Reopening the World: How the pandemic is reinforcing authoritarianism

Anti-government demonstrators hold a banner that reads "Out Bolsonaro," in reference to Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, during a protest named "Amazonas for Democracy" in Manaus, Brazil, June 2, 2020. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly
Editor's note:

The following is an excerpt from Reopening the World: How to Save Lives and Livelihoods, a new report where Brookings experts offer ideas to help policymakers protect lives and save livelihoods in the midst of the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Reopening America and the WorldAuthoritarianism, in theory, and authoritarian regimes, in practice, were already gaining ground before the spread of the novel coronavirus. During—and after—the pandemic, governments are likely to use long, protracted crises to undermine domestic opposition and curtail civil liberties through increased surveillance and tracing. It will be challenging to assess the exact degree of deterioration in countries that were already extremely authoritarian, such as China and Egypt. In countries where the U.S. enjoys considerable leverage, as in the Middle East, the goal should be framed as pressuring autocrats to be less repressive than they might otherwise be, rather than engaging in false pretenses of “political reform” or “democratization.”

In still-democratic countries like Brazil, Israel, and India or in hybrid contexts where strongmen had successfully constrained electoral competition and parliamentary oversight, such as Hungary, ambitious populists will push the limits, testing the levels of both domestic and international resistance.

The pandemic is both reopening and intensifying one of the most vital debates of the post-post-Cold War era: that over whether democracy or authoritarianism is best suited to deal with new and unprecedented threats.


The pandemic is both reopening and intensifying one of the most vital debates of the post-post-Cold War era: that over whether democracy or authoritarianism is best suited to deal with new and unprecedented threats. In a perceptive essay from March, Francis Fukuyama argued that state capacity and trust in government were the crucial determinants, not regime type. If this is true, it still raises the question of what kinds of countries and societies are more likely to enjoy greater state capacity and trust.

With its apparent success in reducing new infections and deaths, China has presented itself as a model for aggressively mobilizing state resources to fight the coronavirus. It has also taken advantage of the absence of U.S. global leadership to project soft power and provide aid—including through so-called “mask diplomacy”—to struggling countries, including Western democracies themselves. The Chinese regime is, in effect, making an argument about regime type, and one that authoritarian regimes are likely to appreciate, regardless of the merits.

Then there’s the reality that the largest Western democracies (but not East Asian democracies) have suffered the most in terms of total cases and per capita deaths. This has led a growing number of Americans and Europeans to doubt not only their governments, which is only natural, but their own political systems. How, after all, could the world’s oldest, most advanced democracies end up with countless dead from the coronavirus?

Responding to China’s authoritarian challenge as well as the continued erosion of democratic confidence at home will be critical over the coming years. This requires American and European recovery and leadership, of course, but it also requires that Western democracies resist the urge to make permanent the temporary mobilization of state power and institution of overbearing surveillance systems. The temptation to be in perpetual state of emergency will only grow in the absence of a vaccine or cure. The deployment of wartime language—considering that wars against enemies, seen and unseen, have invariably been used to restrict individual freedoms—is as understandable as it is dangerous.

For established democracies as well as hybrid regimes still holding somewhat competitive elections, there are three pandemic-specific risks worth highlighting: delayed elections, “democracy without protests,” and incumbent advantages.

Postponing elections is obviously problematic (particularly when it’s seen to benefit one party over the other) but holding elections where the risk of transmission is significant creates its own legitimacy deficit. Turnout will be depressed, particularly among older voters. In either scenario, losers may be more likely to either challenge the outcome or claim the results do not accurately reflect popular sentiment. And that is precisely why elections, however flawed, are preferable to the alternatives; they remain the best way to gauge public preferences at regular intervals.

Despite, or perhaps because of, countries becoming “less free” over the past decade, protests have proliferated across the globe, culminating in 2019—an unusually active year for demonstrations and mass action. With the economic fallout from the pandemic, coupled with government missteps, the reasons to be angry are only likely to grow. The problem, though, is that it’s not easy to organize, at least not in proximate physical space, in an age of social distancing and public gatherings limited to 500 citizens or less. Relatedly, the lack of freedom of movement and access to public space exacerbate the incumbent advantages. In countries like Hungary and Turkey, where media space is dominated by ruling parties, challengers will have even less visibility than usual.

While “reopening” can create its own authoritarian temptations around tracing and surveillance regimes, it at least removes emergency restrictions and, in due time, avails political parties, protestors, and grassroots movements to communicate their platforms and grievances to larger audiences.


