Below, I provide links to and content from invited contributions and media posts I have written.
2022. Diagnosing Threats to Democracy. Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation, University of California, San Diego.
Total autocratic reversions have recently fallen by the wayside, with leaders instead favoring more subtle tactics to maintain power. Democratic backsliding is a historically new phenomenon whereby democratically elected officials systematically dismantle liberal democratic institutions yet maintain the veneer of democracy by continuing to hold nominally free and fair elections. As more countries join a cohort of increasingly illiberal semi-democratic and semi-autocratic states, it is at this point uncontroversial to say that democracy is in decline globally.
When I first began studying democratic backsliding in 2015, my focus—and that of others at the time—was on new, primarily third wave democracies. Backsliding in Hungary, Venezuela, Turkey, and the Philippines, although concerning, was at the very least something we could explain. These were new democracies with under-developed institutions more susceptible to manipulation by elected officials. At the time, it was unthinkable that similar processes could unfold in mature, consolidated democracies in western Europe and North America. And to some extent, that has remained the case, though the last seven years have increasingly challenged this notion that democracy is unequivocally “safe” anywhere. The United States has seen elected officials attempt to undermine core democratic institutions, though with (so far) limited success. In France, the far-right populist National Rally party has been a strong contender in the last three presidential elections, and growing levels of polarization in Germany and other western European democracies have raised additional alarms among democracy observers and scholars.
The causes of and corresponding solutions to backsliding in both new and mature democracies are unquestionably complex and multifaceted, so here I highlight one aspect in particular: political parties. Parties, in addition to elections, are at the core of representative democracy: they serve as a link between citizens and the state and are responsible for translating voters’ interests into policy outputs. However, hyper-globalization and extensive economic integration have made it increasingly difficult for parties to offer their constituents viable policy alternatives to the economic status quo. As a result, we have seen parties in a range of democracies that are unable to adequately represent voters’ interests converging toward a neoliberal economic agenda, with distinctions between the center left and center right becoming increasingly difficult to discern.
The collapse of the political center in both new and mature democracies has several consequences. Unable to provide distinct policy platforms, these parties fail to fulfill their core representative functions. This, in turn, fuels citizen disenchantment with democracy, making populism and its corresponding identity-based appeals a more attractive alternative for voters on election day. Once in power, these populists are often at the forefront of dismantling institutions in backsliding states. When they attempt this in the context of a weakened party system, they are less likely to face resistance or a viable opposition. All these factors converge to make backsliding more likely. As such, any efforts to reverse the current global democratic recession must incorporate tactics to promote and support robust, ideologically based political parties with strong ties to their voters.