Concilium Civitas Almanac 2020/2021 – Professor Ireneusz Paweł Karolewski „Democratic Backsliding and the Future of Democracy” –

Democratic Backsliding and the Future of Democracy

Ireneusz Paweł Karolewski, University of Leipzig


Many scholars and observers have been caught off guard by the current trend of democratic backsliding across the globe. This results partially from the highly optimistic debate on the transition to democracy in the 1990s, when Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries were on their road towards democracy. At that time, the research on the transition to democracy paid little attention to a possible breakdown of democratization processes in CEE. Certainly, scholars discussed the difficulties of the complex transition as well as the possibility of military or executive coups d’étata. However, a systematic and piecemeal backsliding towards autocracy was rarely explored. At the same time, very few scholars believed that advanced and established democracies might be prone to backsliding as well, as countries such as the US or the UK have been treated as role models, in particular after the collapse of the fascist and communist regimes in the 20th century. This optimism was to some extent due to the ‘end of history’ debate initiated by Francis Fukuyama (Fukuyama 1989), who claimed that historically liberal democracy appears to be a default position of all political systems, as seemingly proved by various democratization waves, in particular after the end of fascism and communism. However, it was not only the neoconservative optimism of Fukuyama that paved the way for a linear concept of democratic universalism. Also, political theorists of a leftist bent, for instance the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas (1990), agreed that democratization in CEE was a ‘catch-up revolution’ and in this sense experienced a sort of retarded development in which ‘the spirit of the Occident extends to the East’ (Habermas 1990: 185). Habermas himself was more interested in what was left of socialism than in democratization processes, and Fukuyama saw no alternatives to liberal democracy and the market economy – either from the totalitarian left or the authoritarian right. The 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre and the resilience of the communist parties as dominant actors in, for instance, China, Cuba and North Korea were of little interest. If CEE could catch up with the spirit of history, so would the rest of the world. However, a number of scholars did deal with the question of why some autocracies were able to survive, but with the hindsight of a further 20 years (e.g. Gerschewski 2013). Some (e.g. Dimitrov 2013) even claimed that the leftover communist countries of the Eastern Bloc might not be an anomaly in democratic universalism but rather a pattern, as these regimes had espoused a remarkable ability to adapt institutionally.

Today, scholars increasingly argue that we have been witnessing global democratic deconsolidation or global recession (e.g. Mounk 2018, Levitsky and Ziblatt 2018). This does not only apply to the relatively new democracies of CEE but also to the advanced and hitherto stable democracies of the US and the UK. The V-Dem project that analyses a multitude of data across a variety of democracies (and nondemocracies) concluded in its 2020 report that ‘the “third wave of autocratization” is accelerating and deepening. […] For the first time since 2001, democracies are no longer in the majority’ (V-Dem 2020: 9).

What does it all mean for liberal democracy as a model of political organization? I argue that liberal democracy is a structurally fragile political system that we came to misunderstand as a stable regime type. This fragile democracy – or fugitive democracy to use Sheldon Wolin’s (2016) concept – might be a more common phenomenon than political theorists have realized in recent years. Democracies tend to break down, deconsolidate and transform. Historically, this is not surprising, given that, for instance, the Athenian democracy lasted almost 200 years and then was ended by the Macedonian expansion. Also, the French, German and US democracies went through various phases, time and again coming close to a breakdown or actually collapsing, only to be revived by external influence (Przeworski 2019).

It is still difficult to determine when the breakdown happens and why democracies slide back towards autocracy. Nadia Urbinati (2014) argued that democracies have an innate tendency to become disfigured or to mutate. This goes both for new and old democracies and can have various outcomes. Such disfigurements or mutations might stop short of turning a democracy into an autocracy, but they might also transform it into a nondemocratic regime.

I posit that there are three modes of democratic backsliding. They give us a possible insight into how democracies might deform or transform in future, as today’s democracy might be quite different from the democracy of the future. These three modes of backsliding relate to three core dimensions of democracy: (1) the citizenry, (2) the institutions and (3) the ideology. Deformations of democracy are likely to occur within these three core dimensions, pointing to possible ways in which liberal democracy can come under pressure, deform or transform into something other than what we now understand by this term. I discuss the three deformations of liberal democracy: spectator democracy, captured democracy and totalitarian democracy, in each case in relation to the relevant core dimension of liberal democracy.

Spectator democracy

Spectator democracy relates to problematic changes in the citizenry, which in all classical and modern concepts of democracy is the building block of democracy. While Urbinati (2014) identifies three disfigurements of democracy – epistemic, populist and plebiscitary – I will focus in this section on the plebiscitary disfigurement, as it relates to the first dimension of democracy: the citizenry. Democracy cannot function without citizens, as it draws its primary legitimacy from citizens’ participation. However, authoritarian regimes also often claim popular support. This was not only the case with the communist regimes, which presented themselves as the embodiment of the will of the working people and usurped the political monopoly. Many other authoritarian regimes or authoritarian leaders revert to plebiscitary tools to claim their popular legitimacy. A typical example is Charles-Louis Napoléon Bonaparte, who won the French presidential elections in 1848, organized a coup d’état in 1851, enacted press censorship, suppressed opposition, proclaimed himself Napoleon III, emperor of the French, and then was confirmed as such in the 1852 nationwide plebiscite. Evidently, citizens can elect authoritarian leaders or support authoritarian policies and they have done so throughout history. Therefore, the ‘quality’ of citizens is a decisive factor with regard to the fragility of democracy.

