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Originally published in the Wall Street Journal
While the rise of violent Islamism has transfixed the world, another, graver threat—21st-century autocracy—is gathering strength. In the long run, it is sophisticated autocrats, not bearded zealots, who pose the greater menace to democracy. This is the message of two outstanding new essays.
In a piece for the U.K.’s Henry Jackson Society, David Clark argues that “the great wave of global democratic change that began in the mid-1970s—doubling the number of electoral democracies in the space of three decades—has come to an end. Instead, we are now confronted with a powerful authoritarian backlash that is reversing some of these gains and encouraging a resurgence of anti-democratic ideas.”
Although the new authoritarianism often draws on national sentiments, it is anything but backward-looking. It takes into account globalization, rising prosperity and digital communications, says Mr. Clark, and it has developed “new techniques of control and new justifications for monopolizing power that enable autocratic leaders to resist pressure for democratic change.”
Unlike 20th-century totalitarians, the new autocrats suppress political and civil rights only to the extent needed to maintain control. They adeptly manipulate the facade of democratic procedures. Contrary to the optimistic predictions of modernization theories, they co-opt their countries’ rising middle classes. They draw on cultural exceptionalism—such as with the “Asian values” debate in the 1990s—to resist the universal claims of democracy and human rights. And increasingly, they are forming leagues of mutual support.
“The rise of the new authoritarianism,” Mr. Clark concludes, “shows that democracy is not the inevitable outgrowth of modernization and economic development. Instead, the case for it has to be made and won at a political level.” This is sobering. The war on terror divided the democratic world, and the aftermath of the Great Recession has left it drifting.
The result, says Mr. Clark: “a loss of self-confidence that has undermined the democracy’s appeal.” Middle classes and elites from the global South are looking to China and Singapore as models. Even in Europe, populism and nativism are challenging long-established democratic norms.