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The Rise of Counterfeit Democracy
The new normal outside of established, rich democracies is counterfeit democracy—authoritarian rule that pretends to be democratic. And the playbook is being co-opted by wannabe despots everywhere.
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Why has global democracy declined so much—and how can we explain why so many countries, including the United States, are lurching toward authoritarianism?
In 1989, the political scientist Francis Fukuyama argued that we had reached “The End of History.” He didn’t mean that events would stop happening—or that historical change had come to an end—as that would be ludicrous. Rather, in his essay, he defined “history” in a broad sense: as a clash of ideological frameworks for how to legitimately govern societies.
As Fukuyama noted, the 20th century saw immense change on this front. Democracies were rare at the start of the century, and fascism rose as an alternative model—embraced by regimes that later killed millions of people. World War II settled the democracy vs. fascism debate, for a time.
Then, during the Cold War, communism challenged democracy, with the Soviet Union presenting a rival model for governance that was adopted by large swaths of the world. However, the Soviet Union collapsed, and the 1990s became a period of surging global democracy. In particular, much of Africa and Eastern Europe moved toward democracy.
But for most of modern history, democracy has been the outlier, not the norm, as you can see from this graphic from Our World in Data. (I will quibble with this data momentarily, but it gives the right broad picture).
Fukuyama argued that the end of the Cold War—and the triumph of the democratic West—would signal “The End of History” in the sense that rival models to democracy had been defeated, relegated to the dust bin of history. Everyone, everywhere, would soon accept that democracy was the legitimate form of government.
Was he right? The answer is more surprising than you might think. And it lies with a concept that I’ve coined in my research, called counterfeit democracy.
Most people think of democracy as a binary—you’re either a democracy, or you’re a dictatorship (which political scientists sometimes call autocracies). In reality, regimes exist on a spectrum. On one end, you’ve got the consolidated democracies, such as New Zealand, Japan, Denmark, Costa Rica, and Finland. On the other, you’ve got the full-blown dictatorships, such as North Korea, Turkmenistan, and Equatorial Guinea.
In recent years, global democracy has declined—in just about every index —since around 2006 (there’s nothing magical about this date; it’s just when more countries began lurching toward authoritarianism than the number of countries moving toward democracy on the spectrum).
Forgeries and Fake Democracy
But here’s the crucial shift: everyone pretends to be a democracy now, even the totalitarian dictators.
Have you ever noticed that countries that are often awful regimes have democratic in their names? (The official name of North Korea is the Democratic People's Republic of Korea; East Germany was the German Democratic Republic; and the Democratic Republic of Congo is lying about two of the four words in its name). But those countries don’t/didn’t fool anyone. They’re straight up dictatorships, no matter the labels used.
However, there has been a major rise in the number of in-between countries, those that have the trappings of democracy, but that, when push comes to shove, are authoritarian. I call these the counterfeit democracies and it’s a group that comprises, in my view, the majority of countries in the world. Within this group, you’ve got countries like Hungary, Turkey, the Philippines, Madagascar, Tunisia, and countless others. They’re fake democracies, authoritarian wolves in the sheep’s clothing of democracy.
Many have wrongly condemned Fukuyama’s End of History argument as being naive and misguided, proven embarrassingly wrong by the democratic backsliding that has comprised recent global political history. How can Fukuyama be right if democracy is declining rather than surging? But his central claim—that democracy would prevail as the consensus legitimate form of government globally—has been proven correct by the rise of counterfeit democracies.
In the past, authoritarian regimes didn’t pretend to be democratic. Why bother masquerading? Now, almost all countries hold elections, and they pretend to have rule of law and other core institutions of democracy, hoping that everyone—including their citizens—will be fooled by the forgery. For, like a counterfeit bank note, it only works insofar as some people believe it’s real.
Some, such as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, have tried to coin their own word, putting a positive spin on their embrace of authoritarianism. He calls it “illiberal democracy,” which, like “working vacation,” is an oxymoron. If a country is illiberal—and it doesn’t have the core institutions of liberal democracy, such as a free press, rule of law, protections for minorities, and freedom of speech, religion, and assembly—then it’s not a democracy. It’s that simple. After all, who cares if there are elections if they’re rigged, or if the winner of those elections doesn’t ever gain meaningful power?