The earliest phase of the coronavirus threat, in March and April, saw the disease exacting a devastating toll on Western democracies in particular. But judgments about the relative success of (some) democracies versus (some) autocracies will be made in months, if not years. And this is where democracies can claim a more encouraging medium- to long-term outlook.

Authoritarian regimes are only good at responding to crises when they’re good, and when they’re not—which is most of the time—there is no obvious way to course correct. Correcting errors is entirely dependent on the very people who made the blunders in the first place. There are no strong or autonomous power centers that can counter or even temper the decisions of the authoritarian executive. Undemocratic regimes have a vested interest in suppressing information that reflects badly on senior officials, which is precisely what hobbled China’s response in the critical, early days of the virus. As Martin Gurri, author of “The Revolt of the Public,” puts it, “The first question that governments ask in response to a crisis is not how to stop it, but how to frame it in a way that makes them look as good as possible.” Since authoritarian regimes, particularly the few successful ones, are overly reliant on “performance legitimacy” rather than popular legitimacy, state authorities need to go into overdrive to sustain narratives of success, effectiveness, and paternalistic wisdom. After all, that’s the implicit social contract imposed upon citizen-subjects: they may have to forego their freedom, but at least they get something in return.

Democratic governments may try to suppress information and spin or downplay crises as well— as the Trump administration did—but they rarely get away with it. If anything, the intent to suppress on the part of the government can provoke an unusually intense desire to expose its mistakes on the part of the press, the legislative branch, and civil society. Even within the executive, experts and bureaucrats, as with the White House Coronavirus Task Force, can temper and balance the instincts of elected officials, including the president—and they can do so without fearing for their livelihoods or freedom.

Over the long-term, questions around “legitimacy,” however difficult to quantify, grow more, rather than less, important. A general rule is that, in democracies, governments are unstable while regimes are stable. In autocracies, it is often the reverse: governments appear stable while regimes are unstable. For example, Italy’s coalition governments are notoriously fractious and seemingly always on the verge of collapse. But few Italians call for overthrowing the political system and replacing it with something entirely different. Italians can generally sleep at night knowing that the risks of regime change—or some sort of coup—are slim. In autocracies, on the other hand, there is permanent, structural uncertainty. If the current dictator happens to be effective or “benevolent,” then such benevolence only persists while he or she remains in power. After he or she is removed or dies, a radically different leader, in terms of skills and temperament, may emerge.


As long as the coronavirus remains a threat, in either human or economic terms, every failure and every victory is a mark, however misleadingly, for or against particular political systems.

The Singaporean diplomat Kishore Mahbubani, author of “Has China Won?,” has already reached a conclusion about others’ conclusions, noting: “Many thoughtful leaders and observers in strategically sensitive countries around the world have begun making preparations for a world where China may become number one.”

There’s only one way to truly find out: with the passing of time. But whatever the verdict, the stakes are high, not merely for a sometimes esoteric debate about the nature of political systems, but for the people who live under them.

Even in regions where the coronavirus hasn’t hit as hard as many feared, such as the Arab world, the economic fallout will be tremendous. The region had a relatively mild recession after the 2009 financial crisis. There will be no such good fortune this time around, with plummeting oil prices, perhaps irreversible blows to tourism, and steep cuts in government benefits. This isn’t good news for what little hope there may have been for even the most minimal reforms. If some citizens respond to the economic fallout with protests, after fears around mass gatherings subside, Arab autocrats—in crisis mode and as nervous as ever— are likely to ramp up authoritarian measures and use (or misuse) emergency powers to further limit what political parties and civil society can say or do.

This is the dark side of “performance legitimacy”: Even when autocrats are relatively competent, performance can never be quite guaranteed. Economic crisis cannot be staved off by mere expertise and force of will. Performance legitimacy, then, is always up for debate, at least eventually.

Democracies aren’t looking great now, to be sure, but democracies have the virtue (or weakness) of generally being better than they look. As the political theorist David Runciman argues in “The Confidence Trap,” at any given moment democracies appear chaotic, ineffective, slow, and inelegant. They tend to look more appealing only in retrospect with the passage of time and the accumulation of insight and evidence.

One option is to wait and hope. Until then, it is possible to take some solace in what we know empirically about democratic durability even when that durability is in tension with short-term effectiveness. This shouldn’t be an argument for resting on laurels. It should be the opposite: if the citizens of democracy believe in it, then they are best served by remaining vigilant. Whether the matter of regime type is the right or best debate to be having—as Fukuyama said, other variables may ultimately be more instructive—it is a debate that many will have and many are already having. Certainly, autocrats themselves are eager to press their case, and they seem to believe that theirs is a strong one. However strong it may seem, for now, that doesn’t make it right. If only there was someone to make the counterargument.