Authoritarianism after 1989: From Regime Types to Transnational Processes

By Brownlee, Jason | Harvard International Review, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

Authoritarianism after 1989: From Regime Types to Transnational Processes


Brownlee, Jason, Harvard International Review


In the years since communism fell across Eastern Europe, political scientists have tracked authoritarianism with zeal and frustration. While looking forward to the fall of regimes, they have watched dictators twist elections and elected leaders warp constitutions. The outlook is now as bleak as ever for the post-Cold War period. Coups in Mauritania, Thailand, and Honduras have demonstrated that military cliques still threaten popular sovereignty. Muted objections to the takeovers underscore a normative challenge. In the milieu of the "War on Terror," autocratic maneuvers can appear increasingly defensible. Under the aegis of national security, rulers have muffled rights advocacy and used "exceptional" measures to enhance control.

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This article does not deliver an overarching explanation of why the quest for global political emancipation seems to have foundered. Instead, it scrutinizes the academic enterprise that charted a rise in democracy and now contends with an "Age of Authoritarianism." I examine the analytic costs, which have become apparent over the last two decades, of treating democracy and authoritarianism as mutually exclusive "regime types," which observers can tally as states move from one category to the other. I then venture an alternative interpretation. Rather than undergoing a democratic revolution or an autocratic resurgence, the post-Cold War period has instead been suffused by democratic and authoritarian currents that coalesce within national boundaries and flow across them. Political science has yet to apprehend such transnational processes, which belie the linearity and binary nature of democratic transitions studies.

Defining democracy procedurally as the presence of competitive elections, scholars watched democratic nation-states increase in number through the early 21st century. When procedural democracy then hit a numerical plateau, the same intellectual community renewed its focus on authoritarian nation-states. Students of authoritarianism rely on the dichotomous treatment their forerunners applied to democratic transitions; in that view, authoritarianism is exclusive of and historically prior to procedural democracy. Such analysis stands to reap diminishing returns, thanks to a mix of conceptual, empirical, and normative obstacles. Students of authoritarianism and democracy over the next two decades can address those challenges by shifting their object of study from domestic, election-based regime types to transnational processes of coercion and accountability.

Democracy Peaks

For decades, political scientists have strived to identify democracy in a replicable, consistent way. The accepted convention has been to apply a procedural standard based on the work of economist Joseph Schumpeter. Over 60 years ago, Schumpeter wrote that democracies are distinguished by a "competitive struggle for the people's vote." Through the electoral process, leaders are held ac countable by the people they rule. Although political scientists add civil liberties in their minimal definition of democracy, the deciding factor is the existence of competitive elections to select the top decision-makers. Nation-states either meet this standard (such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and India) or do not (such as Egypt, Zimbabwe, and China).

After the Cold War, the number of procedural democracies rose rapidly, and democratization became a primary concern. By the early 1990s, dozens of new governments met the standard, as multiparty systems replaced military juntas and single-party communism. This "wave" touched not only Eastern Europe but also Latin America (Chile, Nicaragua, and Paraguay), sub-Saharan Africa (Benin and South Africa), and South Asia (Bangladesh). Freedom House, a professed "watchdog organization that supports the expansion of freedom around the world," applies the Schumpeterian criterion to maintain a running tally of democracies. …

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