A wave of authoritarian-populist political leaders—including Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and America’s Donald Trump—has eroded democratic institutions in countries around the world over the last decade. Elected to fight for the little people against corrupt elites, these authoritarian populists have attacked or closed independent news media, manipulated legal systems to persecute opponents, and rewritten laws in order to secure their electoral advantages and power. The challenge to democracy they represent has provoked fears, and a great deal of media debate, about whether democracies would break down—or whether illiberal rulers now have some sort of global upper hand. But many of the world’s elected autocrats now seem to be losing public support—even in danger of losing their next elections. Bolsonaro’s approval rating in Brazil has plummeted to 19 percent, and he badly trails former President Lula da Silva in polls ahead of next year’s vote. Orban’s party, Fidesz, stands about four points behind a newly united opposition in voter surveys before Hungary’s 2022 general election. Erdogan oversees a collapsing economy in Turkey, with rising unemployment and the lira having lost 75 percent of its value since last year. Why are the authoritarian populists becoming so vulnerable?
Steven Levitsky is a professor of government at Harvard University and co-author of the 2018 book How Democracies Die. According to Levitsky, these autocrats were never really as mighty as they seemed. Many of them have performed poorly in office, especially in response to Covid-19. And over time, he says, public opinion inevitably shifts away from even the most popular among them, regardless of what they deliver. Still, in Levitsky’s view, citizens’ underlying anger and frustration with establishment elites is undiminished—so the parade of ambitious politicians trying to exploit popular resentments with populist appeals isn’t likely to end anytime soon.
Michael Bluhm: Some of the best-known and most powerful authoritarian populists are looking weak right now, but popular anger at elites seems as strong as ever. What’s going on?
Steven Levitsky: There are a bunch of things going on. First, you’re right that the level of anger at establishments and elites continues to be very high in many parts of the world. What’s new is how easy it is to get elected. In the old days, establishments—meaning establishment media, political parties that nominated candidates, and traditional interest groups such as big labor and big business—had a lot of control over politicians’ careers through the mid-20th century. Back before social media, if you weren’t on good terms with major interest groups or major traditional media, you couldn’t get your name out. Before the advent of party primaries in the U.S., if you weren’t on good terms with party bosses, you couldn’t get anywhere.
In the 21st century, with the rise of social media, and with the declining influence of establishments across the board, there’s a supply-side change, as well as the demand-side change. It’s not just that voters are angry everywhere. It’s that it’s much easier to be a Trump, a Bolsonaro, or a Duterte than it was 50 or 60 years ago, so the election of illiberal or authoritarian-leaning populists is likely to continue.
The perception that these guys are failing has to do with collective expectations. There was this widespread sense, with the election of people like Trump, Bolsonaro, Erdogan, and Duterte, who weren’t committed to democratic institutions, that there’s a global wave of “autocratization”—that regimes around the world are becoming authoritarian, and everyone’s becoming like Russia and China.
That was never true. In some cases—like in the United States, Brazil, and probably Chile, if Jose Antonio Kast is elected—there are robust democratic institutions that stand a good shot at constraining these guys. Trump was as authoritarian as we imagined and feared—and he may still kill American democracy—but institutions and the opposition were strong enough to push him out of office in 2020. The same may happen to Bolsonaro.
In some cases, authoritarians get elected but institutions manage to muddle through. In some cases, authoritarians are really inept at governing, and that was the case with Trump and Bolsonaro. It’s not true everywhere, but Trump and Bolsonaro are especially inept.
Above all, though, most electoral authoritarian regimes continue to be electoral. They’re competitive authoritarian regimes, which means that even in the worst instances—like in Ecuador or Hungary, where the playing field gets tilted against the opposition—they don’t represent outright dictatorship. They’re regimes where public opinion matters and where elections matter, even if the elections are no longer entirely fair.
In many cases, these are pretty fragile autocracies. After about a decade—sometimes earlier, if the economy’s not good—authoritarian populists tend to lose their luster and public support.
Even the most successful and most talented among them—Alberto Fujimori in Peru, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Orban in Hungary—eventually lose support, and they either need to crack down further, as Erdogan has, or they lose. A lot of the time, they lose. It’s still too early to say that Orban is going to lose the next election; the playing field is heavily tilted in his favor.
