The anatomy of democratic backsliding: could it happen here?

The term ‘backsliding’ has been coined to describe the phenomenon by which leaders who come to office within a democratic framework, only to attack some of democracy’s core features when in office. Stephan Haggard and Robert R Kaufman outline some of the key features of ‘backsliding’, discuss how and why it can take hold, and whether there are warning signs that such a process could happen in the UK. 

During the presidency of Donald Trump, American democracy suffered the most serious challenge it has faced since the country’s Civil War. Trump and his administration inflamed divisions that jeopardise the rights of women and minorities; attacked the press; defied oversight; sought to stack the judiciary and law enforcement agencies with partisan loyalists; challenged the integrity of the electoral system, and ultimately stoked a violent challenge to the democratic transfer of power. These threats were different from conventional forms of democratic reversion, such as the coup d’etat. Instead, they reflected a more insidious process that has come to be known as ‘backsliding,’ in which illiberal leaders rise to power within a democratic framework and attack core features of democracy from within.

Because the United States occupies a unique position at the heart of the international system, backsliding there commanded worldwide attention. But the United States was hardly alone. In a new study, we identified at least 15 other countries in which duly-elected democratic governments recently moved along similar paths. Not all of these paths lead all the way to autocracy; in the United States, democracy survived the Trump era badly damaged but intact. But depending on the metric used, more than half of these cases slid into ‘competitive authoritarian rule’: systems in which elections persisted but were manifestly rigged. Notably, although many of the failed democracies we examined were weakly institutionalised at the outset (for example, Bolivia, Ukraine, and Zambia), others such as Hungary, Poland, and Venezuela were once considered relatively robust democratic regimes.

These cases raise the question of whether similar adverse developments could occur in other seemingly stable democracies. Could they perhaps even happen in the UK? 

How backsliding challenges the three pillars of democratic rule

In all of the countries that we featured in our book – as well as other, more recent examples such as India – backsliding has been marked by the erosion of three core features of democratic rule:  

  • First, backsliding typically involves what we call a ‘collapse in the separation of powers’ between branches of government. This might be seen as a concern that is limited to presidential democracies. But it can occur in parliamentary democracies as well by undermining the judiciary and the appointment of loyalists and sycophants to key bureaucratic posts, such as central banks, anti-corruption agencies and other formally autonomous agencies of the state. Hungary, Poland and Turkey provide notable examples. The UK has clearly seen such inter-institutional tensions, most notably in the 2019 prorogation controversy that brought the executive, parliament and the courts into conflict. Current government commitments to judicial power reform also come in partial contradiction to findings of an independent review that ministers themselves established.
  • A second point of vulnerability is in the protection of basic political rights and civil liberties. Without protections for the fundamental rights of speech, assembly and association, oppositions not only face difficulties participating but can wither; efforts in this regard by Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyński – although not fully successful – are a good example. Protection of the media is a crucial component of this pillar of democratic rule. In most cases, efforts to undermine its independence go beyond the demonisation of the press practised by Trump, extending to economic pressure on news outlets such as that deployed under Orbán in Hungary, or to more overt acts of harassment, arrests, and even murders experienced by journalists in Turkey and Russia. Nothing of this kind has occurred in the UK, though concerns have been raised about the effects of the current Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill on the right to protest.
  • A final key pillar—and arguably the irreducible core of democracy – lies in the integrity of the electoral process. Democracy is grounded in the conduct of free and fair elections that permit ‘vertical’ accountability to voters. As the ability for oppositions to take office falls toward zero, democracy is effectively overthrown, and reversion to some form of authoritarian rule has occurred. But the decline in the integrity of the electoral system can occur in a myriad of more subtle ways, as the US is now seeing: efforts to suppress the vote through onerous registration or voting laws; disinformation campaigns that mislead voters; and interference in the integrity of election monitoring. Governments in a number of backsliding countries intervened more directly as well, by harassing opponents, restructuring electoral agencies and stacking them with loyalists. Again, the UK does not face the challenges now facing the American states, but some are concerned about possible effects of the Electoral Integrity Bill.

The centrality of political polarisation to the backsliding process

What are the roots of backsliding? Both in the United States and elsewhere, it has resulted from three interrelated processes. First, the seedbed of backsliding can typically be found in political polarisation, a process in which both political elites and mass publics become increasingly internally divided over public policy, ideology, and partisan attachments. There is no uniform source of polarisation. It can be rooted in economic inequalities and anxieties, cultural divisions, or both. And it can emerge either from below through social movements or be stoked from above by political elites. In extremis, however, cross-cutting social cleavages are submerged into a single reinforcing division that pits ‘Us’ versus ‘Them.’ Political adversaries become not only competitors, but traitors and enemies. Here the resonance with UK experience is most palpable, with research unmistakably showing the polarising effects of Brexit.

Polarisation increases the vulnerability of democracies to backsliding because it reduces incentives for the kinds of policy compromises and civil discourse required for effective democratic governance. Governments are more susceptible to either stalemates or swings between policy extremes, with a corresponding increase in more general disaffection and distrust of institutions and a greater tolerance for bold sweeping actions that promise to cut through the politics of ‘the swamp.’ With governments viewed as increasingly dysfunctional and elites and publics deeply divided, aspiring autocrats offer facile solutions. Populist movements such as Trump’s convey a vision of society that pits ‘the virtuous people’ – typically rooted in some exclusive definition of the nation – against corrupt elites, justifying authoritarian practices.

