Autocracy Now!

Examining the Global Surge in Authoritarianism

US Renew Democracy News OP ED | By: Ibrahim Castro | June 04, 2024
Featured Photo: www.carnegieendowment.org

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To be frank with the reader right out of the gate, free and fair democratic governance is in trouble, and unfortunately, there’s no sign it will get any better anytime soon. This article won’t present a take on why democracy is important or even how to combat growing authoritarianism (subjects for another time) but rather why authoritarianism has taken hold in the first place and continues to do so. The past two decades have presented us with an unfortunate series of events wherein countries around the world have experienced continuous democratic backsliding. From the rise of the far-right in Europe to military coups in various African states, and the solidifying of authoritarian rule in Asian countries, the election of fascist-leaning strongmen in America, authoritarianism and autocracy are on the rise. There are, unfortunately, too many contemporary examples to draw from, so this article will make use of only a few countries, mostly current democracies, and their shift towards authoritarian rule.

What’s the current situation?

According to the democracy and human rights research organization Freedom House, a greater number of countries became more authoritarian in 2022 than in any year since 1990, the year before the fall of the Soviet Union. If the decline of democracy continues at the present pace, less than 5% of the world’s population will live in a fully free democracy by 2026.

This topic could be, and perhaps needs, an entire book to fully and appropriately explain the renewed rise of authoritarianism. Each region and each country has its own specific reasons, and yet, as this is a global trend, there are common reasons that can be examined at a macro level to help us understand this shift. This article will use four main factors to provide us with our examples: economics and inequality, globalization, and technology.

Economics and Inequality

Inequality is perhaps the most cited and apparent reason for the rise of authoritarian leaders around the world. People living in poverty experience social exclusion and devaluation, which can be reflected in feelings of shame and abandonment. This shame and abandonment, in turn, are likely to increase support for authoritarianism, mainly due to the promise of social re-inclusion and often take the form of pushing that shame onto an outsider group.

Take a look at Argentina. At the end of 2023, the country had an annual inflation rate of 211%, people were unable to afford basic necessities like food and housing. Then came the newly elected President, Javier Milei, a political outsider who rode to power on the back of voter anger at the worsening economic situation. Along with his economic populism came antagonism to deals and relations with neighboring countries such as Brazil, Chile, and Colombia, anti-abortion rhetoric, the gutting of state services, and the denial of climate change, to name just a few.

In the US, about 60% of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck, an issue that impacts both low-wage and high-income families alike, according to new research from LendingClub. While low-wage earners are more likely to live paycheck to paycheck, even 4 in 10 high-income Americans, or those earning more than $100,000, say they’re in the same position. The typical American also, perhaps unsurprisingly, cannot afford to buy a home in a growing number of communities across the country. According to ATTOM researchers, home prices are beyond the reach of 99% of average income earners.

Conditions like these allow politicians like Donald Trump to run on the promise of solving these grievances, bringing the security and peace of mind families across the country desire, while also shifting the blame for the current situation to immigrants and ethnic minorities. Trump recently made statements similar to Nazi Germany’s pure Aryan blood rhetoric, stating that “migrants crossing the southern border are poisoning the blood of America”. He also published a video with words saying the US would be a new “Unified Reich” under his presidency. While some of Trump’s support might be purely due to far-right views, much of his support also rests on the economic uncertainty facing the majority of the population. Whether it’s one or the other reason for the public casting their votes for him, his authoritarian style of governing and policies will follow.

On the other side of the authoritarian spectrum, already governed by authoritarian rule, China has been doing quite well economically for the last few decades. It is now the second-largest economy and plays a larger role in global affairs than ever before. When it was once expected that authoritarian regimes would ultimately collapse under their own repression, its success instead has led to it solidifying authoritarian rule under Xi Jinping. In 2018, China approved the removal of the two-term limit on the presidency, effectively allowing Xi Jinping to remain in power for life. During Xi’s rule, China has clamped down on many freedoms, interned over one million Uighur Muslims in re-education camps, increased its state surveillance and censorship programs, and cracked down on democracy in Hong Kong.

There are numerous examples to draw from; many countries around the world today are facing economic uncertainty, which has pushed them towards strongman leaders promising to provide adequate living conditions for them and their families.

Globalization and Migration

There is compelling evidence that globalization, often working through culture and identity, has played an important role in driving up support for populist movements. International integration, once thought to be an engine for change and unification of the globe, has, at the same time, produced domestic disintegration in many countries, deepening the perception between the winners and the losers of global interconnectedness and competition. A change in migration patterns, which historically went between countries in what is now the global north, Europe, and the US, to the global south has now shifted, to where more irregular immigration occurs from poorer to richer countries. This trend has seen increased numbers of asylum seekers showing up on shores in various countries, whether fleeing war, climate disaster, or economic insecurity, causing huge spikes in support for authoritarian parties in countries across the global north.

