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.