Everyday Authoritarianism is Boring and Tolerable

Malaysia is a country that I know well, and whose political system I have studied closely for fifteen years. It is also a country whose political liberalization I have long awaited. Malaysia has a multiparty parliamentary system of government, but the same coalition of parties has been in power for six decades, and has never lost a general election. The government retains—in a holdover from the British colonial period—the legal authority to detain people without trial if it so desires. The print and broadcast media are fairly compliant, mostly owned by the corporate allies of political elites, and rarely criticize the government.

Living in Malaysia and working on Malaysian politics has taught me something important about authoritarianism from my perspective as an American. That is, the mental image of authoritarian rule in the minds of most Americans is completely unrealistic, and dangerously so.

Even though Malaysia is a perfectly wonderful place to visit, and an emerging market economy grappling with the same “middle income trap” issues that characterize most emerging market economies, scholars of comparative politics do not consider it to be an electoral democracy. Freedom House considers Malaysia “Partly Free.” The Democracy-Dictatorship dataset codes Malaysia as a civilian dictatorship, as do Boix-Miller-Rosato. Levitsky and Way consider Malaysia to be a classic case of competitive authoritarianism. There are quite a few other countries like Malaysia: Mexico and Taiwan for most of the 20th century, Russia, Turkey, Singapore, Cameroon, Tanzania, and others.

The mental image that most American harbor of what actual authoritarianism looks like is fantastical and cartoonish. This vision of authoritarian rule has jackbooted thugs, all-powerful elites acting with impunity, poverty and desperate hardship for everyone else, strict controls on political expression and mobilization, and a dictator who spends his time ordering the murder or disappearance of his opponents using an effective and wholly compliant security apparatus. This image of authoritarianism comes from the popular media (dictators in movies are never constrained by anything but open insurrection), from American mythmaking about the Founding (and the Second World War and the Cold War), and from a kind of “imaginary othering” in which the opposite of democracy is the absence of everything that characterizes the one democracy that one knows.

Still, that fantastical image of authoritarianism is entirely misleading as a description of modern authoritarian rule and life under it. It is a description, to some approximation, of totalitarianism. Carl Friedrich is the best on totalitarianism (see PDF), and Hannah Arendt of course on its emergence (PDF). But Arendt and Friedrich were very clear that totalitarianism is exceptional as a form of politics.

The reality is that everyday life under the kinds of authoritarianism that exist today is very familiar to most Americans. You go to work, you eat your lunch, you go home to your family.* There are schools and businesses, and some people “make it” through hard work and luck. Most people worry about making sure their kids get into good schools. The military is in the barracks, and the police mostly investigate crimes and solve cases. There is political dissent, if rarely open protest, but in general people are free to complain to one another. There are even elections. This is Malaysia, and many countries like it.

Everyday life in the modern authoritarian regime is, in this sense, boring and tolerable. It is not outrageous. Most critics, even vocal ones, are not going to be murdered like Anna Politkovskaya, they are going to be frustrated. Most not-very-vocal critics will live their lives completely unmolested by the security forces. They will enjoy it when the trains run on time, blame the government when they do not, gripe at their taxes, and save for vacation. Elections, when they happen, will serve the “anesthetic function” that Philippe Schmitter attributed to elections in Portugal under Salazar in the greatly underappreciated in 1978 volume Elections without Choice.

Life under authoritarian rule in such situations looks a lot like life in a democracy. As Malaysia’s longtime Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad used to say, “if you don’t like me, defeat me in my district.”

This observation has two particular consequences. One, for asking if “the people” will tolerate authoritarian rule. The premise upon which this question is based is that authoritarianism is intolerable generally. It turns out that most people express democratic values, but living in a complicated world in which people care more about more things than just their form of government, it is easy to see that given an orderly society and a functioning economy, democratic politics may become a low priority.** The answer to the question “will ‘the people’ tolerate authoritarian rule?” is yes, absolutely.

Second, for knowing if you are living in an authoritarian regime versus a democratic one. Most Americans conceptualize a hypothetical end of American democracy in Apocalyptic terms. But actually, you usually learn that you are no longer living in a democracy not because The Government Is Taking Away Your Rights, or passing laws that you oppose, or because there is a coup or a quisling. You know that you are no longer living in a democracy because the elections in which you are participating no longer can yield political change.

It is possible to read what I’ve written here as a defense of authoritarianism, or as a dismissal of democracy. But my message is the exact opposite. The fantasy of authoritarianism distracts Americans from the mundane ways in which the mechanisms of political competition and checks and balances can erode. Democracy has not survived because the alternatives are acutely horrible, and if it ends, it will not end in a bang. It is more likely that democracy ends, with a whimper, when the case for supporting it—the case, that is, for everyday democracy—is no longer compelling.


