Democracy vs. authoritarianism. How useful is this paradigm for the current state of the world?

I now think of governments and leaders around the world as falling into either the authoritarian or democratic way of ruling. There are, of course, many ways one can break down various nations and cultures, whether by religion, ethnicity, wealth, geography, and many other categories. These days, however, it seems that conflicts, whether between or within nations, come down to those who support democracy vs. those who want authoritarian rule. This explains why, for the most part, democratic countries support Ukraine while authoritarian countries support Russia. It also explains (at least in my mind) the answer to the question posed by @wolfpup in the midterm election thread about why MTG and Matt Gaetz are proposing a bill to cut off all aid to Ukraine. IMHO it’s because they’re authoritarians, and they thus see Russia as the good guys and Ukraine as the bad guys. Now obviously all authoritarians are not the same. There’s left wing and right wing, religious versions of various denominations as well as secular, some that have official monarchies and others where they have sham elections, are located all over the world, have different predominant ethnic / racial / language makeups, and so on. What they all seem to have in common is a hatred for a democratic form of government. Of course this isn’t limited to differences between countries. The breakdown is seen within countries as well, such as the Democratic (democratic) and Republican (authoritarian) parties here in the US. It should go without saying that for the most part the democracies are the good guys and the authoritarians the bad guys.

Clearly this isn’t the only way to look at things, but it seems to me to be a very helpful way of looking at how power is wielded within and between countries around the world. The debate is this. Is my way of looking at things fundamentally flawed, and if so how?

I feel the key principle is who the official is answerable to.

If you’re an elected official in a democratic system, you’re answerable to a majority of the voters you represent. If they feel you are failing to serve their interests, you will be replaced in the next election.

In an authoritarian system, most officials are still going to be answerable to somebody. It might be a political party or your fellow junta members or powerful figures outside the government. Once again, you have the serve the interests of the people you are answerable to, or you get replaced.

I believe that the relevant distinction is between authoritanianism vs rule of law, rule of law being for me: all laws are public and known, no secret laws, all laws are equally applied to all, no retroactivity, respect of human rights and minorities and some more. A democratic 51% vs 49% decision can be profoundly undemocratic (see Brexit, see Orban, see Erdogan…).
But as rule of thumb your distinction is IMO useful for starters.

The categories are definitely not set in stone. A democracy can produce the outcomes you mentioned, and others, like Trump. There’s even the rare cases where an authoritarian system produces a democratic leader, like the Soviet Union did with Gorbachev.

I’ve always thought the meaningful distinction between governments is the extent to which they include their citizens in decision-making (unfortunately that ranges from “not at all” to “marginal” but it’s still highly relevant) and the extent to which they are coercive and don’t allocate any rights to ordinary citizens (some existing governments have a much better upper range on this one).

Left / right is virtually meaningless and people should stop using it. For me, this perspective was powerfully confirmed when the Soviet Union’s hardliners were arraying themselves against Mikhail Gorbachev, and much of the news media referred to the hardliners as “the right wing” or “the hard right” or “the conservative right”. Yeah, so walk me through that one… they’re the established communists, communism is what people point to as “the far left” in all such discussions (whether the speaker is looking for a leftist boogeyman or is trying to distinguish socialism from communism or whatever)… and Gorbachev was positioned as a moderate trying to move away from that, loosen up the restrictions, hence on the conventional political spectrum to the right of communism, yet it’s the hardline authoritarian communists who got tagged as “the right” in this showdown.

Lather rinse repeat for Boris Yeltsin and the same kind of showdown a bit later. So clearly we’re not operating with a single definition or notion about what is and what is not left versus right. If they’d just called it authoritarian versus indiv rights it would have been much more clear.

While that’s a valid hypothesis, in the case of uber demagogues like MTG and her ilk, ISTM the motivation is purely of spite borne of partisanship. If the pumpkin pie party wants X, the sweet potato pie party is against X.

