.”

Chenoweth also points to the Electoral College, and the fact that the United States is the only presidential democracy in the world that does not have direct elections of the president. “Because of the Electoral College,” Chenoweth said, “we’ve had a Republican president elected with a majority of the popular vote only once since 1988 and yet we have a Supreme Court in which six justices were appointed by the minority party.” What this suggests is a skewed form of representation. “So it’s not surprising that we have political conflict emerging around these things.”

As a way forward, Chenoweth refers to another study of democracy, Dictators and Democrats: Elites, Masses, and Regime Change by Stephan Haggard and Robert Kaufman. “This book studied cases where we were backsliding into authoritarianism and managed to bounce back,” Chenoweth noted. “I would say that what we need more now than ever is a highly engaged, pro-democratic, active civil society. For the United States, there is some reason for hope in this regard. “I feel that we have a more engaged and informed electorate. What we need to do then, is make sure that it's not just active, but taking collective action toward a pro-democratic goal.”

Banner image: Protesters show a banner with the phrase "for the new democracy" during a demonstration organized by social movements, against racism in Rio de Janeiro. They also criticized the government, health policies in the fight against COVID-19, fascist and authoritarian movements. Photo by Dikran Junior/AGIF/AP

Faculty photos by Benn Craig and Martha Stewart

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