*The parallelism between this sentence and The Lumberjack Song are entirely inadvertent.

**It is also the case the many people find democracy rather intolerable too. By this I do not mean that people do not value democracy. Rather, I mean that in democracy, it is also the case that most of the very things that motivate people to oppose authoritarian rule—corruption, cronyism, inequality, unfairness—usually still exist.

Comments 50

  1. dwayne woods January 6, 2017

    Great post; however, I think academics have some responsibility in this issue. Selectorate theory; tinpot dictatorships; credible commitment, etc. China is emblematic of much of what you have written about here.

  2. WLGR January 6, 2017

    I can’t help but think of Slavoj Žižek’s classic bit about red ink:

    So what are we doing here [at Occupy Wall Street]? Let me tell you a wonderful, old joke from Communist times. A guy was sent from East Germany to work in Siberia. He knew his mail would be read by censors, so he told his friends: “Let’s establish a code. If a letter you get from me is written in blue ink, it is true what I say. If it is written in red ink, it is false.” After a month, his friends get the first letter. Everything is in blue. It says, this letter: “Everything is wonderful here. Stores are full of good food. Movie theatres show good films from the west. Apartments are large and luxurious. The only thing you cannot buy is red ink.” This is how we live. We have all the freedoms we want. But what we are missing is red ink: the language to articulate our non-freedom. The way we are taught to speak about freedom— war on terror and so on—falsifies freedom. And this is what you are doing here. You are giving all of us red ink.

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  5. Mark January 6, 2017

    “The mental image that most American harbor of what actual authoritarianism looks like is fantastical and cartoonish. This vision of authoritarian rule has jackbooted thugs, all-powerful elites acting with impunity, poverty and desperate hardship for everyone else, strict controls on political expression and mobilization, and a dictator who spends his time ordering the murder or disappearance of his opponents using an effective and wholly compliant security apparatus.”

    Have you spent time with the inner city population of the US? Have you heard of the war on drugs? Stop and frisk? Have you seen the crushing poverty in many urban rural and native communities as the already minimal safety net is pulled away? Are you aware of the abuse of civil asset forfeiture? Have you witnessed policing for profit? Have you tried protesting on the streets? Have you noticed any of our powerful elites getting prosecuted for anything recently (like massive fraud cases crashing the entire economy are passed of as a bit of a wopsie). Are you aware of the Presidential targeted assassination program, the CIA’s rendition program? Sure it does not happen to everyone, it is not quite as extreme and it is possible to go through life not noticing it, provided you are white, rich and do not rock the boat.

    We have extra judicial incarceration and extra judicial killing on the word of the president (hey they are terrorists, we think, if not no biggie).
    We have those who are on the no fly list apparently placed there at random again with no judicial over site.
    Anyone who protests at any level will find themselves under surveillance, the use of agent provocateurs is widespread, protesters will be kettled, jailed and eventually charged with serious often widely over stated crimes (stepping off the curb is sufficient to get you arrested resulting in a night in jail an a long drawn out and expensive litigation process.
    young men of color are gunned down on our streets daily
    we use SWAT squads to raid homes for the most minor of offences, with or without reasonable cause.

    Of course it is not a totalitarian state, after all you are not the one being stepped on.

    Count the CCTV cameras next tie you are in a major US City

    • Gerald McEachin January 8, 2017

      I’ll do that because I won’t have to have a special license to travel.

      • Leopold January 24, 2017

        “I’ll do that because I won’t have to have a special license to travel.”

        This is you not getting it. The whole point of the above article is that America is not the only country that isn’t North Korea. Canada isn’t North Korea. Uganda isn’t North Korea. These days even China isn’t North Korea. It’s absolutely possible to not have to have a special licence to travel and still be living under an authoritarian regime. Controlling people on the level you’re imagining is not mere authoritarianism, it is totalitarianism, and nobody is giving out medals for not being a totalitarian state. There is a huge gulf between what your founding fathers envisioned and a totalitarian state, and most of us live somewhere in that gulf.

  6. Valley Forge January 6, 2017

    I appreciate that you defined the absence of democracy as when elections can no longer yield political change, but that seems like a relative standard. In the US for instance the actual range of political outcomes is very narrow despite the hue and cry of elections. Trump is in part a reaction of this perceived loss of voter influence over policy. At what point of incapacity to effect change do we say we are now in an authoritarian state?

    • Bob January 7, 2017

      I imagine it is at the point where elections stop happening, or if there is a process, if the existing government completely overrules or fabricates the results.

