This op-ed was originally published by Project Syndicate.
U.S. President Joe Biden’s recent Summit for Democracy came at a time when democracy appears to be in retreat. Autocratic leaders such as Chinese President Xi Jinping are claiming that their systems can weather pandemics, deliver economic growth, and ensure security more reliably than liberal democracies can. China’s stellar economic performance over three decades is used to bolster that claim. But when assessing the current challenge to democracy, one must distinguish between two types of autocratic models.
First, there are regimes such as China’s, where the Communist Party’s leadership and power cannot be contested. As was the case in the Soviet Union, the only elections are Party elections (such as for politburo membership). The competitive nature of these intraparty elections has changed over time. Now that Xi seems to have sufficient personal power to control the outcomes, elections are merely a mechanism to install his allies in key positions.
There is a big difference between rule by one person and rule by one large, self-perpetuating party that allows for some degree of internal “democracy” (the original Leninist model). Even when they occur behind closed doors, relatively free intra-party debates can produce wiser decisions and reflect the wishes of a larger share of the society.
But an even more relevant distinction is between autocracies without open, contestable elections, and autocracies where opposition parties exist and participate in elections, however flawed they may be. In the latter case, the autocrat claims absolute power to rule when he (it is almost always a man) wins a nationwide election, but he also acknowledges the possibility that he would have to relinquish power following an electoral loss.
The “democratic” narrative that underpins this form of autocracy has its roots in an extreme interpretation of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s (rather ambiguous) concept of the “general will.” In the hands of an autocrat, the general will supposedly reflects the common interest of the entire population, implying that a majority of citizens can make choices for the community as a whole without regard to the views and rights of minorities. Among the more vocal national leaders espousing this “majoritarian” doctrine today is Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Hungarians, in his view, have signaled their preference for illiberal democracy through elections. Not only is there democracy in Hungary, Orbán loudly proclaims; the term needs no modifiers.
Illiberal majoritarian democrats naturally reject principles such as checks and balances and the separation of powers (most notably an independent judiciary), viewing an electoral victory as wholly sufficient to justify their quasi-absolute rule. Former U.S. President Donald Trump’s political narrative after the 2016 election followed this script. While he regretted that he did not have absolute power despite having triumphed over Hillary Clinton, he did not argue against citizens’ right to choose their leaders through competitive elections, as a Leninist would. Rather, he wanted to turn his election victory into a license to rule free from the constraints of a “liberal” system of government.
Intriguingly, even as they proclaim the superiority of autocratic governance, illiberal democrats depend on electoral victories for their legitimacy. Trump’s claim that the 2020 election was “stolen” reflects this need. It is what makes “illiberal” or majoritarian democracies different from simple autocracies, as well as from revolutionary movements that purport to be an ideological vanguard in no need of electoral validation.
To take another example, Marine Le Pen, the French far-right opposition leader, is working with other populists to create an international illiberal democratic movement. But she cannot—and will not—claim to be France’s leader unless she wins the presidential election in the spring.
The illiberal democratic narrative works best in more homogenous countries. When an electorate is socially and demographically diverse, illiberal leaders often need to create a “majority” by seeking to exclude or delegitimize some segment of the population, usually various ethnic or religious groups. Illiberal democrats can then claim that they represent the general will of the only people who really count. In the United States, part of the Republican Party is pursuing this strategy by making it more difficult for African-Americans to vote.
Redefining who truly belongs to the polity is what turns liberal democracies authoritarian. Elements of such “disuniting” can be found in many parts of the world today. In India, for example, liberal democracy would suffer a major setback if Prime Minister Narendra Modi succeeds in breaking from India’s tradition of pluralism among what the Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen calls “argumentative citizens” and redefines the polity as a Hindu nation. Narrowing the criteria of Indian identity would both contradict India’s historic contributions to humanist values and signal a departure from the secular and inclusive liberal path chosen after independence.
That would be a catastrophe not only for India but for democracy itself. India is the world’s most populous liberal democracy and one of the most successful. With its immense economic potential, it could become the crucial example for countering claims about the supposed superiority of autocratic models. Fortunately, India’s tradition of democracy is strong, and the right to disagree is deeply rooted. That is cause for hope as liberal democracies confront the challenge posed not just by alternatives to democracy, but also by alternative models of democracy itself.