Nov 10, 2018 - Politics & Policy

Some strongmen are power-grabbers, others just cheaters

A strong man lifting weights

Photo: Josep Lago/AFP/Getty

Across the globe, democracy appears to be on the wane and strongman-led populism on the rise. But while the direction is authoritarian, it does not necessarily mean dictatorship everywhere.

What's happening: The sharp turn to authoritarian politics appears to reflect the re-emergence of conservative forces buried by the post-Soviet democratic wave. "All the momentum is with the populists and nationalists right now," Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, tells Axios.

But authoritarianism comes in different shades, says Dan Slater, head of the Center for Emerging Democracies at the University of Michigan, who writes about the issue in a new piece at Foreign Affairs.

They include:

  • "Electoral authoritarians" — election cheats who stop at nothing to stay in power.
  • Illiberal democrats — who don't necessarily cheat, but dish out attacks on norms and institutions to make themselves more powerful.

The U.S. has taken on characteristics of both, Slater says: With his attacks on the Fed, courts, generals, intelligence agencies, other politicians and the media, President Trump behaves like an illiberal democrat.

And the U.S. has allowed an electoral authoritarian dynamic to take hold with the electoral college, which twice in the last two decades has allowed presidents to take power with a minority of the votes. "As soon as it becomes systematic that one party can win the entire executive branch with fewer votes, it is a loser-take-all system," Slater said.

  • Voting restrictionsexact-match voter identification laws in Georgia, and a street address requirement to register in North Dakota — work with the electoral college to reinforce systemic authoritarianism.
  • Slater does not think a full-on electoral authoritarian system is inevitable in the U.S. "It takes people willing to use the system in illiberal and authoritarian ways," he said.
Go deeper