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.

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