Gorbachev wasn’t particularly “democratic”; his primary interest was in trying to preserve the moribund Soviet economy and fix the long-standing demographic and cultural problems the ‘core’ nations of the Soviet Union by ending the Cold War military spending model. To that end, he allowed the nations of the Warsaw Pact to “have it your way” and stop putting military effort into an effective occupation of Poland or propping up other member states. Of course, as it turned out this was immediately devastating for the Soviet economy because aside from raw petroleum resources and building military hardware Russia had almost no industry to speak of, and the Ukraine (where a lot of high technology industry and a lot of agriculture) rapidly elected to remove itself from the Russian sphere of influence. The subsequent collapse of the Soviet Empire and the dire economic straits of the brief Yeltsin period (fomented, of course, by selling off state-owned industries and resources to oligarchs for a fraction of their value) was all of the justification needed to turn back to authoritarianism despite how ineffectual that has been at any genuine economic or demographic renewal.

There are, of course, failing or ‘bad’ democracies, and hypothetically benevolent autocrats, but while we’ve seen a mix of successful and unsuccessful approaches to democratic systems of governance on the whole they tend to have been more stable and long-lived in the period of Westphalian Sovereignty, while autocracies generally turn into cults of personality that fare poorly after the demise of their leader, or at least transition into successively less viable nations such as North Korea. How democracy will hold up in what is quickly becoming a post-Westphalian world which is beset by multiple existential crises is an open question.


Yeah, that’s 100% of why they’re against it. There’s no actual ideology there, other than “Democrats say X is good, so we say X is bad.” There’s also no concept of being on the same team like there used to be, especially w.r.t. foreign policy/aid.

I mean, clearly the Ukrainians deserve our aid, and the Russians deserve the poke in the eye that we’re giving them. But the GOP wingnuts seem to think that it’s more important to oppose Biden than to further the US interests in this case. Which is dangerous and sad.

And I think that @slicedalone is onto something- a lot of the authoritarian/democratic stuff comes down in the US to how they want to gain/keep power. Do they want to actually persuade the electorate, or do they want to do shady-ass gerrymandering and other sketchy gaming of the system to get power, and then more of those tricks, as well as out and out lying/criminal activity to keep it.

The distinction, seems to me, is between those who believe they are right and have the support of a majority in their country, and those who (pretend to) KNOW that they are right and therefore have no need to persuade a majority of their countrymen to support them. When faced with a loss of power, those in the first category will say “As sad as this makes me, or as angry or as hostile as I feel now, I recognize that I have lost crucial support and I must step down” and those who reject the concept entirely and will devise any sort of specious bullshit to justify remaining in power.

South American countries are good examples of this. Chile and Argentina did worse under their periods of dictatorship and have done better as democracies. Then there’s Venezuela, which was (AFAIK) prospering until Chavez came along. Whether they’ll eventually bounce back like Chile and Argentina did, or end up like North Korea, remains to be seen, but I’d bet that if they manage to get back to being a democracy they will thrive and if they remain with an authoritarian government they will continue to do poorly.

I meant that he was democratic in the sense that he wasn’t interested in maintaining his personal authority, and didn’t use the secret police or other such means to eliminate those who would challenge his personal authority. When the USSR dissolved he went peacefully rather than trying to eliminate Yeltsin and take over Russia. The impression I have from his post Soviet life was that he was in favor of a more democratic future for Russia. He certainly wasn’t a big Putin fan, which IMHO he would have been had he been of an authoritarian mindset.

At the point of the Soviet “counter-revolution” such as it was, Gorbachev didn’t really have the power to “eliminate Yeltsin”, and was being actively undermined by other ‘hardline’ factions within the crumbling Soviet system. Gorbachev certainly wasn’t a demagogue or devoted to autocracy, and to an extent embraced democratic reforms but his primary interest was in trying to reshape the Soviet economy to be fiscally viable and to reverse what he saw as moral decline in the culture (i.e. rampant alcoholism, drug abuse, massive inequality between the Soviet leadership and the average Soviet citizen, et cetera).

