Harvard Kennedy School Professor Erica Chenoweth and Lecturer in Public Policy Zoe Marks say rising authoritarianism and repression of women are “mutually reinforcing ills,” but that robust participation by women makes democracy and social movements more likely to succeed.
Featuring Erica Chenoweth & Zoe Marks
November 2, 2022
42 minutes and 26 seconds
Harvard Kennedy School Professor Erica Chenoweth and Lecturer in Public Policy Zoe Marks say the parallel global trends of rising authoritarianism and attempts to roll back women’s rights are no coincidence. The hard-won rights women have attained over the past century—to education, to full participation in the workforce, in politics, and civic life, and to reproductive healthcare—have transformed society and corresponded with historic waves of democratization around the world. But they have also increasingly become the target of authoritarian leaders and regimes looking to displace democracy with hierarchies controlled by male elites and to re-confine women in traditional roles as wives, mothers, and caregivers. LGBTQ people and others who don’t fit into the traditional binary patriarchal model have become targets not just in places like Iran, Russia, Brazil, and Saudi Arabia but also China, Hungary, Poland, and the United States. But Chenoweth and Marks say the authoritarians are also fearful of empowered women—and that their research says they should be. Social movements like the protests currently underway in Iran that include large numbers of women tend to be more resilient, creative, and ultimately successful—which means the future of democracy and the future of women’s empowerment in this pivotal historic era may go hand-in-hand.
Erica Chenoweth is the Frank Stanton Professor of the First Amendment at Harvard Kennedy School and a Susan S. and Kenneth L. Wallach Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies at Harvard University. They study political violence and its alternatives. At Harvard, Chenoweth directs the Nonviolent Action Lab, an innovation hub that provides empirical evidence in support of movement-led political transformation. Chenoweth has authored or edited nine books and dozens of articles on mass movements, nonviolent resistance, terrorism, political violence, revolutions, and state repression. Their recent book, Civil Resistance: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford, 2021), explores what civil resistance is, how it works, why it sometimes fails, how violence and repression affect it, and the long-term impacts of such resistance. They also recently co-authored the book On Revolutions (Oxford, 2022), which explores the ways in which revolutions and revolutionary studies have evolved over the past several centuries. Their next book with Zoe Marks, tentatively titled Rebel XX: Women on the Frontlines of Revolution, investigates the impact of women’s participation on revolutionary outcomes and democratization. Chenoweth maintains the NAVCO Data Project, one of the world’s leading datasets on historical and contemporary mass mobilizations around the globe. Along with Jeremy Pressman, Chenoweth also co-directs the Crowd Counting Consortium, a public interest and scholarly project that documents political mobilization in the U.S. since January 2017. Foreign Policy magazine ranked Chenoweth among the Top 100 Global Thinkers of 2013 for their efforts to promote the empirical study of nonviolent resistance and they are a recipient of the Karl Deutsch Award, which the International Studies Association gives annually to the scholar under 40 who has made the greatest impact on the field of international politics or peace research. They are also a Faculty Associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, where Chenoweth and Zoe Marks co-chair the Political Violence Workshop. They hold a PhD and an MA in political science from the University of Colorado and a BA in political science and German from the University of Dayton.
Zoe Marks is a lecturer in public policy at Harvard Kennedy School. Her research and teaching interests focus on the intersections of conflict and political violence; race, gender and inequality; peacebuilding; and African politics. In addition to her research on peace and conflict, Marks is committed to creating space for conversations about ethical research praxis and making academia more inclusive. She has convened workshops related to decolonizing the academy and with colleagues at the University of Cape Town edited a related special double issue of the journal Critical African Studies. Her research has been published in leading journals in the field, including Political Geography, African Affairs, and Civil Wars, and in peer-reviewed books and edited volumes from Oxford University and Palgrave press. Her dissertation received the Winchester Prize for the best dissertation in Politics at the University of Oxford. She serves on the editorial boards for the journals Critical African Studies and Civil Wars, and on the editorial committee of the Journal of Peace Research. Dr. Marks holds a DPhil in Politics and MSc in African Studies from the University of Oxford, and a BA in Government and African American Studies from Georgetown University. She has previously worked for UN and non-governmental organizations in Ethiopia, France, Sierra Leone, South Africa, the UK, and the US.
