Explaining the rise of Authoritarianism in Liberal Democracies

Today, 1 in 6 US citizens favor a strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with parliament and elections as opposed to 1 in 16 in 1995. I will focus on the fault lines in liberal democracies that have allowed authoritarian populists – Strongman leaders who disrespect individual rights and are openly skeptical of democracy – to gain support in recent years. It is not just in young democracies such as Hungary where authoritarianism has gained popularity. Authoritarianism is also increasingly popular in mature democracies such as Sweden, the USA, and Great Britain.

Liberal democracies are characterized by their commitment to individual rights, rule of law, and to the will of the people. There is a paradox at the heart of liberal democracies: they protect citizens’ rights to freedom of thought and expression even if what or who they vote for is illiberal and authoritarian.

Why is liberal democracy no longer seen as the best political system by which to organize a country? What caused this change?

To answer this question, we must start by looking at what benefits liberal democracies have failed to provide in recent years.

People are becoming increasingly skeptical of liberal democracy. Indeed, millennials are far less committed to democracy than previous generations. Nearly three-quarters of Americans born before the Second World War assign the highest value—10 out of 10—to living in a democracy; only one third of millennials do the same. In the West, those born since 1980 have not enjoyed the same economic growth as those before them. We have also seen a rise in inequality in recent decades. Today the USA stands at 32nd out of 35 developed countries in terms of income inequality. Looking at the distribution of growth in the global economy since the fall of the Berlin wall, the bottom groups have grown by 50% and the emerging middle classes in places such as China, Vietnam, and India have grown by 80%. The top 1 percent’s income has increased by around 60% but the Western middle classes’ income grew by only 1% over the same period. The global economy improved the lot of people in developing countries and the elite in developed countries while the developed world’s working and middle classes were left behind. Today’s younger generation have not seen economic growth or increased living standards rise in tandem with the spread of democracy.  Economic growth and democracy are not seen as mutually inclusive.

But liberal democracy is about more than just economic growth. Democracy by experts or technocrats has ignored the voice of the people causing ordinary citizens to no longer feel democracy can deliver their basic needs and preferences. We can see this in the EU’s reaction to the recent Italian general election.  European Commissioner, Gunter Oettinger, stated in an interview that the poor reaction of the financial markets would prompt voters to vote against the populists. Italian voters did not listen; they now have a coalition government made up of the far-right party, League, and the anti-establishment party (founded by comedian Beppe Grillo) 5star Movement. Indeed, the Commissioner chief, Jean Claude Junker, blamed Italy’s financial problems on Italians being lazy: he said they just need to do more work. To quote the new Italian European Union minister, the EU elites think they are “capable of evaluating popular will better than the voters” and they “treat the people like a barbaric and ignorant flock.” When democracy is seen as more of an elitist pursuit by the most educated classes, the general population grows disenfranchised and distrustful of politicians.

Most citizens are therefore siloed from the democratic process. Citizens’ reason is not appealed to, and the culture of reasoned debate is jettisoned. Dialogue, reasoned debate, persuading others whose views differ from yours, are crucial aspects of democracy. When they are ignored, we see debates driven underground and resentment of others’ views grow.

Today, these views are driven to the internet. The web allows people to communicate their views with unprecedented ease. Now you can find someone who shares your opinion however extreme with ease and safely behind the anonymity of a screen. Moreover, in the past, information was hierarchical. For example, before the advent of the internet and social media news came from only a few centralized sources. With the internet, it is quickly dispersed and less verifiable. This leads to greater levels of mistrust among the electorate: mistrust of information and mistrust of others. Social media has allowed false information and fake news to spread quickly. Due to the nature of its algorithms, and the nature of its users i.e. us, sensationalist information spreads quicker and wider. Social media’s design taps into humans’ addictive natures and exploits our short attention spans. The swiping action I make with my thumb to refresh the Twitter feed on my smartphone is designed to mimic the action of pulling a slot machine lever.  And now autocrats are exploiting the chaos of viral information, deliberately disrupting democratic processes with misinformation that further divides people.

Never have supporters of the two main US parties been so far apart and unable to reach across party divides. In a 2017 Pew Research Center poll, 81% of both Democrats and Republicans said they have an unfavorable view of the other side. Why is this? When one group of people is pushed out of the debate, finds itself in the group of like-minded others, and is exploited by misinformation to view the other as the enemy, we see a polarization of views.  Today, authoritarianism structures preferences on many of the main issue agendas such as gay rights, immigration, and civil liberties. The divide in parties and issues centered around authoritarianism is driven as much by a change in non-authoritarians’ attitudes as authoritarians’ attitudes.

People are more aware of these issues and thus more likely to have an opinion on them than tax reform, for example, because they have been covered in the media more. When people think about these issues, they understand them more at a gut level, with less reflection, and perceive a large ideological distance between parties leading to polarization. In other words, the type of issues themselves help drive the perception of polarization. Voters have not viewed such a large ideological difference between the parties in the past when the main issues were economic and centered around the New Deal.

It is important to note that those more likely to support authoritarianism hold racist sentiments. Any worldview that sees another race as inferior is obviously incompatible with the values of liberal democracy. Yet liberal democracy gives a voice to popular will, as has been seen with the election of more xenophobic positions: Matteo Salvini, the new Italian interior minister, wants to deport migrants locking them up for 18 months while the paperwork is being done; Donald Trump views migrants from “shit hole” countries as lesser, wants to build a wall on the border with Mexico, and separates immigrant children from their families in an effort to deter further immigration.

It is clear that people who have an authoritarian outlook are more inclined towards discrimination. In making political decisions, authoritarians place great importance on ordered social cohesion. In turn, authoritarians are more likely to feel threatened by and dislike outside groups as these are considered a threat to order. They imbue order and strong leaders willing to keep order with almost transcendent qualities. New ideas that challenge this way of thinking are rejected and as a result new information is less likely to sway opinion. Those disposed towards authoritarianism fear change to the social order and are more drawn to (mis)information that confirms their fears of outside threat. This helps explain, for example, the “birthers” movement that contends, despite lacking any evidence, Barack Obama was not a legitimate US president as he was not born in the United States.

Importantly, situation determines whether authoritarian views translate into political action. It is reasonable to believe that authoritarian sentiments have always existed in society, especially America. Scholars believe that the level of authoritarianism in a population stays generally constant over time. But why is it only now that authoritarian sentiment has been translated into political action? Two factors help answer this question: one, the perceived threat from demographic change and two, today’s increasingly acrimonious political climate that exacerbates this fear.

Authoritarians are more likely to live in areas that have only recently experienced demographic change: it is dislocating and creates real fears and anxieties. Increased demographic change means whites in the USA will no longer hold hegemonic power and will lose their grip on economic and social power. This fear was exploited by Trump who defeated Clinton at every income level among white voters. Even among those who score higher on a non-authoritarian scale were receptive to the perceived threat. This supports Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler’s theory that threat can reduce difference in preferences between the more and less authoritarian. Support for authoritarianism is centered more around a perceived threat, and more around fear of losing status and power in society. Again, the ideals of liberal democracy and civic virtue are lost and do not bind people together.

When these factors combine, the status of liberal democracy becomes precarious. Economic factors, loss of influence in changing/effecting laws, demographic changes, and social media provide fertile ground for rejection of liberal democracy.  Coupled with a loss of confidence in democratic values, decrease in participation, it is little wonder liberal democracy is suffering.














Hetherington, Marc J., and Weiler, Jonathan D., Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

Mounk, Yascha, The People Vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2018).

Luce, Edward, The Retreat of Western Liberalism, (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2017).







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