Democracy is not Government by Democrats, and Authoritarianism is not Government by Authoritarians

In a post from October 2015, “Democratic Disappointments, Authoritarian Reformists, and Political Equilibria,” I mused about a seemingly ironic feature of contemporary Malaysian politics. The former dictator Mahathir Mohamad, a staunch defender of ruling party hegemony who happily jailed opponents to his regime, has emerged as one of the key critics of Najib Tun Razak. I suggested that the focus on Mahathir’s potential “change of heart” is entirely misplaced. Such a focus, I argued,

…reflects a common belief that the views of individual elites are central to understanding the essence of a country’s politics. There are lots of people who demand reform and openness in Malaysia, but when Mahathir does, this clearly changes the game. This belief in turn draws on a common view that the problem of political reform is getting the right people with the right beliefs in office. That is why it is so disappointing when someone like Aung San Suu Kyi fails to live up to her reputation once in office, and why it is so important for so many to ask whether Mahathir has “really” had a change of heart.

In an interview with ThinkProgress yesterday, I made a related point about President Trump and his administration. Many observers worry that President Trump is at heart an authoritarian, or that he has surrounded himself by authoritarians. The effort then goes to trying to divine the internal mental states or private beliefs and desires of key administration figures. In that interview, I pushed against this tendency, urging a focus instead on administration actions and decisions.

Why? Because the better way to think about political regimes—the general term for democracies and dictatorships—is to think about them as systems. Systems may have features that are independent of the features of the units that comprise them. Political regimes are comprised of individuals arranged into parties, bureaucracies, factions, movements, organizations, and other social aggregates that interact with one another and with the individuals that comprise them. “Democracy” then is a feature of a system—the regime—rather than a feature of the individuals who comprise it. This view draws on political science research since O’Donnell and Schmitter [PDF] which has focused less on mass or elite attitudes and more on the choices and strategies of actors and groups.

Viewed this way, democracy is not government by democrats, rather it is nothing more than

the outcome of struggles among individuals and factions, none of whom may actually value democracy but who may nevertheless find themselves overseeing a democratic regime because no one faction can defeat all others (one such account, by Przeworski, is here [PDF]).

It follows that an authoritarian regime is also not a government or rule by authoritarians. For some this may be reassuring, but it is not necessarily so. As I commented to ThinkProgress,

You can become authoritarian without trying. If you corrode systems of parliamentary order to get things done you might undermine institutions that sustain them.

Just as democracies can be governed by authoritarians, so too can true-believing democrats lay the groundwork for authoritarianism.

This, to me, is where those concerned with American democracy in these times ought to focus. Not on what elites believe, but what they do to the norms and institutions that sustain our current political regime. And then focus as well on how those democracy-sustaining norms and institutions might be strengthened, regardless of the actions of any administration or any elites.

Comments 3

  1. Pseudonymous February 11, 2017

    I’ve been talking about this a lot with a friend and, as far as Trump goes, I don’t tend to see him having an authoritarian ideology, but as a person comforted by authoritarianism. I think at times that can be tactically meaningful. Poring over who he is, is usually an exercise in control, but it can have some value. I.e. knowing that he can be harried by social media, versus a typical politician who would be much more inured to such things.

    When I saw your title, I thought you might talk a bit more about something I *think I’ve seen, which is Trump supporters in social media (so, possibly bots and ringers are over-represented here) who imply that democracy is something done by democrats, which is therefore self-evidently negative.

    But anyway, thanks for making these distinctions explicit. Again!

  2. Nqabutho February 12, 2017

    “Because the better way to think about political regimes — the general term for democracies and dictatorships — is to think about them as systems.”

    I am not a political scientist, but it looks like you are here indicating the standard terminology in the field. I would have thought we would have to distinguish the structural roles and the standard (defined by constitution, etc.) principles governing their functioning, which are constant and are meant to persist independently of who is filling the roles, and on the other hand the political organization (party, faction, etc.) which is filling those roles as a result of an election or a coup or other illegitimate means (this does make a difference). I usually associate the term ‘regime’, like ‘administration’, with the latter, I mean with the place- holders. (BTW, the Chinese system seems to involve a conflation of these two ideas, with the result that this becomes a source of instability, since critique of the place- holders is identified as a threat to the governmental structures; if they are concerned with avoiding chaos in the society, they might want to evolve toward a differentiation of a stable and persisting governmental structure from a changeable regime.) I agree that what has reality is the actions, and in general the dynamics of the operation of the system, the approach to problem- solving, responsiveness to needs of the citizens vs. demands of the (rich and) powerful, actions having the intended effect of preserving vs. subverting the normal functioning of the system, etc.; and that terms such as ‘democratic’ vs ‘authoritarian’ belong properly to the level of theoretical critique of the functioning of political systems and should not be regarded as inherent properties of them.

    However, political systems in this sense function only in a historical and cultural context, which includes civil institutions — press, universities, trade unions, religious and community organizations and all the rest — and in this larger context there are not only elections and coups, but movements. Movements are an essential part of the picture, and I want to single out the type of movement we might call “people power” movements. I would like to see more emphasis on this element, and in particular, this would be a good time, in confrontation with this problematic Trumpian case, for us to get clear about precisely why “authoritarian” approaches to arriving at political decisions, divisive as opposed to inclusive appeals (reasons parties provide to voters for voting for them), intellectual dishonesty as opposed to honesty in public discourse, etc. are pathological rather than acceptable features of a political culture. I think there is a difference between movements guided by universalized messages and aims and those motivated by fear, hatred or a general antagonism to other groups in the community. Political processes are influenced by these movements of thought, but I’m not sure just how that works.

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