Take the example of the UK’s departure from the European Union (EU). The UK’s current far-right conservative party came into power through the promise of Brexit. The Brexit referendum of 2016 represented the worst-case scenario for the European Union in terms of the impact of Euroscepticism and dissatisfaction with global and regional integration. Britain often found the EU’s organization and policies incompatible with its interests. The question of European and non-European immigration in the country became the cornerstone of the right-wings political strategy to push the UK to leave the EU.

The UK may have been the first, but there has been a wave of Eurosceptic parties headed by authoritarian leaders making gains in European elections. They are already in power in places like Victor Orban’s Hungary or Georgia Meloni’s Italy. As regional blocs like the EU were meant to provide unity and ensure that another war did not break out on the continent, dissatisfaction with the EU has continued to rise and has allowed far-right parties to strike up a narrative about returning countries’ sovereignty to themselves and away from centralized unified bodies like the EU headquarters in Brussels. This up until now has not caused a disintegration of the EU but rather helped uplift far-right nationalist leaders across the bloc.

Another factor in aiding authoritarian figures in Europe has been the increase in migrants arriving at the borders of wealthier nations. This issue has become a central theme for much of the 21st century; it has had a sizable impact on the election of far-right-wing parties in Europe and the US. In 2022, Giorgia Meloni won the Italian general election and went on to form Italy’s most right-wing government since Benito Mussolini’s fall during World War II. Italy is the second most indebted state in the Eurozone, and the number of people arriving by boat after crossing the Mediterranean has put pressure on Italian society and created anti-immigrant sentiment in the country that Meloni ran on during her campaign. For example, the number of migrants arriving doubled in 2023, to 106,000, compared to 53,000 over the same period in 2022, according to government data.Italy had been largely left to deal with the issue on its own while facing economic insecurity, sparking the public to shift sharply to the right.

The election of authoritarian leaders in Europe has also legitimized and enabled the funding of other authoritarian leaders in non-European countries. In 2023, Meloni joined European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to strike a controversial pact with Tunisia, exchanging aid funding for stricter efforts to prevent migrants from making the crossing.

Through these pacts, Italy and the EU break international humanitarian law and have helped promote anti-democratic leaders in North African countries Tunisia and Libya (which is currently in a state of civil war and governed by rivaling warlord factions). In 2022, Tunisia’s President Saied transformed Tunisia from a hybrid presidential-parliamentary lead country to a supra-presidential system with nearly unchecked executive authority. A move that mirrored strongman Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s attempts to consolidate power. Turkey under Erdogan also put in place an EU anti-immigration deal that seeks to have Turkey forcibly block migrants and refugees from reaching Europe in exchange for EU funding.

Technology

Propaganda methods and media have always been used to spread ideas, thoughts, and doctrines. Today, the digital sphere, in addition to all the benefits it provides us, also works as a modern space to disseminate all kinds of extremist propaganda both nationally and internationally. The primary characteristic of all fascist modernizing movements is conformity of thinking and behavior. Online platforms create various echo chambers where fascistic ideas can reverberate, and you can see how individuals, often charismatic individuals, can use these chambers to reflect and enhance a sense that was already there. One recent often-cited example is the 2016 US Presidential election, where Donald Trump used the digital sphere as no one running for office previously had, pushing out populist and extremist messages that uplifted Trump, giving him his cult-like following.

A new and perhaps most problematic factor to technological threats to free and fair democratic rule is the arrival of AI. Something that can also be used to target and manipulate individual voters, based on their individual psychology. This technology is able to produce misinformation that hides in plain sight, producing enormous volumes of content that can flood the media landscape, the internet, and political communication. Instantly producing fake pictures, video, and audio of officials, to news stories.

AI algorithms can be used to surveil and repress dissenting voices. In Israel, to help maintain an apartheid system against Palestinians, Israeli authorities use AI facial recognition to track and impose harsh restrictions on their freedom of movement. Palestinian residents of occupied East Jerusalem and Hebron describe how the omnipresent surveillance system has invaded their privacy, repressed activism, eroded social life, and left them feeling constantly exposed.

A similar technology is used in China’s expansive networks of surveillance cameras in Xinjiang province to monitor the Uighur ethnic minority, profiling them based on their appearance and keeping records of their comings and goings for search and review. These practices prevent them from challenging the status quo, and already are in many instances used upon their own citizenry. Technology has always and will continue to be used in the authoritarian playbook.

Concluding Thought

Once authoritarian leaders come into power, it is difficult to remove them. This article presented examples as to why authoritarian leaders come into power through factors such as economics, globalization and migration, technology, and the normalization of authoritarian policies and leaders. Of course, there are perceived short-term benefits to authoritarian rule. Authoritarian leaders are capable of delivering specific or certain positive programs to their populations in the short term. However, as we have seen throughout history, authoritarian rulers never have the true issues of their citizenry at heart. Normalization of authoritarian rule has and will continue to enable autocratic leaders to continue to expand their reach and power beyond the constraints placed on them, and they will continue to make gains so long as we, proponents of free, fair, and egalitarian societies, let them.

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