Ralph Ranalli of the HKS Office of Public Affairs and Communications is the host, producer, and editor of HKS PolicyCast. A former journalist, public television producer, and entrepreneur, he holds an AB in Political Science from UCLA and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University.
The co-producer of PolicyCast is Susan Hughes. Design and graphics support is provided by Lydia Rosenberg, Delane Meadows, and the OCPA Design Team. Social media promotion and support is provided by Natalie Montaner and the OCPA Digital Team.
Erica Chenoweth (Intro): Democracy is supposed to be competitive elections that are trustworthy, and where people get to decide who governs. And that people are treated equally under the law, and that, basically, if there are inequalities in society that persists that there are many different legal, political and social remedies for pursuing redress for that without resorting to violence, right? That's the ideal. And so if you're at a point where half or more than half of the population in many countries is just systematically treated as second class citizens or worse, then it's really up for grabs whether the country is a democracy at all or not.
Zoe Marks (Intro): It's very hard to stop authoritarianism when it is encroaching slowly and from within, right? When authoritarianism walks in wearing the same outfit as the former biparty system, if it's looking like the shows and the news sources that you've been listening to for decades, then it doesn't cross a red line, right? People think they know it's going to be authoritarianism, we almost did on January 6th in this country, know that it was authoritarianism, but there was a lot of authoritarianism that came before that, there's a lot that's coming after that and it all looks like democracy because it's moving through the channels of democracy.
Ralph Ranalli (Intro): Welcome to the Harvard Kennedy School PolicyCast, I’m your host, Ralph Ranalli. Kennedy School Professors Zoe Marks and Erica Chenoweth say the parallel global trends of rising authoritarianism and the attempts to roll back women’s rights are no coincidence. The hard-won rights women have attained over the past century—to education, to full participation in the workforce, in politics, and civic life, and to control of their reproductive systems—have transformed society and corresponded with historic waves of democratization around the world. But they have also increasingly become the target of authoritarian leaders and regimes looking to displace democracy with hierarchies controlled by male elites and to re-confine women in traditional roles as wives, mothers, and caregivers. LGBTQ people and others who don’t fit into the traditional binary patriarchal model have also become targets, not just in places like Iran, Russia, Brazil, and Saudi Arabia, but also in China, Hungary, Poland, and the United States. Yet Chenoweth and Marks say the authoritarians are also fearful of empowered women—and that their research says they should be. They’ve found that social movements like the protests currently underway in Iran that include large numbers of women tend to be more resilient, creative, and ultimately successful—which means the future of democracy and the future of women’s empowerment in this pivotal historic era may go hand-in-hand. They’re here with us today to help make sense of it.
Ralph Ranalli: Zoe, Erica, welcome to PolicyCast.
Erica Chenoweth: Thank you.
Zoe Marks: Thank you so much for having us.
Ralph Ranalli: So I'd like to start with your research and writing on the rise of authoritarianism and its connection to violence against women and patriarchal discrimination against women, including rolling back political protections, reproductive rights, gains in the workplace. I think a lot of people can intuit that connection just from what they've seen around them, but I think it's probably best if we start with a deeper explanation of how that connection works. Can you walk us through it? Zoe, maybe if you would like to start?
Zoe Marks: Sure. Yeah, I think this is a great question. I thought it was intuitive when we first started walking through this in my global feminism's class at the Kennedy School. And students came to me, and they said, "We've been looking in the library, we're researching, we can't figure out what you're trying to get at here." So that was part of the genesis of our project, calling it patriarchal authoritarianism, giving language and a name to this concept that is in some ways, obvious yet also, it's not visible, right? And what it really boils down to is the fact that authoritarianism relies on the centralization of very hierarchical authority, right? So, an authoritarian regime is one in which there is very little room for pluralism, very little room for dissent, opposition politics have basically been snuffed out. And patriarchal social relations are also deeply authoritarian in that they're similarly structured as this hierarchy centralized around the dominance of men, and particularly men from elite groups. And so you can imagine that these two pyramidal structures work really effectively together if you're an authoritarian who wants to consolidate power. And the underbelly of that is that in order to consolidate power in a male dominated society, you do so by increasingly marginalizing and victimizing women and gender minorities.