      Authoritarianism is obviously does not automatically mean horrible living conditions, it depends on the authority.

      • K-G Lee (@kheegster) January 7, 2017

        You miss one of the points of the article, which is that Malaysia (and most authoritarian states) holds regular elections. In the case of Malaysia, it is even somewhat free and fair. For example, the state governments in two of the richest states in Malaysia (Penang and Selangor) are controlled by the opposition. Here are a few more facts that might be interesting:

        – In the 2013 federal elections, the BN ruling coalition lost the popular vote nationally (sound familiar?)
        – The bedrock of BN are the rural states, where the districts are insanely gerrymandered. Some rural voters have 10x the voting power as urban ones (sound familiar, albeit less exaggerated?)

        The situation in Malaysia is a bit worse than the current US situation, e.g. there is much more conflation between national resources (money or state instruments of power) and those of the ruling political part and much more corruption (kickbacks etc).

        But Tom’s punchline is “You know that you are no longer living in a democracy because the elections in which you are participating no longer can yield political change.” The fact that the House GOP can ensconce themselves as a majority regardless of the popular vote is one sign, and the recent attempts by the NC state legislature to hamstring the powers of the new Democratic governor is another such sign.

  7. Keith January 7, 2017

    I imagine even in true totalitarian states (or even in the exaggerated version shown in The Man in the High Castle) ordinary life goes on ordinarily most if not almost all of the time.

  8. Hector January 7, 2017

    As strange as it might seem to Tom Pepinsky and other political liberals (and I’m using that in the small-l sense, i.e. Jeffersonian liberalism), most normal people don’t much care about political freedom. They care about things like having a good job, having plenty to eat and drink, having a comfortable social environment, and living in a healthy community where they and the things they care about are secure. Competitive elections? Not even a serious consideration.

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  10. Josh F January 7, 2017

    I lived in Singapore for three years and married a Singaporean who dislikes the government there. When I first arrived in 2011, the opposition won more seats than at any time in Singaporean history. It really looked like we could have an opposition government within a decade. Since then it has become obvious that the PAP will use its power over the press, civil society, and the courts to remain in power. Hence, what looked like a sea change has proved to be a chimera.

    The problem, which you mention in passing, is that even those who would like to see change have their hands tied by the electoral manipulation of the essentially right wing, corporatist, or kleptocratic parties in power. The scary thing is that the modern Republican party and Donald Trump have decided that it is OK to use these methods here in the U.S. Given the outcome of the most recent election, and despite the fact that the majority of Americans oppose it, we very much run the risk of becoming an authoritarian country if we are unable to beat back this antidemocratic behavior in courts and through mass public action.

  11. Jeff Thomason January 8, 2017

    I’m with Josh F in my thoughts about authoritarian governments. Although, Josh, you are incoherent when you write electoral manipulation of the essentially right wing… We live in a Republic not a pure democracy. Further, your presumption to speak for most Americans is very much wrong. Trump is president because he won the election based on the system the Founding Fathers envisioned. The anti democratic behavior in courts is when the bench makes laws instead of interpreting them as they were written; when they find things in the Constitution that are not specifically there.

    This article is liberalism run amok. “The mental image the most Americans harbors of actual authoriantism is fantastical and cartoonish.” The single most foolish statement I have ever read. You mention that Russia lived under authoriantism for most of the 20th century. By the way it was the USSR, the Soviet Union, at that time. Skipping right past Lenin’s purges, Stalin killed more people than Hitler’s. I visited Moscow and Leningrad early in Gorbachev’s Perastrokia. People had state jobs that they worked in 2 or 3 day shifts, followed by 2 or 3 days off. When they were on the job they were drunk and asleep (I suspect how Chernobyl happened). On their own time they participated in ILLEGAL money trading, private taxi driving, selling handmade goods, and farming their own small plots (about the size of most suburban Americans back yards, and not illegal). Those plots greatly outperformed giant state-run farms. When I went to visit churches and synagogues they were always “closed today, perhaps come back tomorrow,” (interesting that the chains were rusted and the grounds unkempt). In Leningrad the bridge went up at 2 am. If you were outside the city but were supposed to be inside, you had a problem. At the hotels you gave your key (always on a large wooden pole) to the “key lady” present on each floor (now why do you suspect they wanted my key, when I knew very well that my room was bugged. I’ll save the story of how I know that for now). There were shortages of almost every consumer good you could think of. McDonalds and Pepsi had just opened in the Soviet Union and both were more valuable than gold, as were US dollars, blue jeans and especially cigarettes.

