Why Do Authoritarians Win?

Not by repudiating democracy but by simulating it, a new book argues.

William E. Scheuerman in the Boston Review: Democracy seems in bad shape these days. In contrast, its global political rivals appear to be prospering and gaining confidence in their ability to offer a viable alternative. Commenting gleefully a few weeks after Donald Trump’s election, Vladimir Putin celebrated “the degradation of the idea of democracy in western society in the political sense of the word.” Su Changhe, a Chinese scholar who has praised his country’s successes under President-for-life Xi Jinping, offers approval that “Western democracy is already showing signs of decay.” Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai and United Arab Emirates (UAE) Prime Minister, hopes that his government will soon be “closer to its people, faster, better and more responsive” than western democracy. Since the UAE’s version of democracy is deeply rooted in local society, he claims, that dream is already being realized.

Of course, autocrats always tout their achievements, or insist that their regimes rest on the will of the people. Even Nazi Germany claimed popular legitimacy, a racist and anti-Semitic Volks-sovereignty. Soviet apologists and fellow travelers labeled Stalin’s Eastern European vassal states “people’s democracies.” The contemporary narrative seems depressingly familiar. Even so, the specter of powerful autocratic states that parasitically mimic democracy, while in reality eviscerating its core, should alarm us. Are democracy’s rivals indeed gaining ground? And, what precisely is different this time?

John Keane’s illuminating study of what he dubs the new despotism persuasively argues that its momentum in China, Hungary, Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, the UAE, and many other countries offers evidence both for its viability today and its longevity in times to come. A novel political formation, the new despotism impersonates democracy as it feeds leech-like on its shortcomings. Perhaps most ominously, it threatens to make inroads even in long-standing democracies, where the political decay celebrated by Putin and others represents more than a debased, self-congratulatory fantasy.

Keane, an Australian political theorist, brings a distinctive global sensibility to his research on democracy’s vulnerabilities. Drawing on a range of political and scholarly sources, Keane digs into the intricacies of the new despotism’s workings in a variety of political contexts. He remains most at home, however, in the intellectual world of modern European political thought to make sense of what so alarms him.

Indeed, he models his book on The Prince (1532), a tough-minded analysis of early modern European autocrats’ dirty political tricks written by the Florentine thinker Niccolo Machiavelli. Keane insists that only by dissecting the new despotism’s supple, but no less shady, political techniques can we understand how it renders its subjects compliant and seemingly grateful. Admitting that his book, like Machiavelli’s classic, might inadvertently embolden the new despots and their admirers, Keane asks that we read it in the same spirit that the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau interpreted The Prince: “While pretending to give lessons to kings, he gave great ones to peoples.” Like Machiavelli, Keane wants to out illegitimate rulers and jolt democrats into taking despotism’s dangers seriously…

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