Erica Chenoweth: Yeah. And I think we can look at five key domains of social life in which we see those types of policies being enacted in ways that are consistent with this type of patriarchal authoritarianism. So, first is certainly women's bodily and reproductive autonomy where there are attempts to create either forced pregnancies or forced abortions. One way or the other, women don't get to individually decide the fate of their pregnancies. The second is blocking equal access to the workplace to political office or public life. The third would be reinforcing conservative and traditional values regarding gender roles with women's roles defined predominantly as domestic or at home as wives and mothers and caregivers. And then the fourth element is reducing penalties for domestic or sexual violence against women more broadly in society. And then finally, there's the closely related issue of reinforcing very strict gender and sexual hierarchies where women are subjugated to men, but there's also the discrimination against or criminalization of LGBTQ people or people who don't fit in this binary gender hierarchy that is elevated by the state as the ideal.
So when you see those five things happening, it's often correlated with an authoritarian movement. And I think what sometimes preoccupies social scientists is the question of whether those types of things are causing authoritarianism or authoritarianism causes more patriarchal policies. The reality is that in fact, they're mutually reinforcing. And so you might see some patterns in sequencing, or you might not, but they do tend to be, as we say in our Foreign Affairs piece, mutually reinforcing ills.
Ralph Ranalli: That's really my next question. We talk a lot about authoritarianism these days, but why is it important to understand this particular aspect of the nature of authoritarianism in order to both figure out why it's happening and what may be effective strategies would be for combating it?
Erica Chenoweth: Yeah. If you think about what authoritarianism is versus what democracy is or is supposed to be, democracy is supposed to be competitive elections that are trustworthy and where people get to decide who governs and that people are treated equally under the law. And that, basically, if there are inequalities in society that persists that there are many different legal, political and social remedies for pursuing redress for that without resorting to violence, right? So, democracy is fundamentally about finding a system of governance in which we resolve conflicts largely through elections and representation, and therefore, we are reducing the amount of violence in society. That's the ideal. And so if you're at a point where half or more than half of the population in many countries is just systematically treated as second class citizens or worse, then it's really up for grabs whether the country is a democracy at all or not. So, for one thing, it's really important to just note that being treated equally and having equal access to different rights and responsibilities in society is itself a really important definitional element of whether a country is a democracy. It's necessary, but insufficient. And so that's one piece. And then I think the other piece is that if you think about what authoritarianism is trying to do, like Zoe said, it's trying to centralize control, eliminate political opposition, eliminate pluralism, reduce opportunities for destabilizing the strict hierarchies of control that are being created by crushing opposition or snuffing out free expression and trying to remove the opportunities for dissent in a variety of ways. And so Zoe has said before on numerous occasions that the easiest way to do that is basically create a social system in which 50% of the population is going to be subjugated to the rest, and it creates what she has called a patriarchal pact. So if the men are doing well, then maybe they don't care what's happening to the other people in society.
Ralph Ranalli: Right. So, you're co-writing a book that investigates the impact of women's participation on revolutionary outcomes and democratization. And your research has actually found that during the post-war period, mass movements were more successful at achieving their aims, when women participated in larger numbers at the front lines, and I guess you think it happened in the Philippines, Brazil, Tunisia, Argentina, places like that, in fact they were more likely to usher in sustained democratization when at least 25% of their participants were women. Why is that do you think?