    Interesting that in the US we’re having a “debate” about building a wall to keep people out. The Soviets built a wall to keep its citizens from fleeing the authorian regime of East Germany puppet government. The most joyful I have ever seen human-beings is as they tore that wall down.

    This is the United States, you have the right to your opinion and to say or print it, but you are much more scary than Donald Trump. Like Barack Obama, who has done his best to dismantle America, Trump will be gone in four or eight years. The Consitution will remain in place, if we are smart and strong enough to preserve it.

    • Josh F January 8, 2017

      OK, right wing wacko. Not a thing you state has an ounce of validity. But, as usual, with folks like you, you spit out absolute garbage to refute facts and reality.

      • Kimble Osteroos January 8, 2017

        Really Josh? Do you know so little of history. To Russia’s 22 million plus victims one can add China (20 million plus purposely starved under Mao), the killing fields of Cambodia (20 million plus dead), living conditions in Castro’s Cuba, Venezuela right now, North Korea (although NK might legitimately be called totalitarian), and the list goes on. This isn’t left or right politics, it’s history. Your comment is unwarranted and mean spirited.

      • Josh F January 8, 2017

        Kimble, you and the dolt above missed the entire point of Prof. Pepinsky’s essay. Prof. Pepinsky specifically differentiated between totalitarian societies, which is what the societies you and he discussed were, and authoritarian governments, which are much more common and exist in many places today. Had either of you actually been able to read the piece with any level of analytical ability, neither of you would have written your comments. No wait, you probably would have anyway because you clearly have an insatiable need to spout your ludicrous opinions. By answering the way you did, you actually proved Prof. Pepinsky’s point about Americans mental image of authoritarianism.

    • Denise Martin January 9, 2017

      Jeff, this ISN’T the election system the founders intended. The founders intended for electoral votes to be equal to the number of Senators plus the number or Reps, but importantly, they intended for the number of Reps to not exceed one per 30,000 citizens. We should have something on the order of 10,000 electors, with e.g. Wyoming having about 19 electors, California having about 1,266 electors, and New York having about 658 electors. Instead, today Wyoming has 3, California has 55, and New York has 29. (Just to see how completely skewed this is, if the *proportions* that the founders intended were the same, for Wyoming’s 3 electoral votes, California today would have 799 electoral votes and New York would have 103 electoral votes!)

      So why do we no longer have the electoral system our founders intended? Because when the House of Representatives started to grow, and the room was running out of space for more furniture, they capped the number of Reps at 435. But because the Electoral College doesn’t have a furniture problem, really, this should have been kept as the founders intended: the number should have still been apportioned as one elector per 30000 citizens. Either the politicians who made this oversight didn’t notice the perverse effect this would have, or they were outmaneuvered politically. Either way, the current Electoral College system is not the way our founders intended.

      • Denise Martin January 9, 2017

        Whoops. Typo. for Wyoming’s 3 electoral votes, California today would have 199 electoral votes, not 799. Sorry.

    • A January 12, 2017

      1) A) I’m afraid the e.g. of USSR of Perestroika is not relevant/timely for Jan 2017 and B) that e.g. is skewed by the outsider’s eye view (vs. an academic view or better an insider’s v). For A) visit the country now, B) live in the country more than a fortnight at least.
      2) With all respect to Tom, taking Malaysia as a proxy for ‘everyday authoritarianism’ is generalization, as much as ‘boring’ and ‘tolerable’ are.
      3) There is one more thing the article (and the whole discussion) could consider – the time frame for ‘knowing’ the changes which happen incrementally so that you are not surprised at what you saw today but would have been numbed if told about it a year or 2 or 3 ago, let alone 12. When in 2003 I heard about the events in Venezuela (which were just unfolding), no one thought it could end up in its current situation – an oil-producer with no produce in shops?

  12. Doug January 8, 2017

    I don’t know anything specific about Malaysian society, but given it is in the Far East, I assume it is a collectivist society / culture. They are far different at a fundamental level than individualist societies that the West has. So ‘benign authoritarianism’ is sort of not unexpected, given how it mirrors Confucianism etc. To expect Americans to accept such a foundation for society is naive… and to expect our supposed “leaders” to practice benign authoritarianism is doubly naive.

  13. Kenneth O'Brien January 8, 2017

    As we just demonstrated, you need to add “maintain long standing system of white supremacy” as another reason many people will say yes to authoritarianism.