The Russians as a whole are not big on the idea of democracy, in part because they have never really had any experience with it except during a brief period of near-total collapse of their consumer economy during the early to mid ‘Nineties. Your typical Russian is just fine with an autocratic leader as long as they aren’t standing in bread lines or burning furniture for firewood, and that is (in part) why Putin has had pretty high approval rankings even after you factor in the polling biases. Gorbachev was not regarded as a ‘strong’ leader (even though I personally think he did many things that required personal bravery and sacrifice) and does no enjoy a very good reputation among Russians today, while pre-‘special operation’ Putin was viewed quite favorably by many.

Of course, it seems that many people in existing democratically-led nations are also fine with autocracies and demagogues if it means that they get what they want or can ‘stick it’ to those who they think are holding them down. Democracy is more of a constant aspiration than a goal, and one that requires education and sacrifice to maintain, which are difficult things to ask of people who feel as if they aren’t getting the benefits they expected from it.


It may have seemed so in my OP, but I don’t limit my distinction of authoritarian and democratic to just the leadership. Ordinary people also fit into one group or the other, and as you say the average Russian is happy being an authoritarian (in the sense of being led by one). I see the same thing in Trump supporters here in the US, and wouldn’t limit the classification of authoritarian to just Trump himself, or any other authoritarian ruler around the globe. I include their followers as well.

As to why they’re that way, I think you’re right that a lack of education, getting to “stick it” to those they don’t like, and wanting a “strong” leader during hard times are all part of the formula of what makes an average person lean authoritarian. I think those types of sentiments among the less educated are why Carter was so soundly defeated by Reagan, to take a US example of someone who I see as similar to Gorbachev in terms of personality.

Bruce bueno de mesquita writes about this, how in democracies you have a larger share of people to please so you get reforks that the masses want. In a dictatorship you really just need to keep the sedurity state elite happy to stay in power.

I think when climate change results in tens or possibly hundreds of millions of people fleeing the middle east and northern africa to settle in less hot climates, we will see an even bugger resurgence of authoritarianism. Its going to suck.

I think it is a very good way of looking at it.

I think the fact that so many autocrats (eg Putin, Ergodan) are putting so much effort into the appearance of Democracy rather than simply declaring themselves dictators as they may have done in previous eras, is a testament to the importance of the democratic system.

It’s easy to loose track of how much of good thing democracy is given the direction politics has headed recently. Which makes the blatantly authoritarian statements coming from the GOP more scary.

I think both parts of this are endemic to the human condition, rather than specifically to education / social class - although both of those can certainly play a role. Just about everyone engages in tribalism to a degree, and wants to see their ‘side’ win. Just differences in how far you’re willing to go, and what you’ll qualify as ‘victory’. For example see the recent thread on Cheney for President - sure, she has some respect from the liberal side of the equation for having the will to stand up to Trump at the very, very end but pretty much no one would want her for president based on her voting history.

A flip side of that (and I’m not engaging in both-siderism, just pointing out commonalities in attitudes) was some of the desires during the Obama years - where, in the search of efforts to fix things, there was an unusually strong desire of the Democrats to embrace Executive orders and similar top down efforts to create policy in the light of the egregious Republican denialism.

Okay, having addressed that specific point, back to the rest of the OP’s question. Personally, I don’t find the paradigm hugely useful, other than for a back-of-the-hand analysis of the public view of a nations government. Historically, I think representative (a better term in most cases than Democratic) governments often create authoritarian figures for any time of stress: war, economic fragility, social fragility. A representative government with strong rule of law, or a sufficiently strong social construct will generally find that those ‘temporary’ authoritarians will then step down and while they remain a strong social influence, abrogate a strong political power.

The difference is that while this can and does happen in a strong representative government, it reverse is rarely true. A strong authoritarian rule can be passed peacefully (or violently) to chosen or self-appointed successors, but will rarely give rise to a more representative government. And in those rare cases, said authoritarian powers will almost always demand power sharing, which, if said authority derives from military power, may well see that representative power cast down within a generation or less.

