Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Unforced by coup or war, one developed country after another has chosen an authoritarian style of democracy over the last two years, an all-but unforeseen shift that has left more mainstream leaders scrambling to understand it and turn back time.

The big picture: Economics ultimately underpins the turmoil, leading scholars tell Axios — a financial slide that has eroded the association of democracy with rising living standards and upward mobility, all while populists and partisan media have stoked resentment and promised better.

Why it matters: "The big danger," says Yale's Timothy Snyder, author of 'The Road to Unfreedom,' is that people decide that full-bore authoritarianism is inevitable. Neither democracy nor authoritarianism are inevitable, he tells Axios. "Authoritarianism is, however, more likely if we don’t attend to the challenges that make democracy harder."

  • Giving the trend power are theatrically outsized personalities — Russia's Vladimir Putin, the Philippines' Rodrigo Duterte, Hungary's Viktor Orban, Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and of course President Donald Trump.
  • Most recently, Trump assailed NATO allies in Brussels, courted U.S. rival Putin, and threatened, in an all-caps tweet, to annihilate Iran.
  • Polls show that such unrestrained behavior does not weaken the populists' hand, but instead seems to strengthen it.

"Populist authoritarian politicians are successful because they promote themselves as the voice of the people, and hence 'true' democracy, while undermining these checks and balances," says Roberto Stefan Foa, a professor at the University of Melbourne. "And their success in country after country would suggest the degree of public support for democracy in its liberal sense is weaker than previously understood."

In a much-read April article in Foreign Affairs, Foa and Harvard's Yascha Mounk correlated the success of the new politics with a shift in global wealth away from the democracies that fought the Cold War against Moscow. Within five years, they forecast, non-democratic nations such as China, Russia and Saudi Arabia will be richer as a group than the Western liberal democracies.

  • By 2022, Mounk and Foa wrote, more than 1.5 billion people will be living in economically mature autocracies, up from about 34 million in 1995.
  • That very fact sets the West on its heels. Simply put: autocratic regimes are competing on economic performance. And a lot of countries are noticing that the tide, led by China, is going toward the autocratic path.

China presents an especially vivid example — a superlatively vibrant economy built within authoritarianism, and proof that, contrary to what the U.S. has argued for decades, you need not be democratic to get rich. Like prior great powers, China is creating far-reaching infrastructure — its Belt and Road Initiative — to stretch its reach around the world, in effect placing its vitality side-by-side with a West failing even to keep its middle class intact.

  • Just as we've discovered that democracy comes in different flavors, not all authoritarianism is the same, says Yuen Yuen Ang, a professor at the University of Michigan, who says Beijing's model is widely misunderstood.
  • China is authoritarian, but not purely so. Rather, going back to Deng Xiao Ping, it has blended strong rule with "directed improvisation," she tells Axios. State bureaucrats are left to use bottom-up methods to meet top-down goals.
"China is best understood as an 'autocracy with democratic characteristics.'"
— Ang

China's march and the politics unfolding across the West suggest to many that democracy with checks and balances is lost, but by some measures it remains just as strong, the scholars said. "Substantial majorities of the public in almost all democracies still think democracy is the best form of government," said Larry Diamond, a professor at Stanford.

Yet it will not be easy to claw back public support. Snyder argues that mainstream politicians need to attack economic inequality, which "makes a sense of the future very difficult and conversations among the very rich and the rest almost impossible." In addition, he said, something must be done about:

  • "Technology, in particular social media, that appeals to basic emotions of anxiety and tribe solidarity that makes it harder to create a public space and a sense of common interest."
  • "The absence of local news creation, which makes people less likely to trust the media that are available."

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