Zoe Marks: The question is why is it so important for women to participate in large numbers? I think one way to think about it is the prefiguring or foreshadowing of what's going to follow if you have an exclusionary social movement or revolutionary movement, and the study includes violent and nonviolent pathways to either achieving independence or seceding or overthrowing the regime. If you have an exclusionary movement that achieves that, it's likely to lead to an exclusionary inheritance in the aftermath. And so it'll build an exclusionary government that has subjugated representation of women—or, as I like to call it, the over-representation of men— baked into it from the beginning. Conversely, when you see women participating in large numbers, and we also observe not just women at the front lines, but women in support roles in almost every campaign, women in leadership, women in symbolic roles, all of that comes together into this convergence of a more democratic and representative movement throughout. And so that increases the representation not just of women, but of society as a whole. And so what ends up happening is that you not only have this higher likelihood of success because women are participating in large numbers, but women's participation leads to larger movements, partly because you've included an extra 50% of your population as opposed to biting with one hand behind your back. But that increased diversity and representativeness carries forward into tactical innovation. Movements tend to be more creative. They tend to be more resilient to repression, partly because repression against a movement that represents the whole of society can elicit a backfire effect. So when an authoritarian regime cracks down on grandmothers or on school children, the population that's observing that has maybe been on the sidelines becomes much more sympathetic to the campaign because it sees itself represented in the campaign and the regime is exposed for what it is. And then finally, the tipping point is really how many pillars of support, how many people in institutions who are upholding the status quo, can you move over to your side and convinced to be part of this wave of change? And so we see that the inclusion of women in large numbers in campaigns both violent and nonviolent throughout the world from 1945 up to 2020, has had this powerful positive effect on all four of those conditions of success. And that all four of those conditions when they're moved because of a more inclusive and representative campaign, again, it leads to this more democratic inheritance upon that transition period. And the transition period is really one of the knottiest things for social movement scholars to try to understand—just because you've deposed the king or overthrown a dictator, it doesn't mean that you're going to be able to consolidate a transformed society. And so we measure five years out and we see that democracy is better when women's rights and gender equity is better. There are all of these positive effects when campaigns are successful. And I'll let Erica talk about the backlash because campaigns are not always successful, even though women's participation makes them significantly more likely to succeed.
Ralph Ranalli: I guess recently you said that they've become less so over the last couple of decades.
Zoe Marks: Yeah.
Ralph Ranalli: There was a peak point in effectiveness where it was something like two out of three were successful mass movements and then that dropped to one out of three, and then now it's more like one out of six.
Erica Chenoweth: Yeah. What I'll say is that there's certainly been a very large degree of authoritarian learning and coordination in dealing with what has come to be known as a genuine threat to authoritarian regimes, which was people power movements. In Russia in 2010 and 2011, Vladimir Putin had to deal with probably the largest crisis of that decade for himself, which was a mass movement, the so-called Snow Revolution, which was really threatening to his hold on power and his monopoly on the country's government. And in the aftermath of that, Putin's regime released a national security strategy in which they explicitly said that so-called color revolutions, which they use as a derogatory term, were one of the most insidious threats to Russia's stability and the stability of Russia's partners, meaning other satellites or allies. And that the regime regarded these people power movements as basically an attempt by the West to stoke unrest, and these claims for democracy were actually a Western conspiracy. And the national security strategy doubled down and the regime committed to basically stamping these out everywhere that they existed. And so we saw a very aggressive backing of Bashar al-Assad when he came under assault in Syria by the Russian government and by the Iranian government, right? And so they started to, around this time, not only coordinate with one another, but all of the different types of authoritarian consolidation that occurred over the next 10 years in Russia, in Turkey, in China, in Iran, in Venezuela, they've all been deeply patriarchal. So it's not an accident that around the same time is when Putin then passed all of the anti-gay, anti-homosexuality laws in the country and started to begin to promote a much more assertive policy toward women having more babies as opposed to what Russia had been famous for before, which was the availability of abortion care. And so the same in Turkey. In Turkey, in the aftermath of the Gezi Park uprisings—which were famously feminist and famously led by active queer women activists—Erdoğan passed a number of different highly patriarchal statements and policies about this. And so it's not an accident that not only is this authoritarian consolidation happening and that it's deeply patriarchal, but the timing of it is directly in response to movements that were led by women and didn't result really, in the types of breakthroughs that previous movements had.
Zoe Marks: And just to clarify, the trend of decreasing success for people power non-violent campaigns is not specific to ones that do or don't include women. I think one of the next projects we'll look at is whether or not there's still, despite this environmental effect of authoritarian learning and repression, whether there's still this bonus for having a more inclusive revolution. And what I would expect is that the decline in success rates is even greater for movements that don't have the feminist foundations and women's participation.
Ralph Ranalli: Right.
Erica Chenoweth: Yeah, I think that's definitely true. I think what remains to be seen, and what we will definitely be looking at when we look at our update analysis soon, is whether the backlash against failed movements that are predominantly male is as patriarchal as the backlash against failed movements that were predominantly women. And so that's what I would hypothesize based on our existing findings, and that's what we're going to find out when we are able to look at our updated data.
