Populist authoritarianism is not a fad. Its enduring appeal in both established and nascent democracies confirms this. Populist leaders wrapped in cloaks of nationalism and religion are on the rise. Protecting traditional values, promising rapid progress, and threatening vulnerable groups binds them.
Unfortunately, the defeat of the fascist forces in WWII did not end the allure of dictatorships or authoritarianism. A new and insidious form of authoritarian control now threatens democratic values and practices. The populist wave poses an existential threat to liberal democracy. It is a slippery slope to modern fascism.
For supporters, leadership style contrasts strong populist authoritarianism and weak democracy. Vigorous take-charge Narendra Modi, Viktor Orban, Jair Bolsonaro, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to name a few, compared to a doddering Joe Biden.
Populist authoritarians bamboozle people with resounding slogans based on faith and country. Their propaganda techniques resemble those used by fascist dictators of the past. They spread disinformation, exploit divisions, and identify imaginary enemies. But they receive blind adulation from supporters, the way Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco did in their day.
As Greek Euripides aptly put it: “When one with honeyed words but evil mind persuades the mob, great woes befall the state.”
Populist governments resist social change and the reversal of elite capture. They encourage racial, gender, and religious discrimination to achieve their goals. Tactics include exclusion, marginalization, intimidation, and politically motivated violence. And the state, militia, and vigilante forces target the oppressed and defenseless.
A 38-nation Pew Research Center survey in 2017 found openness to undemocratic forms of governance. Rule by a forceful leader or unelected experts unchecked by the judiciary or parliament has resonance. Dissatisfaction with the way democracy is working is increasing.
Economic hardship and physical insecurity fuel the negativity in democracy. An increasing minority view a corrupt democratic system as an expensive luxury.
The global proliferation of populist autocracies and hybrid regimes, some propped by military bureaucracies, reflects the anti-democratic trend. Such governments are dangerous and attractive because it is difficult to distinguish them from a functioning democracy. But they share a similar modus operando of paying lip service to democracy while systematically weakening democratic institutions.
Unlike dictators that wielded power through brute force, populist autocracies hold almost free and fair elections, an active parliament and constitutional court, and a diverse media. Yet, they are contemptuous of constitutional practices, civil and political liberties. Populist leaders, unencumbered by democratic niceties, claim to be the voice of the people.
Populist autocracies are becoming increasingly adept at using sophisticated spying techniques and state security apparatus to control their people, like the totalitarian states. Their goal is to subvert accountability for the powerful, suppress dissenters, promote ideological projects, and press a majoritarian bias. They undermine a free press, an independent judiciary, an open and competitive political system on which democracy depends.
Populist autocrats and hybrid democracies derive sustenance from flagging liberal democracies. The erosion of democratic values and practices in established democracies gives a powerful impetus to various forms of authoritarianism. The Trump saga and the mob attack at the US capitol in Washington D.C> heartened many wannabe forceful leaders with authoritarian agendas.
Another factor is that Western governments and the military-industrial complex continue to support populist authoritarians and ‘friendly dictators’. Liberal democracies are more interested in stability, open markets, consumerist societies, and capitalist growth models.
Criticizing democracy and human rights records is not high on Western agendas. This myopic approach ensures a free pass to an authoritarian leader who touts economic growth and social stability but flouts democratic norms.
Yet populist autocracies do not offer a rosy future: Short-term economic progress at the cost of political and individual freedoms is deceiving. The absence of independent institutions, a vibrant civil society, and open choice cannot last forever. The failed authoritarian and fascist experiments in history are examples.
Law-governed democracies will remain under constant threat from autocrats, opportunists, and modern fascists. They must stop the many strains of authoritarianism from making strides at their expense.
Democracies must learn to work better and manage the polarization within their ranks to strengthen political institutions. And frail democracies need vigilance and protection. It is the responsibility of the people and institutions that make them work. It is a challenging and endless task.