Populists are elected on the backs of crumbling establishment parties. Incumbent parties have failed and are widely discredited.
But these aren’t stable autocracies. They’re regimes where autocracy is often embryonic and fairly unstable. When critics look at these regimes, they’ve tended to see Putin’s Russia or even Xi’s China, overstating the idea that once you lose democracy, you get consolidated autocracy. Democracies are really vulnerable these days, but many new autocracies are also really vulnerable, particularly when times are hard. And over the last few years, because of the pandemic, times have been hard. That is affecting Prime Minister Narendra Modi in India It is affecting Erdogan in Turkey. It’s affecting Bolsonaro in Brazil. It affected Trump in the U.S.; had it not been for the pandemic, Trump might have been re-elected.
Many have overstated how strong many of these new autocrats were, forgetting that in most cases, these guys still have to engage in competitive politics—again, even if the political competitions aren’t entirely fair. Public opinion matters. And nobody—nobody—enjoys stable popular support for much more than a decade.
Bluhm: Beyond the tough times of the pandemic, do you see any other common factors in this new electoral vulnerability for authoritarian populists?
Levitsky: One is that sometimes oppositions learn and get it together. Populists are elected on the backs of crumbling establishment parties. Incumbent parties have failed and are widely discredited. Hungary is a great case; Venezuela is an even greater case; Mexico is another.
Even in fair elections, it tends to be hard for the opposition to get it together. Very often, the opposition is fragmented; it’s falling apart. People are leaving parties, because the parties are failing. It takes years—sometimes a decade or so—for the opposition to come together. Oppositions are learning, as in Hungary, that they have to unite. A divided opposition is almost invariably going to fail.
That’s one advantage that the Democratic Party in the U.S. had. The anti-Trump vote made for a united opposition. That was very helpful in beating Trump. The jury’s still out on Hungary, but the opposition there has a fighting chance, in part because they’ve finally built a very broad coalition.
Bluhm: You mention the pandemic. How much have the authoritarian populists’ responses to Covid-19 in particular affected their political standing?
Levitsky: There’s a lot of variation in Covid responses—and in public responses to Covid responses. It’s not easy to generalize.
It’s amazing how politically resilient some of these populists have been. We see this in the U.S., where voting for populists is very much about social identity. Political scientists or observers tend to assume that voters have ideological and material incentives: We vote for parties because we agree with their policies, or we think they’re performing well. That’s only partially true. But sometimes, votes are very heavily driven by social identity. If that’s the case, it’s more like rooting for a sports team than evaluating the performance of an incumbent. Even if my favorite team has a terrible general manager, I’m still going to root for them.
I only exaggerate a little bit in saying that it didn’t matter how badly Trump performed on Covid-19; the vast majority of Trump supporters were going to vote for him. Covid affected Trump because there is still a sliver of the electorate that’s independent and floating, and they opposed Trump’s Covid response. But most Trump voters by far were unswayed by it.
The jury’s still out on Hungary, but the opposition there has a fighting chance, in part because they’ve finally built a very broad coalition.
That’s also true for Bolsonaro. Voting in Brazil is a little different; partisan identities aren’t as strong there. Bolsonaro has lost a lot of support among center-right independent voters. But he still has hardcore voters, somewhere between 25 and 30 percent of the electorate. Despite his performance having been in some ways worse than Trump’s, they’re still supporting Bolsonaro, because it’s an identity-based vote. It’s not based on an evaluation of his policies.
That said, there is a bit of a pattern. Not all populists performed badly on Covid-19, but a lot of them did. The pattern seems connected to their relationship with experts and elites. Populists are almost invariably anti-elite and anti-establishment. They’re almost invariably in hostile opposition to experts, intellectuals, and even scientists.
That’s true of right-wing populists like Bolsonaro and Trump, and it’s true of left-wing populists like Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador—AMLO. If you don’t like taking the advice of those pointy-headed experts, you might not respond so well to the pandemic.
There are governments around the world that did everything right, according to scientists and public-health officials, and still had high Covid infection and death rates. But it’s not an accident that Brazil, the United States, and Mexico are three of the worst responders to the pandemic. All of them were governed by populists who hate experts, expertise, and universities.
Bluhm: You say populists often responded poorly to the pandemic, but you also say their voters often don’t care much about performance. How do you square those two thoughts?
