17 May 2020

In the 1970s David Beetham was a city councillor and parliamentary candidate for Labour. In the 1980s he succeeded Ralph Miliband as professor of politics at Leeds University. In the 1990s he was a co-founder of Democratic Audit and developed a methodology whereby citizens anywhere could assess the quality of their own democracy. He is currently a member of the Green Party.

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Authoritarian populism versus democracy: the political challenge of our time

David Beetham examines the characteristics of the growing trend towards authoritarianism and its threat to democracy

I WANT to stand back from the corona virus for a while, and examine the political challenge which will still be with us, possibly in accentuated form, when the threat of the virus has passed. Much of what I want to say will be by way of conceptual clarification, which I take to be a necessary preliminary to understanding the challenge of authoritarian populism to democracy correctly, and finding a coherent explanation for it. So let me start with democracy.

Trump and Putin: at opposite ends of a spectrum of authoritarianism?

Putin photo: kremlin.ru (Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International)

I have always argued, in a lifetime of studying democracy, that it should be defined in the first instance, not by institutions, but by its basic principles. These are twofold:


  1. Popular control of collective decisions and decision makers.
  2. Political equality between members of the relevant public subject to those decisions.

Struggles for democracy throughout the ages have been struggles to make popular control over collective decision making more effective, more inclusive and more equal. These principles are applicable to any system of collective decision making from the family upwards; here I will obviously be dealing with the most extensive community within a given country, and with its government.


From these two principles a number of important conclusions follow. First, democracy in practice is not an absolute but a matter of degree, of how far the institutions and practices of a country embody or facilitate these principles. In other words, it is always possible to assess the quality of democracy, and it may be a matter of convention how much of it, and in what form, should be present before we call a country democratic tout court. But that characterisation should never prevent us from enquiring in what respects its institutions and practices fall short of realising these principles as fully as they might.


Second, the conjunction “liberal democracy” is what is technically called a pleonasm. The word “liberal” is not only unnecessary but positively misleading, because it implies that you can have something called democracy without all the political rights and liberties necessary to enable people to exercise control over their collective affairs, and without the pluralisms that follow from these political rights and liberties. By the same token the term “illiberal democracy” so loved by Orban and Putin is a contradiction in terms. Elections to public office may be a useful means for realising democracy in large communities, but can never be sufficient in the absence of guaranteed political rights and freedoms for all. In their absence elections cannot meet the most elementary standards of “free and fair” necessary for them to be called democratic, though they may serve as a convenient legitimation for authoritarian rulers.


Third, the history of modern states is littered with examples of oppression of their own citizens. States are inherently oppressive institutions due to the monopoly of legitimate violence they possess. This applies even to those with freely elected executive authorities. It follows that the basic political rights and freedoms necessary for democracy have to be defended against the executive by an institution that is wholly independent of it in mode of appointment and functioning – the judiciary. And if a court so acts, even against a freely elected government, it cannot be deemed “undemocratic“ just because its members are not popularly elected.


Finally, decision by a majority is not a basic principle of democracy, but an institutional procedure for decision making where agreement between diverse opinions and interests cannot be reached by other means (e.g. compromise or consensus). And it relies for its justification on the principle of political equality – in Jeremy Bentham’s words “everyone to count for one and none for more than one”. So it betrays its own justificatory principle if a contingent majority is used to deny to any member or group the basic political rights and liberties which the principle of political equality requires.


With these points established let us move on to consider the concept of authoritarianism, and the ways in which it is antithetical or threatening to democracy.


An authoritarian is one who cannot tolerate any differing opinions from their own on a matter of common interest. And authoritarianism is a mode of governing which seeks to systematically silence or render impotent expressions of dissent or opposition on policy decisions of importance. And where the means of silencing dissent become institutionalised in constitutional form, we can talk about an authoritarian regime.


Admittedly, as with democracy in practice, this distinction between mode of governing and regime may be a fine one and a matter of degree. Yet I think we can identify a spectrum between, on the one hand, authoritarianism practised in a situation where the institutions of election remain broadly free and fair, and the basic political rights and liberties of all remain intact, and, on the other, a situation in which these institutions have become compromised or undermined to a greater or lesser degree. So at one end of the spectrum we could place, say, Margaret Thatcher, Boris Johnson and even Donald Trump, and at the other end Orban and Putin; and somewhere in between Bolsonaro, Erdogan, Modi and Netanyahu. This list serves by way of illustration, and readers may have their own choice about positioning on the spectrum.


So what explains this phenomenon? I don’t think the idea of an authoritarian personality which was in vogue in the 1950s and 1960s will serve. Nor will the idea that these authoritarians enjoy and seek to expand and prolong their power for its own sake. No, the explanation is to be found in what we might call the dominant political project of these figures and their backers, and in their conviction that this project can only be successfully realised through the silencing or neutralising of dissent and opposition, and the prolongation of their own rule. These dominant political projects can be very diverse, such as: establishing an economic regime of neo-liberalism, making Russia great again, making America great again under white male hegemony, getting Brexit done, or reconfiguring the state in the service of the majority religion and its traditions, whether this be Hindu (Modi), Muslim (Erdogan), Jewish (Netanyahu) or Christian (Orban). And once we have identified this dominant political project, this also helps explain which agents of dissent and opposition have to be neutered, and which can be more or less tolerated because they are not seen to have the power to threaten or hinder the dominant project.


If that is my explanation for authoritarianism, what explains its prevalence and its threat to democracy at this time? It has been facilitated by two things. First is when authoritarianism from above meets populism from below, that is some widespread expression of grievance and lack of political voice which can be readily mobilised against some minority scapegoat and its defenders to help advance the political project. And even better when those suffering the widespread grievance can be used to help construct an electoral majority and be presented as the voice of the people as a whole, and their opponents as the “enemy within” or “enemies of the people”.


Second is the presence of some crisis or crisis event which can be used as legitimation for moving an authoritarian government along the spectrum towards an authoritarian regime through institutional changes. Typical events have been 9/11 and the characterisation of its response as a “war” on terrorism, which gave governments anywhere the licence to take extraordinary powers, and to brand political opponents as terrorists. Or consider the coup attempt, real or manufactured, in Turkey which gave Erdogan the pretext for a wide-ranging crackdown on secularists and other political opponents. Or most recently the corona virus crisis which Orban has used to take emergency powers without time-limit. In each case the language of war and the necessity of determined defence is used to garner public support for such moves.


But this crisis event may not be necessary for an authoritarian government to move along the spectrum towards an authoritarian regime. Here in the UK Boris Johnson and his backers are using their electoral majority to justify institutional changes which will render the government more immune from accountability and from effective opposition to the great Brexit project. We have already seen his attempt to evade accountability to Parliament, and we can expect further moves in that direction. He has signalled his intention to limit the scope of the courts by removing the power of judicial review. He will move to limit the scope of investigative journalism by making Freedom of Information requests more difficult and more expensive, and neutering the BBC and Channel 4. He has signalled his intention of abolishing the Human Rights Act, as well as limiting the possibility of public demonstration and non-violent direct action. And he is proposing the gerrymandering of the electoral system by making the right to vote dependent on documentary evidence of identity (passport or driving licence) so excluding large swathes of the electorate from a basic political right.


We may no longer be able to stop Brexit, or even a no-deal Brexit, which in my view is more rather than less likely because of the interlude of the corona virus. But we can and must be vigilant and determined in resisting the planned shift along the spectrum from authoritarian government to an authoritarian regime.