Ralph Ranalli: Right. Speaking of situations around the world, I wanted to turn to Iran for a minute because obviously, what's going on there now is, we're seeing a very sustained mass protest movement that hasn't quieted down after a number of weeks, but it started with the death of a 22-year-old woman who was arrested for violating the hijab laws by the morality police and who died in their custody. And it seems to have touched off very long simmering discontent among Iranian women. Have you looked at why that discontent seemingly reached a tipping point now and what the implications are of it?
Zoe Marks: We've talked to people who have their finger on the pulse because they've been involved in Iranian politics within the country. And so I defer to their analysis, and it really has to do with the culmination of a number of moments that have gone viral but not led to this tipping point, right? But that didn't necessarily cross our radar screen here in Cambridge, because I'm not an Iran specialist myself, I focus mostly on African contexts. And what we've seen is that there has been this confluence of multiple different sexist attacks where the state has enacted violence that is seen as directly targeting women, targeting mothers, targeting women's political expression, and I think that the nature of social media is that it actually, people talk about it a lot because of the legacy of Twitter revolutions and the idea that you can all see what's happening in Tahrir Square and be there within minutes. I think today what we're seeing is that this simmering happens and neither the population nor the regime knows when the pot has hit the boiling point, but it's been percolating. And what I find really interesting about the Iran context is that now that they've shut down the internet, sure there are coordination challenges—it's part of an authoritarian playbook any time a popular protest movement breaks out—but actually they didn't shut it down when these sexist attacks on women, these sexist provocations of state violence went viral. And so that meant that there's been this information sharing that has cumulated into this response to the death of Mahsa Amini who, as you said, was killed while in the custody of state police. I think the other dimension of this is that everyone has those stories. Everyone has the experience, if not of being taken into custody or having a family member taken into custody of moving through the day paranoid that one will be stopped at any point. And so it's the ubiquity and the resonance of moving through a world of this surveillance authoritarian theocracy while also knowing that there have been these flash points that have been accumulating.
Ralph Ranalli: Some of the images that I was really struck by were those incredible videos of Iranian high school girls walking down the streets, marching, ripping off their hijabs and chanting things like death to the dictator. To what extent do you think are there any generational shifts maybe that are happening here that make ... I'm just trying to formulate this question. To what extent do you think there are generational shifts here that may make it more possible in the future to successfully fight against these authoritarian movements?
Erica Chenoweth: Well, I'll say that, as far as I can tell in Iran right now, this is a multi-generational movement, and it is notable for the large number and the persistent participation and visibility of women and women's concerns at the frontline of this movement, and it is notable, like you said, that there are also a very high number of youths. And I'll also say that recent developments that suggest that the oil workers are going on strike and other trade associations, or unions are starting to step up, that really suggests that there are deep organizational roots that provides movements with a lot more capacity for long term mobilization above and beyond the people who are courageously stepping out and taking those risks and encountering the violence directly on a day-to-day basis. And so this is a movement that is still on the rise, right? I will also say that in some collaborative research that Zoe and I are doing through the United States Institute of Peace, we've found that when youth are in a high proportion of frontline participants like women, that also is a big benefit to the movement. And part of the reason is, because when you have women who are participating in these large numbers, they're socially located in different parts of the society than men, particularly in highly patriarchal societies. And that gives them access to different types of knowledge and different potential sources of innovation and creativity about how to create new tactics. And the same goes for youth, in part because they have the element of surprise. The tactics they innovate might just be things that nobody thought of before. And so they're interesting, they're inspiring, they're the generation of the future, they are bringing the hope in addition to the outrage. And so that's notable about this movement and it puts it in a category of movements that we've seen over history that are more likely to succeed. Of course, we can't predict a future, but that is a major resource for the movement I would say. The other thing I would say is that, in this instance, part of what's really complicated about Iran's history is that there are people living there who were there before the revolution. And I mean the revolution of '79, and there are people who have been there during the reform period, which wasn't that long ago, but who are my age now, and were the youth of the reform period. And they remember what it was like when there was that relative loosening. And so this is a multi-generational set of grievances, right? Not just the fact that Amini was killed in police custody, but as many of our Iranian colleagues have told us that there has been over the past few years, a tightening of the grip of the morality police and of the policies of the state to try to impose much more severe penalties for women not falling in line with the very conservative expectations of their look in society, of their roles in society and access to healthcare and other things. So the fact that that has been going on for a long time and people can remember a different time no matter where in the generational lineup they are, I think that that is a major source of the widespread grievances that we're seeing.