Counterfeit Democracy in Action
How does counterfeit democracy work in practice? This dynamic is on display now in Thailand, a country that looks like it’s on the precipice of a major upheaval and significant volatility, even though it’s not being covered much in the Western press. I’ve spent many months living in Thailand and researching its politics (it’s the most coup-prone country in the world over the last century). And the Thai pattern is one that is becoming familiar to counterfeit democracies, because they’re learning from each other.
In Thailand, the story goes like this: a popular insurgent reformer takes on the establishment. Despite barriers put in place to stop them, they win an election, sometimes in a landslide. But then, the reformer tries to dismantle outdated structures of power, taking aim at the old guard. So, the old guard punches back, making sure that the reformer doesn’t reach power, or ends up being forced out of power in a military coup. This playbook has been used to exile, jail, disqualify—even kill—dissidents who have taken on Thailand’s entrenched dinosaurs.
In this instance, a young, reformist party called the Move Forward Party shocked Thailand watchers by winning the elections in May. The party’s leader, Pita Limjaroenrat, should have easily taken power as the prime minister.
Instead, surprise, surprise, Thailand’s military junta had changed the constitution. Now, to become prime minister, you need to win over much of the Senate, which due to “reforms” instituted under the military general-turned-prime minister who has been in charge since 2014, is directly appointed by Thailand’s military. The Senate just blocked Pita from taking power, and barred him from seeking the role again.
This is the modus operandi of counterfeit democracies: make changes that ensure that you can have elections without real democracy. Rig the elections if you must, or, better yet, make them meaningless. Just in case your rivals get into power, fill the courts with loyalists, who will strike down legislation they pass (this one hits a bit too close to home with the United States at the moment, though it’s far more severe in most countries). Intimidate the press, either by using violence—as in Russia and Turkey—or by demonizing them relentlessly.
This is why all the institutions that traditionally produce accountability—dissidents, the press, independent courts, and free and fair elections—are the first targets of would-be despots.
Democratic Grade Inflation
However, I take issue with the data that are often trotted out by people who write about global democracy: it’s too lenient and generous. Many deeply flawed semi-authoritarian regimes are wrongly classed as democracies, despite overwhelming evidence that shows they are counterfeit democracies.
In the graphic above, I’d significantly lower the number of countries who deserve the label of democracy. The same is true in this map, which does a nice job showcasing what I call the authoritarian crescent (because it looks like a croissant) stretching from southwest Africa to northeast Asia, but classifies too many regime as democracies (for example, Madagascar, as I’ll make clear in a future post, is not a real democracy).
This matters because of what I call democratic grade inflation. In academia, there’s the risk of grade inflation, in which students who would have gotten C’s back in the good ol’ days of grading harshness, now get B’s. The same has happened with democracy: in our rush to welcome countries to the democratic club, we’ve lowered our standards for what the word actually means.
That’s problematic for two reasons.
First, it lowers expectations, which reduces pressure on regimes that are counterfeit democracies, but have fooled enough people. Why bother becoming more democratic if other countries already say you’re good enough?
Second, it cheapens the ideal of democracy, because citizens living in awful semi-authoritarian regimes that are called democratic end up thinking to themselves: “Hm, if this is democracy, I’m not sure I like democracy that much.” That’s when true democracy becomes less likely.
If we truly value democracy, we have to set a high, pristine threshold for what is “good enough” to deserve the label. And for those in the United States, that starts at home, because America risks no longer being classed as a democracy, given its lurch toward authoritarianism in the last decade or so. As Freedom House shows in the graphic below, when it comes to democratic quality, the US has gone from being closest to countries like Australia and Germany…to being closest to Panama, Romania, Mongolia, and Jamaica, which is a serious downgrade.
But to fix it, we need to call a spade a spade: many countries are fake democracies, and we shouldn’t give them the satisfaction of playing along with their make believe world.
Nonetheless, Fukuyama—in many ways—was right. The big question, however, is whether he’s right with his forecast that there will be no ideological struggle against democracy in the future, the same way that democracy was challenged by fascism and communism in the past. Right now, the biggest threat seems to be from China, and what is sometimes called “The China Model,” but the sheen has come off that idea in recent years. And here’s the kicker, one that Fukuyama’s argument would have predicted: even China now calls itself a democracy.
Finally, this week, if you’re interested in my work on power, psychopaths, systems of abuse—and how we can make the world a better place with better leaders, the fine folks at Big Think interviewed me for several hours about my research.
They’ve put together this (rather long) video on YouTube, which covers a lot of my core ideas about power. Enjoy!
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