Lastly (sorry for the book) - I think the key part of why many authoritarian governments preserve the trappings of a representative government is for blame sharing. This allows some virtual autocrats to keep up an internal ‘other’ who can be blamed for any failures and keeping their own semi-divine authority intact. Sure, the autocrat has no intent of allowing said internal factions to ever gather significant power, but it does give those that prefer a representative option the illusion of working within the system, and a scapegoat to those of their own faction.

So TL;DR - Democracy (Representative) vs Authoritarianism (Autocratic) work a lot better as a spectrum of governments, with the huge gimme that adherents to both sides can and do claim the mantle of the other to serve their own purposes.

One of those things is not like the other two. I don’t see how the Brexit referendum counts as “profoundly undemocratic”. It was a free vote and one side carried it 52% to 48%.

It is certainly no more so than the the past or potentially future Scottish independence votes, nor the vote that saw the UK joining the European Community and if a referendum on rejoining were ever held I’d suggest the only democratic way to do that would be another free vote with a commitment to act on the wishes of the majority.

Yes, there is diversity in authoritarianism. No reason to cheer, that is not the kind of diversity that enriches a society. There are even more ways of being undemocratic, authoritarian, dictatorial, opressive or whatever you want to call it.

Because if you make a radical change that affects everybody’s lives in such a profound manner, leaving aside the opinion of 48% of the population that voted, cannot be democratic. I mean, we understand democratic to be about justice and fairness, right? Well that result cannot be just or fair. We should accept that some decisions cannot be taken by simple majority vote and be fair and just. Simple majority vote is not the right instrument for that. Had remain won the objections would be the same, and in fact the leave side had already stated that should they lose, as they believed they would, they would redouble their efforts in the next referendum, and the next, and the next… The same goes for Scottish independence, btw, of which I am all in favour.

It is debatable how free a vote really is if the campaigns supporting both sides are allowed to lie and have the support of the media, but only one went ballistic with mendacity and had the support of Rupert Murdock (and probably several foreign powers, including the Russian FSB and Cambridge Analytica). You should know that from your experience in the USA, just watch Fox News and see what it does.
Now look at Ucraine: about 50% of Ucranians were for independence, 50% for joining Russia (more or less, and both sides varying a lot by region). The Ucrainian governments alternated between those two opinions, and as in that kind of decision no compromise is feasible (at least none was found, like in Brexit) there came the moment were the losing position felt justified in resorting to violence. Which goes to prove, I believe, that there are decisions that cannot be taken by simple majority of votes in an election. You need to reach a consensus in a different way. If you just vote and call it democratic, it will be unjust and unfair. It will not respect the rule of law (the bit of my post you did not coment).

OK, I appreciate the thoughtful response and note your consistency.

There is certainly an argument to be made as to when and how referenda should be used, but that’s not a topic for this thread I reckon.
However I still think that the (imperfect) democracy of referenda is a category away from the authoritarian tendencies of Orban and Urdogan (who would likely never offer any free referendum that stood any chance of a result they didn’t want)

I’m not sure I agree with that. I don’t know what democracy would mean if it didn’t abide by the votes of the public nor do I think that a referendum necessarily is against the rule of law (and indeed several countries have such an approach enshrined in their laws and haven’t yet slipped into despotism)

But I understand your position and it is a reasonable and defensible one.

But one thing to clarify

I’m actually from the UK, so my experience is definitely deeper for Brexit than it is for USA politics.

No, not necessarily, but there are things, categories of decisions, that are not amenable to referenda. That, in a nutshell, is my argument. Those decisions must be taken in another way, with more emphasis on consensus and respect of minorities. Which presuposes such a consensus can be found and there is the goodwill to do so. That was obviously not the case in Brexit ( → see Regretxit :wink: ), in Ucraine or in the Republican Party right now. (And Lukashenko, and Orban, and Erdogan, and…). It has worked pretty well so far in Swizzerland, I believe. Other countries are somewhere in between.

Ups! Sorry, no offense intended.

And a clear argument it is though I’m sure we would quibble on the where, when and what. But that’s detail for another thread.

not a problem, none taken, but I thought it worth mentioning it if you were about to make any assumptions about my knowledge of the situation in the USA.