Authoritarianism is a form of government characterised by strong central powers and limited political freedoms. An authoritarian leadership style is exemplified when a leader dictates policies and procedures and goals to be achieved and directs and controls all activities without any meaningful participation by his subordinates. Such a leader has a vision in mind and must effectively motivate the group to finish the task.
There is a clear divide between the leader and his followers. The leader constructs a gap between himself and his followers with the intention of stressing role distinction. This type of leadership dates back to the earliest tribes and empires but has seen a comeback in recent times.
On the other hand, democracy is a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives. This is a type of government in which people have the authority to choose their legislature.
A majority of countries are now democracies. The end of World War I depicted the start of the democratic form of government. The citizens vote for officials who represent the citizens’ ideas. Thus people are given a justified opportunity and a chance of participation where they know that their opinions are a subject matter of concern.
However, the world’s trust in democracy is in danger. Authoritarianism is rising in several countries. It seems like the wave of authoritarianism is hitting countries yet again. Authoritarianism is on the march not only in relatively poor countries but also in well-off countries. One of them is the U.S., a country that defended and promoted liberal democracy throughout the 20th century.
How are we to understand the resurgence of authoritarianism?
Erica Frantz of Michigan State University sheds light on the ways of contemporary authoritarians in her short book Authoritarianism: What Everyone Should Know. It illuminates two points.
As mentioned earlier, in a democracy, the state must allow the flow of expression, opinions, free media and unbiased election law. Today, elections confer legitimacy. For this reason, many authoritarians offer pseudo-democracy but not the reality. Pseudo-democracy refers to a less genuine form of democracy where even though elections are held, the citizens are cut off from the knowledge of the activities of those who exercise real power.
Thus, elections have become a form of theatre. Historically, the number of regimes peaked in the 1980s and then fell sharply, reaching a trough in the middle of the last decade. Since then, democracy has been in slow retreat.
The global march of authoritarianism was off to a vigorous start. In Brazil, a new president with well documented far-right leanings immediately mobilised 300 members of the National Police Force to quell violence in a north-eastern state, even as he vowed to increase the powers of security forces and expand citizens’ gun rights.
To the North, in Guatemala, President Jimmy Morales booted out a United Nations Anti-corruption Commission that had been investigating some of his officials and others close to him. In the United States, President Donald Trump fanned fears over immigration and considered declaring a “national emergency” to construct a wall on the southern border.
If 2018 and the impending milestones of 2019 are any indications, that’s only the beginning. Across the globe, entrenched authoritarians (like China) tightened their grip. Relatively new authoritarians extended their crackdowns, for example, Hungary, Turkey and the Philippines.
At present, the business of authoritarianism is booming. According to the Human Rights Foundation’s research, the citizens of 94 countries suffer under non-democratic regimes, meaning that 3.97 billion people are currently controlled by tyrants, absolute monarchs, military juntas or competitive authoritarians. That’s 53% of the world’s population. Statistically, then, authoritarianism is one of the largest, if not the largest, challenges facing humanity.
If injustice and oppression aren’t bad enough, authoritarian governments bear an enormous social cost. Dictator-led countries have higher mental illness rates, lower levels of health and life expectancy and higher susceptibility to famine. The suppression of free expression and creativity has harmful effects on innovation and economic growth. Moreover, free nations do not go to war, whereas dictators are always at war.
The worse democracies perform, the less attractive that model of governance becomes to their citizens and it is easier for the authoritarians to emerge. As it becomes more obvious that the democracies were poorly equipped to contend with authoritarianism’s resurgence, the leading autocracies were experimenting with more frightening ways of assuming domestic political control.
The confluence of authoritarianism gains and a setback of democracy suggests that modern authoritarianism is a permanent and increasing threat to liberal democracies. Authoritarian states are likely to intensify efforts to influence the political choices and government policies of the democracies.
Authoritarian leaders can count on the increasingly vocal group of admirers in democratic states. The phenomena can be expected to double down on its drive to neuter civil society as an incubator of reformist ideas.
The rewriting of history will become more widespread and greatly complicate societal efforts to confront both past and political abuses. Authoritarian forces are more likely to gain supremacy in countries where the parties that represent liberal democracy not only lose elections but experience a full-blown political collapse.