According to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index of 167 countries, in 2020, democracy continued its slide—in part due to the opportunities afforded to power-hungry governments by COVID-19 and government lockdowns. While some of the backsliding occurred in the world’s established democracies, much of it happened in hybrid regimes that, in spite of their democratic veneer, are authoritarian in nature.
Scholars have described this phenomenon, where democratic institutions exist in form but not in substance and where elections occur but are far from free and fair, as “competitive authoritarianism,” an increasingly common regime type from Asia to Latin America. These elected autocrats have not risen independently around the world. Rather, scholars have shown autocrats and their aspirants learning from one another. The thought of academic-style conferences to discuss best practices in electoral manipulation and lessons learned in stacking judicial systems might be amusing, but elected autocrats from Venezuela to Turkey to Hungary really have borrowed from one another, sometimes even sharing advisors and exporting ideas in repression and election-rigging.
Yet while autocrats have written their “dictator’s playbook,” democratic governments have failed to develop an effective strategy to defend against it. After decades of observing highly recognizable patterns of institutional manipulation and democratic backsliding, democratic governments still struggle to respond, individually and collectively, to these slow-motion coups from within. It is time, in other words, for liberal democrats to develop their own democrat’s playbook. If they don’t, events like the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol will be just the beginning.