Ralph Ranalli: Right. A lot of the analysis I've seen on Iran though, says that it wasn't just this discontent about the treatment of women, but that discontent aligned with other economic and political discontents, so how important is it to the success of a mass movement to have these multiple lines and multiple reasons for people to get out and protest and demand change, and how does that affect your analysis if there was a chance that there might be some significant change in Iran?
Erica Chenoweth: Okay, so yeah, I have a thought about this, which is that this is a mass uprising, which means that all the grievances come out. And that means too, that many different constituencies can find their way into participating. And that is why it can be so destabilizing and so threatening. But what I'd also say is that what it really represents is what a lot of social scientists call a negative coalition, which is to say everybody is coming with all their grievances, and it is easily personified, right, with the notion that there's one person standing in the way from a different future. And that's why it becomes easy for the catch all phrase to become that the people want the fall of the regime. But in fact, negative coalitions in some ways are easier to develop than the so-called positive coalitions that are the ones in which there's been a long period of internal organizing, infrastructure development, negotiation around what the future is going to look like in the country. And what we know from different movements around the world is that a negative coalition that grows powerful enough, can create the right defections and really force the resignation of a leader or things like that. But they can also quickly succumb to either backlash or the return of the person or one of their close allies if they don't have some longer-term trajectory for creating the alternative they wish to see. And I'm not actually saying that specifically about the Iran case because the truth is, it's very hard to know how much groundwork has been laid and how much organizational development there has been. Zoe was saying to me this morning, if there has been, it's underground, and that's by necessity, and it may be that some of that has happened, and we simply don't know. We can't say what the trajectory would look like here, but I would just say that what often happens when you get this confluence or mix of grievances is they come together around one thing that they can agree on, and that's why it can be so destabilizing to a dictatorship.
Zoe Marks: I think what's important is that this is the first time that we've seen state violence against a woman become the catalyst or the spark. In all of the Arab spring uprisings up through Sudan, which is 2019, there have been these very prominent women who've been leaders and participants and spokespeople, but they haven't actually been the catalyst. And I think what's different this time is that, for instance, in 2019, Iran had a huge protest cycle. It was very short lived, because it was about fuel prices. And so when people only have a material commitment to the uprising, like an economic shock or something like that, A) it provides something that the regime can respond to and fix and basically buy out most of the bandwagoners, not necessarily the protest leaders, but those who would join it. And B) it's limited in its scope. And what's so fascinating to me watching this version of protest is that there's this very positive message—which is woman-life-freedom—that has arisen from the Kurdish resistance movement in western Iran but has been adopted not just as a symbol of ethnic minority rights or of feminism, it's been adopted wholesale by what we might consider to be a mainstream, male-dominated public sphere in the protests as well. And I think that that's really significant because it's not just a negative coalition, but it's beginning to give voice to some alternative vision of not just death to the dictator, but these are the things that we are calling for.
Ralph Ranalli: That's really interesting. Now I wanted to broaden the scope out a bit to just talk about why this rise in authoritarianism is happening now in this moment, in this historical context. On the one hand, I guess nobody really thought that millennia of patriarchy was just going to quietly fold up its tent and slink away. But what is it about this moment that is contributing to the rise of authoritarianism and why democracy seems to be on the decline in where we are now? Have you thought about that and what are your thoughts on that?