Levitsky: Populists tended to do poorly on the pandemic, but despite that poor performance, they haven’t suffered that much politically. It was enough to sink Trump; it may be enough to sink Bolsonaro. But neither of them was weakened by the pandemic as much as one would think they should have been.
Bluhm: The Signal recently published an interview with the political scientist David A. Hopkins, who said that, regardless of policies or demographic shifts, public opinion regularly shifts between the two main parties in the United States. What kind of role are the seemingly inevitable shifts in public opinion playing here?
Levitsky: They’re playing a huge role. There are different factors at work. In Turkey, Hungary, and Poland, incumbents enjoyed strong economic performances for quite a while. If the economy is growing—and it’s doing fairly well in Central Europe—you can extend relatively high levels of support for longer than if the economy is terrible.
The degree of polarization and animosity toward the old elite also matters. In the United States, the level of broad public disaffection with the status quo wasn’t nearly as great as in Venezuela, Hungary, El Salvador, or Mexico. Where you combine a talented populist—like AMLO in Mexico, Chavez in Venezuela, or Bukele in El Salvador—with a really discredited elite, they can turn that into political capital for a long time. You may be kind of tired of me, but the other guys are worse.
An inexperienced outsider, and particularly an inexperienced outsider who doesn’t trust experts—and that’s basically the definition of a populist—there’s a higher likelihood that those guys are going to be incompetent.
Chavez did it for 12 years; Fujimori, for almost a decade. Bukele is still starting, but he’s holding 80-something percent approval. A particularly strong politician with a particularly discredited opposition and a strong economy—Turkey and Hungary may be good cases—can extend that for a while.
But rarely do these guys go much more than a decade without beginning to bleed public support. I’ve never seen an incumbent politician in a minimally free society keep high approval ratings for much longer than that.
Bluhm: As Covid-19 responses showed, many of the world’s current batch of authoritarian populists have turned out to be ineffective. What patterns do you see in their performance?
Levitsky: There’s a great diversity. Some populists are very talented politicians and fairly effective governors, or they select decent people to govern for them. Orban, Erdogan, and Fujimori ended up being pretty effective governors.
Populists who are political amateurs or longtime backbenchers without any experience in governing—Bolsonaro; Trump is an outsider; Pedro Castillo, the president of Peru, was a schoolteacher—these people aren’t guaranteed to be incompetent, but there’s a higher likelihood. An inexperienced outsider, and particularly an inexperienced outsider who doesn’t trust experts—and that’s basically the definition of a populist—there’s a higher likelihood that those guys are going to be incompetent.
Bluhm: Anger at elites seems persistent around the world. How strong are the feelings that led to the elections of these authoritarian populists?
Levitsky: I don’t think we in the social sciences have a great grasp yet of what is going on. Based on what I know about what’s causing populist resentment in the West—and I know a little more about what’s causing populist resentment in Latin America—none of these conditions are changing.
I’d expect individual populists to come and go. Because they’re often amateurish and not very well-organized, a lot of them tend to be ephemeral figures in politics. But the phenomenon of anger and frustration with the political system, with political entrepreneurs tapping into that anger and frustration—political entrepreneurs on the left, or on the right, or with ambiguous politics—that’s very likely to continue. I don’t see any significant demand-side changes there.
Bluhm: What are the conditions driving the demand for authoritarian-populist politicians?
Levitsky: A combination of two things, neither of which is new in Latin America. One is extreme social inequality with low social mobility, and the other is state weakness—state bureaucracies, governments, or institutions that don’t perform well and don’t provide basic public goods.
If the machinery of the state doesn’t function well—doesn’t implement social policies well, doesn’t protect consumers, doesn’t regulate, doesn’t control corruption, doesn’t protect citizens from crime—people end up getting very, very frustrated with the government.
When Government A fails, followed by Government B failing, followed by Government C failing, because the state machinery doesn’t work, citizens end up concluding that all politicians are the same, all governments suck, and nobody’s listening to them. They become much more open to voting for anti-system outsiders.
It’s been exacerbated by the weakening of political parties. Where you have strong partisan identities—in Latin America, strong left-leaning or popular-based parties—you’re less likely to have populist outsiders. But parties have weakened across Latin America over the last 30 years, and that’s made it easier for outsiders to rise up.