Backsliding (Elements in Political Economy), Stephan Haggard and Robert Kaufman, Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press 2021. 102pp. $12.49 (ebook)
This timely work analyzes 16 cases of nations undergoing an incremental process of worsening democratic institutions, rules, and norms while stretching the limits of executive power. The cases cover four continents and economies ranging from the USA to Zambia. Backsliding occurs in different forms. Taking the three essentials of democracy: free elections, protection of fundamental rights, and separation of powers, some cases begin with a weakening of one component, setting the stage for the assault of the next one. These incremental changes are a slippery slope that may go largely unnoticed by citizens because of their initial small scale and ambiguities. Unfortunately, when citizens realize what has happened, it may be too late to return.
Backsliding can start with ethnic, religious, and racial cleavages and regime dysfunction, leading to a market for appeals that democracy isn’t working. Grievances can also arise from slowdowns in the economy, rising inequality, and differences between cosmopolitan and nationalist worldviews. In the cases studied here, leaders are elected based on such appeals, pitting “us” against “them.”
The speed and scale of the backsliding vary across the cases. In Hungary, for example, the absence of coercion and repression was very different from the circumstances of Russia and Venezuela, perhaps providing a cover to avoid sanctions from the EU. Indeed, international forces can play a crucial role in amplifying and restraining backsliding. Current and potential autocrats look to their peers for successful tools, tips, and practices. They manage information by exploiting polarization, bias, and inattention, taking advantage of a flood of unvetted disinformation, obfuscation, and hate speech that undermines discourse based on facts and standards of evidence. This takes place using online platforms built on business models that encourage these practices because they are profitable. Informational autocrats send and endorse messages without credible evidence stressing performance and public service while transferring public resources to a small group of rich cronies. The authors offer an online appendix longer than the book, with extensive details on their methodology and country cases, see <Cambridge.org/backsliding>.
Clay Wescott, President, International Public Management Network and member of International Advisory Board at Centre for Governance Studies (CGS)