Zoe Marks: We've thought about it a lot. There are lots of good thoughts that people have. There are no particularly satisfying tools in the political science toolkit for explaining these cycles, or I think of them as the inhalations and the long exhalations of when democracy and progress or the expansion of rights versus the retraction and consolidation of fascist and authoritarian impulses happen at the global level. But one thing that's important to note is that it does have these global trend line antecedents, right? We've seen that there are these periods of expansion and contraction of access to rights and freedoms versus the consolidation of coercive authoritarian power. I think part of what we're seeing now is that there's increasing multipolarity and instability in the global political order. The United States is not as powerful or consolidated of a hegemon as it was during the heyday of the third wave of democratization. So, from the fall of the Berlin wall up through, I would say roughly 2010 when it was really this Francis Fukuyama narrative of The End of History, most people knew that it wasn't the end of history. But a lot of us, I think, didn't anticipate just how quickly, which is the balance of power between the United States and China, but also Russia and Europe to some extent, the bricks countries in the global south would unravel the so-called democratic consensus, right? That democracy was the most effective way to achieve domestic and international or external brokerage. And so we've seen that lots of leaders think that it's not the most effective, and lots of people who are the followers of those leaders are increasingly convinced that a strong authoritarian presence might be an alternative pathway to their own livelihood, nationalist aspirations, et cetera. And so it's important to remember that these are the three ingredients that need to be in place. One is a global political system that it creates an enabling environment. Sometimes it's very difficult for dictators to stay dictators, right now it's not. You have to have leaders who are convincing and charismatic and really willing to drive the bus towards fascism. And then you need to have followers who are helping make that happen, particularly in places that are full democracies or pseudo democracies that are sliding into an authoritarian political direction.
Ralph Ranalli: Right. Our previous guest on this show was former Swedish Prime Minister, Stefan Löfven, and he and I talked a lot about that third aspect you were talking about, which is authoritarian leaders have to have followers or they're not leading anything, and what are the conditions under which those people are induced to follow? And I don't think you can have a discussion about the rise of authoritarianism without talking about economic inequality and things like globalization and what its effects have been on people and how those effects have convinced them to maybe say, "Hey, maybe there's a better alternative than democracy." Can you talk a little bit about how you pull economic inequality into the worldview about the connection between authoritarianism and of patriarchal discrimination against women?
Erica Chenoweth: Yeah. I think that, well, for one thing, the measure that we use to look at whether a country is a consolidated democracy is actually, it also accounts for the quality of the democracy in terms of power being equally distributed across social groups. So it's in many ways the most democratic measure of democracy that's available if what you're concerned about is inequality. So the measure we use is called egalitarian democracy, which means that there's genuine opportunity access, equality for everyone. And surprisingly, nobody's ever reached a hundred percent of that, right? And this is what I would say about this issue of why now. The big question is, why did we ever get so far in the first place when so many of the different things that can be deeply threatening to democracy have always had the latent ability to express themselves? The United States, depending on whose measures you use, the United States enjoyed a period of democracy from 1965 until 2016. And that's in the aggregate because that's when we had the Voting Rights Act that enfranchised millions of Americans who otherwise had been disenfranchised before that. But even within the United States, we've had ethno-nationalist, authoritarian enclaves up until 1965 and now again. So it really is a very precarious thing to be in the bucket of countries that can be reasonably classified as an egalitarian democracy.
And we had an interesting talk at the Kennedy School a couple of weeks ago at the Forum where Daniel Ziblatt and Steve Levitsky were talking about some of their ongoing work and their new book. They reminded me of this really important fact, which is that in most countries, anywhere between 25 to 30% of people generally are authoritarians. That basically means that they have a certain outlook on the world in which they really value order and obedience and will support politicians at different times of collective uncertainty, who espouse those views, and they're willing to give the entire game away if they feel like they are aligned with those people and that those people will protect them. So this is why it's so easy to divide and rule when a country is diverse and when there are easily available and readily available narratives like racism that are available to divide and rule. And similarly, when it comes to patriarchy, this is another very easily available narrative. There's no accident that it's the same states in the United States passing laws to restrict access to the ballot, to restrict access to abortion, and to restrict the types of books that people can read in their Republican libraries and to restrict the ability of trans people to compete in girls’ sports or to access the healthcare that they want or for their parents to be able to recognize their God-given identities. So I think what I'm saying is that the combination of racism, patriarchy, and sexism and authoritarianism go together and are equally appealing in times of uncertainty when the main political strategy is to stoke those anxieties.