Populists and majority rule

Ironically, although claiming to speak for ‘the nation,’ populist leaders who develop into autocrats generally do not sweep to power with massive popular support. A surprising finding of our study was that they more frequently reached office with narrow electoral majorities, pluralities, or – in the case of Trump – having received fewer votes than their opponent. But they nevertheless bid for power with a ‘winner takes all’ approach to democracy, in which executives are unfettered by checks on their discretion or procedural niceties. They not only promise to cut through the political clutter, but make quite specific institutional promises that would allow them to do so: weakening ‘unelected judiciaries’ by packing courts, colonising a hostile administrative state with loyalists, and weakening a variety of important agencies, from central banks, to budget offices, to scientific councils and regulators. Even constitutive rights, for example, to due process or free speech, are not immune from attack; they are increasingly portrayed not as the bedrock of democratic rule but as entitlements enjoyed by ‘Them’ at the expense of ‘the people.’ 

The pivotal role of parliaments

To implement these promises, aspiring autocrats must capture control of the executive, but a full expansion of their power also depends on securing loyal majorities in the legislature. The routes through which autocrats’ parties gain such majorities varied across the cases we examined. In Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador, the way was paved by constitutional ‘reforms’ that restructured districts and electoral rules. In Nicaragua and Poland, it was made possible by divisions among competing parties. And in many other cases (most notably, Turkey, Hungary, Serbia, Zambia, and the United States), ruling parties capitalised on the disproportionality between the popular vote and the share of legislative seats, transforming plurality popular votes into legislative majorities or even supermajorities. But however legislative majorities were established, they were crucial to the consolidation of control over the system.

Where parliamentary majorities fall under the thumb of the autocrat, the legislature is eliminated as a pivotal source of oversight. Acquiescent legislators thereby facilitate, if only by inaction, the misuse of the state bureaucracy and corruption. They allow the leader to deploy public resources to reward friends, target political enemies, and harass and intimidate civil society groups. Vigilance by members of parliament – and indeed by the majority party – is therefore essential to keeping a leader’s autocratic tendencies at bay.

In the countries that we examined, loyal legislative majorities took positive steps that more directly weakened or dismantled other institutions of accountability. Republicans in the United States Senate, for example, ratified Trump’s appointment of political allies to formerly independent agencies, and collaborated in a concerted campaign to tilt judicial appointments well to the right, after a period in which they had blocked nominees put forward by then-President Obama. In other cases, such as Hungary, appointments were further enabled by complementary administrative restructuring that created new layers of authority under executive control, altered rules of employment, or expanded the number of positions that autocrats and their legislative allies could fill. Once rulers had extended control over these crucial nodes of power, they could draw on them to advance the autocrat’s interests.

Finally, through both constitutional reforms and ordinary legislation, legislatures could delegate additional formal powers to the autocrat. In most of the backsliding cases, legislatures expanded the discretionary power of the heads of government. In presidential systems; legislators also allowed executives to extend their power through an expansion of term limits. In five of the 16 cases (Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Russia, and Venezuela) these measures opened the way to exceptionally long executive runs: 11 years for Rafael Correa in Ecuador, 13 years for Evo Morales in Bolivia, 14 years for Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, and (as of 2021) 14 years for Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, and 21 years for Vladimir Putin in Russia.   

The slow creep of backsliding, and the constant need for vigilance

The third causal factor at work in the backsliding process is its incremental nature. Elected autocrats test normative limits one initiative at a time, with each derogation making subsequent steps easier to pursue. Curtailing the independence of the judiciary and civil service expands opportunities for the autocrat to test limits by attacking the rights and liberties of critics and political opponents. With horizontal checks weakened or eliminated, there is little that stands in the way of further restrictions on core rights that are crucial for the functioning of democracy, such as free speech – including a free media – and the right to free assembly and association. In every case we examined, executives also worked to increase their leverage over the electoral process, narrowing the spaces available to civil society groups and opposition parties in order to minimise the risk of defeat.   

Incrementalism has social psychological, as well as institutional and legal effects. Legally ambiguous steps – especially ones which enjoy popular support – work to disorient the public, which frequently cannot see that backsliding is taking place until it is too late to respond. Purposeful obfuscation and control of information compounds these difficulties. Initial assaults on horizontal checks, rights and the integrity of the electoral system can easily compound into self-reinforcing cycles, both through the additional powers executives gain and through the disorganisation of oppositions and publics. There is a ‘frog in the pan’ analogy – that before those affected are aware of what’s happening, the key damage may already have been done.

So could it happen here?

In the United States, the violent attack of 6 January, 2021 on the Congressional ratification of the presidential election would have been unthinkable four years earlier. Yet broader efforts to overturn the election were implicitly condoned by large swathes of the Republican party that continued to deny the legitimacy of the Biden presidency.   

Historically – from the interwar period until today – democracies have fallen from sudden takeovers. But backsliding democracies can die slow, as well as sudden deaths – undermined by the very leaders that publics elect. And even when – as in the United States – they do not die, they can emerge from backsliding episodes with democratic institutions badly weakened and potentially unable to resist further blows. Autocracies do not necessarily arrive with a general standing in front of bank of microphones, announcing a state of emergency; they can come by stealth as well. Backsliding is a development which should give all democrats, even those in the seemingly most stable democracies, cause for concern.

Backsliding: democratic regress in the contemporary world is available from Cambridge University Press.

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About the authors

Stephan Haggard is the Lawrence and Sallye Krause Professor at the Graduate School of International Relations and Pacific Studies, University of California San Diego, and co-author of Backsliding: democratic regress in the contemporary world.

Robert R Kaufman is Professor of Political Science at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, and co-author of Backsliding: democratic regress in the contemporary world.