  14. Rich January 8, 2017

    Ask John Murtha. Ask Abdulrahman al-Awlaki. Ask Occupy Wall Street. Ask BLM. Ask Leonard Peltier. Visit Johnstown Pennsylvania. Visit a Black Panther. Tour Pittsburgh Pennsylvania and talk to the folks in the Wilkinsburgh neighborhood. Visit the homeless encampments along Interstate-5 in Seattle. How about Chelsea Manning? John Walker Lindh? Jose Padilla? How does Malaysian fascism/authoritarianism compare to those situations? And then compare Malaysian authoritarianism with the fame, fortune, and notoriety accorded the Butcher of Fallujah and the Haditha Massacre Apologist, general Mattis. It’s convenient to hold prisoners responsible for their own silence, enslavement and imprisonment

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  16. CJ January 8, 2017

    I really appreciated this article. I lived in Singapore for a year and was wholly impressed.

    All in all, I’ve lived in the UK, Australia, Singapore and the US. Out of all those countries, Singapore was by far the most impressive place to live for the mundane but horrendously important foundations for life : efficient public transport, amazing health care system, an efficient and helpful public sector and clear benefits resulting from the use of public funds.

    In all other countries I’ve lived, I’ve seen first hand (I’ve worked for the government in the UK and Australia) the infuriating waste of public funds, a pubic sector with laughable levels of accountability, highly variable levels of public transport and health coverage that favors the wealthy.

    I suspect many countries like the UK/Australia/US would receive an immense benefit if Singapore would export its expertise in running public institutions/infrastructure.

    (I know, one example, one perception, one person etc but still … )

    • JK January 11, 2017

      All at the very small cost of insane laws, like death penalty for possession of cannabis.

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  19. John Thacker January 9, 2017

    “You know that you are no longer living in a democracy because the elections in which you are participating no longer can yield political change.”

    Hmm, by that argument, one can question whether most Europeans live in a democracy.

    Over the last several decades, almost every time greater European integration (particularly fiscal integration, but also the Treaty of Lisbon and the Constitutional Treaty) has been put to a direct popular vote in any constituent country, it has lost. The results have been ignored, sometimes with a re-vote, sometimes not. The Euro itself was created knowing that the people of Europe did not want fiscal transfers between countries, but knowing that it would be unworkable without fiscal transfers (with the method of exchange-rates gone) and yet also very difficult to exit. This was worked out by elites of all parties, who generally coopted opposition.

    I think it’s quite correct that the UK trying to leave the EU, or other countries trying to leave the euro, would be disastrous. Yet despite unbroken continual sentiment against close fiscal union (but appreciation for customs unions and a more limited membership), the project of greater European integration goes on. Voters are not given a choice of the option that they would like, only a choice between greater integration (which they do not want) or excessively horrible options. So it seems that the voters of the UK (as well as in other EU countries that have voted) have decided that it is important to demonstrate that they still live in a democracy, even if it means taking a dodgy choice.

    • JK January 11, 2017

      What are the referendums you mention that have failed and been ignored?

      The treaty of Lisbon was only under referendum in Ireland, where it was as first rejected and then after further negotiation accepted (in a referendum, with 67% of voters in favour).

      Every country joining the EU has had a referendum and either it passed (usually by a huge margin 75+% lead) or it didn’t join. Similarly with the euro – Sweden and Denmark rejected the euro in a referendum, and so they didn’t join the fiscal union.

  20. PETER KOLDING January 10, 2017

    I agree with the view that authoritarian regimes exhibit their existence by the inability of democratic practice to compel change. However, their true nature is their abandonment of the rule of law and the adoption of violence and the criminalization of speech based on identity when a true threat to their authority presents itself.

  21. Ed Haywood January 10, 2017

    There is a reason the 1st Amendment is first. Everything flows from freedom of speech, press, and assembly.

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  27. asdf January 12, 2017

    There is a nuance. In 1990-s, America w.r.t Russia behaved as if it was thinking: “we are not afraid of anything, democracy is our weapon.” But it was a mistake to use democracy as a weapon, because they, in fact, inspired a “missiles vs armor” competition. Now, in 2017, it is possible both to use democracy for solving geopolitical tasks and to counteract democracy. But unfortunately, the very existence of this arsenal devalues the peaceful use of democracy.

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  29. Anon. January 14, 2017

    The horror story spurring Americans to action then should not be authoritarianism per se, but the erosion of the checks and balances of a functioning democracy?

    If I were to assert that we don’t as yet live in a fully developed democracy anyway, there is as yet some way to go before a flame pronouncing ‘Democracy’ in an unqualified form can be lit.

    The question then follows how to move from the current ‘crime’ democracy** that we tolerate in the West to a democracy in which people are truly free.

    ** If I can get away with labelling the version of democracy that we have here in the West; we’re not quite as bad as the Japanese Yakuza, operating openly from offices on the high street, crime in the West does though operate more or less anywhere it wants otherwise.

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