Kevin Clements et al: The Toda Peace Institute's Conversations on the Subversion of Democracies in the 21st Century


In response to our invitation to participate in this discussion, Kevin sent us a link to a set of videos on Global Challenges to Democracy in the 21st Century., discussions held by the Toda Peace Institute, which he directs.  One set was a series of five discussions he and Paula Green had in 2021 with Stephan Haggard and Bob Kaufman about their new book Backsliding: Democratic Regress in the Modern World.  Drawing on detailed case studies, including the United States and countries in Latin America, Eastern Europe, and Africa, the book focuses on three, inter-related causal mechanisms: the pernicious effects of polarization; realignments of party systems that enable elected autocrats to gain legislative power; and the incremental nature of derogations, which divides oppositions and keeps them off balance. All of this, of course, related to topics we are currently discussing, so we thank Kevin for sharing them.

We are including short summaries of and links to each of these videos below. 


by Kevin Clements, Paula Green, Stephan Haggard and Bob Kaufman

October 29, 2022

1. Part 1: The Concept of Backsliding. In this video Haggard and Kaufman explain that "backsliding" occurs when democratically-elected leaders take action to undermine the basic tennets of democracy after they come to power.  They do this by dismantialing checks on administrative discression, political rights and freedoms, and the integrity of electoral systems, thereby increasing their own autocratic power. Haggard and Kaufman found several commonalities across many, if not all, of the cases.  The most fundamental commonality they found was polarization.  The second was an executive who captures not only the executive branch, but also the legislature. And third was the incremental nature of the changes.  When changes are made slowly, they noted, no one takes notice; no one objects.  But the changes add up until lo and behold, democracy is gone!

2.  Part 2: Norm entrepreneurs and polarization. In this episode, Kevin and Paula talk with Haggard and Kaufman about what drives the backsliding.  Some of it is driven, they observed, by international organizations (such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Gulf Cooperation Council) which are not looking to further the global liberal order (as we have come to expect), but rather to dismantle it. Their actions are supplemented by "contaigon" between what we call "bad-faith actors," who copy each others' dirty tricks.  (Brazil's Bolsonaro, for instance, overtly called himself "the Trump of South America.") Such contaigon is furthered by "international entrepreneurs such as Steve Bannon, who travel the world helping other bad-faith actors increase their power.  Popular grievances are real, they note, but demagogic politicians magnify popular grievances enormously. So grievances start at the bottom, but polarization is driven from the top and made destructive when it results in the dehumanization of other other.

Part 3: Backslinding and the Notion of Fear.  In this episode, Kevin asks how much fear is a driver of backsliding. Kaufman answered that in the countries they looked at, there were "segments of the population which were afraid of 'losing out.' They felt as if their position is eroding.  And that provides very fertile grounds for the autograts to garner support."  Populists mobilize such fears, he said, to stoke polarization. Also in this video, Haggard distinguished between a majoritarian view of democracy and the liberal view of democracy.  In majoritarian democracy, people think that the majority should rule, and they should get what they want.  There isn't a notion of protecting minority rights, as there is in liberal democracy.  Ironically, though most of the 16 cases they looked at had a majoritarian view of democracy, neither the autocrat, nor his party held the majority in most of those cases, the U.S. included.  The authoritarian party deals with that by disenfranchising many people—immigrants, people of color, etc. so that they can hold the majority among "the real people" who are seen as legitimate citizens, while the others are not.

Part 4: The comsopolitan ideals and hopefulness  In this episode Kevin asks Kaufman and Haggard to explain the "visceral opposition to the cosmopolitan idea. Haggard sees it as a function of life chances.  The elite, he explained have done well in our technological, globalized world.  Others have not.  Educational and achievement divides are becoming highly politicized he explained, which feeds the polarization.  Kaufman noted that in most of their 16 cases, one of two things happened that drove polarization: either the middle collapsed, or one or more parties moved to the extreme.  Either way, it leads to a major realignment of the political system.

Is there any source of hope, Paula asked?  "With the autocratic winds blowing as they are blowing, and with the United States in such terrible trouble," Kaufman replied, "it's hard to be optimistic."  But if there is optimism to be found, it would be created by figuring out how to effectively govern, they agreed.  First, you have to "get the bad guys out," but then you need to fix the system--you need to "deliver things."  "That might not right the ship, but if you don't do it, you can be sure things will go in the wrong direction."  Paula observed that if you are not building the new while you are taking down the old, there is nothing to move towards.  So these things have to happen simultaneously."

Part 5: Prospects for Democracy In this last video, Kevin and Paula again tried to find some good news, some hope.  Kevin asked "what can political parties and civil society do to prevent such democratic backsliding, and identity politics that is driving the politics of fear? What can civil society do to protect the democracy and make sure that the things we value most are protected?" Kaufman observed that most people don't care about "democracy," they care, rather, about their own well being.  So "the system," Bob said, needs to deliver things like education and health care that contribute to that well being.  Paula added the importance of dignity and respect. Those are fundamental to people the word over, and are often the cause of violent conflict, she said.  Bob ended by saying that he wasn't optimistic or pessimistic, he was "worried."  "Democracy has very important things to offer, and those will become more salient when they are taken away from people." But all of the countries they looked at, he said "are in a deep hole, and it's going to be very challenging to dig out." Stephan added that this is a time when democracies need to support one another—help each other recognize, block, and respond to threats, and work together to enhance each other's prosperity—for very pragmatic reasons.

This is a very abridged set of ideas--watch the videos for much more!