Zoe Marks: And I think, to the question about economic inequality, economic inequality is not the case that the have nots are the ones who are sort the champions of fascist authoritarian tendencies. I think it's often painted that way as a way to get away with more at the elite level. But what is important to understand about the role that patriarchy and sexism play in facilitating this shift is it helps to give men who have less—significantly less because of exponentially growing global inequality, but also domestic inequalities—it helps to give them a sense of power and identity that is being reinforced by an authoritarian movement and an authoritarian message that they otherwise don't have in their pocketbooks. And I think what's also particularly worrying for me is that women often go along with this because they are willing to hedge their bets and attach their own material prospects to the men in their lives. And so that's how you end up having these female patriarchs who are also interested in upholding this gender hierarchy, not because they're necessarily at the elite level, although those who are at the elite level or all the more invested in protecting what they've got, but for those who are in the lower classes, working classes or there is this appeal of having something that's cultural, that's identity based, that can't be taken away. And it's in some ways a distraction mechanism from the economic reality of the situation, but in other ways it's also very real to people who ascribe to it.
Ralph Ranalli: So you've both written a lot about the causes of repression and strategies to combat it, to undermine it, to turn it around and replace it with something better. If this tide of authoritarianism can be turned around and shifted, what do you think would be the most important factors in that happening? How do things change from their current trajectory?
Zoe Marks: Well, here, I think context is everything. It really matters what country you're in. In the United States, it matters what state you're in, in a state, it matters what county you're in because you have different tools at your disposal depending upon how consolidated authoritarian structures are. And so that's the first thing to know, is that in the most consolidated spaces, you have to rely largely on social movements, alternative institutions and coalition building where there is still some political opening to create positive change to shore up really just prodemocratic policies that are more on the saleable by the authoritarian forces that have come inside the house of democracy. In those spaces, you need to have this inside and outside game where you're not forsaking the informal or parallel social movement tools, but you're also bringing them into conversation with formal institutional capacity to create change that is going to protect democracy. I think what's important to know is that in either of those contexts, really what is required and what is sometimes missing is this positive vision of what we are building, right? It's very hard to stop authoritarianism when it is encroaching slowly and from within, right? When authoritarianism walks in wearing the same outfit as the former biparty system, if it's looking like the shows and the news sources that you've been listening to for decades, then it doesn't cross a red line, right? People think they know it's going to be authoritarianism, we almost did on January 6th in this country, know that it was authoritarianism, but there was a lot of authoritarianism that came before that, there's a lot that's coming after that and it all looks like democracy because it's moving through the channels of democracy. And the same could be said for other international contexts. So I think what's most important is to say, "Well, what do we really think democracy needs to be?" And this is where we hope our research can be most impactful, is to say, "Actually, democracy means things like gender and racial equality." Because if you don't have that, then not only do you not have equal protection under the law and equal opportunities, but you don’t have citizens being able to fully engage in their full personhood the way that democracy in theory, says we can.
Ralph Ranalli: Erica, I'll let you have the last word on that question.
Erica Chenoweth: Yeah, I think I unsurprisingly agree with what Zoe has said, and I would simply add that at this point, the best way to defeat a global ascended authoritarian coalition is to build a global ascendant pro-democratic coalition or pro-democracy coalition, I should say more accurately. And it does have to spell out that positive vision. And when it comes to dealing with this within a country like ours, I really think it's important to invest in a genuinely pro-democratic civil society. We have a robust civil society, but it's deeply fragmented, at least on the pro-democracy side. And so if we can find a way over the next few years to really bolster, elevate, amplify, increase cooperation between all these types of things, then I think that we're going to be on more solid footing to deal with whatever comes down the pike in the future. And when that pro-democratic civil society is established, obviously, it needs to be inclusive because that is what our research says works, and it's also what our research says leads to exactly the type of vision that Zoe laid out.
Ralph Ranalli: Well, I want to thank you both for this conversation. It was very interesting and at times almost too interesting.
Zoe Marks: Thank you.
Erica Chenoweth: Thank you so much, Ralph.
Ralph Ranalli (Outro): Please join us for our next episode. If you have a comment or a suggestion, please email us at PolicyCast at H-K-S dot Harvard dot E-D-U. And the next time you’re discussing a vital matter of public policy, please remember to speak bravely and listen generously.