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.

Maria Fernanda

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.

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