For Urbinati (2014), the plebiscitary aspect of politics pertains to one of the key disfigurements of democracy: something has been happening to the citizenry in democracies, in particular through the radical expansion of visual mass media such as TV and internet. Citizens become spectators who make political choices through plebiscites on the popularity of politicians, rather than being fully fledged members of the citizenry, informing themselves, weighing up various options and acting responsibly. Spectators can still vote and they do, but citizenship seems to have given way to becoming a passive audience where watching politicians on TV (or reading their 280 characters on Twitter) becomes the key activity, rather than critically assessing political options and holding politicians accountable (Levinson 2011). The question of citizens’ quality and their competencies has been the subject of scholarly debates for some time (e.g. Gaventa 1995, Brennan 2017). For instance, Yasha Mounk (2018: 105) suggests in his widely discussed book that the current global crisis of democracy goes hand in hand with the decrease of citizens’ interest in democratic politics (and their growing support for nondemocratic regimes as well). This, however, is not a new insight, as a number of studies have been conducted on citizens’ passivity and how they envisage themselves in democratic politics.

The seminal study of John R. Hibbling and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse (2004) showed that the bulk of citizens in democracies are not only largely indifferent to the specifics of policy-making but also are averse to holding their governments accountable. Citizens want to control the government only under very specific circumstances when they believe that politicians might profit from their positions or even exploit them (Hibbing and Theiss-Morse 2004: 4). But in many other cases – Hibbing and Theiss-Morse argue – they simply do not care. This contradicts the participatory concepts of democracy, according to which citizens want to participate as much as possible but are hindered in the process by political elites or rigid institutions (e.g. Becker 1981, Barber 2003). Ted Becker (1981: 6) claimed 40 years ago that ‘people are eager to get involved in politics when they believe their decisions […] directly affect their futures’. However, Hibbing and Theiss-Morse refute this claim for today’s political reality and posit that participation is not the ultimate political goal and preference of citizens. Apparently, citizens just prefer the feeling that they can potentially control the government to conduct an appropriate level of political participation and involvement. The average citizen dislikes sustained public involvement but wants to have an illusion of control (Hibbing and Theiss-Morse 2004: 4).

But can liberal democracy function with only spectators and without citizens? With passive spectators engaged in plebiscites, democracy becomes disfigured. Spectators can easily be manipulated by the politics of insecurity and exclusionary identity politics, examples of which abound across the globe. Already in the 1990s (long before a reality TV celebrity became the US president) Thomas Mathiesen coined the concept of ‘the viewer society’ (Mathiesen 1997), a further disciplinary power mechanism of a mass-media society in which the panopticon concept enabling the few (government) to watch the many (society) is supplemented by that of the synopticon, whereby the many watch the few. Unlike the panopticon, the synopticon seduces people into watching, rather than coercing them. This changes the nature of democratic control and political accountability.

Jeffrey Edward Green (2010) viewed in spectator democracy a chance for a democratic revival. To Green, ‘ocular democracy’ is a legitimate and effective alternative to liberal democracy. He believed that spectators can effectively control the everyday performance of politicians, since leaders exposed to publicity are more likely to reveal the truth about their intentions. Green developed his concept prior to post-truth politics and Donald Trump’s ascent to power. With hindsight, however, ocular democracy tends to turn into a sphere of fake news, propaganda, conspiracy theories and straight lies, rather than a space in which spectators control their representatives. In fact, in a spectatorship there are new opportunities for politicians to get rid of constitutional controls. As Urbinati (2014: 174) argues, in such democracy leaders often seek direct contact with spectators, while undercutting the checks and balances that limit and separate power: ‘[Politicians] want also the people’s approval with a formal vote and do not disdain having a parliament. What they disdain is the check on their decision-making power by nonpolitical institutions, like a supreme court or a constitutional court.’

Captured democracy

Captured democracy relates to changes in the second dimension of liberal democracy – the institutions. Fukuyama (2014: 54) describes state capture (he calls it ‘repatrimonialization’) as ‘the capture of ostensibly impersonal state institutions by powerful elites’. This goes well beyond the simple clientelism that occurs in many democracies or politico-corporatist arrangements like in Austria, where two dominant parties have shared their control over key state-owned enterprises for decades. State capture is much more, as it subverts the very functioning of democratic institutions. The concept was first introduced in the analysis of oligarchs manipulating state institutions during the transition processes in Russia and Ukraine and included, for instance, the sale of parliamentary votes to private interests (Hellman et al. 2003). In the context of current democratic backsliding, state capture is the ‘hollowing out’ of state institutions, as economic rents or partisan power are systematically extracted from them (Grzymala-Busse 2008). State institutions cease to function as institutions of representative democracy exercising their controlling functions, since they are subverted by partisan and corporate interests. Scholarship identifies two model types of state capture: party state capture and corporate state capture, which represent two modes of dominance over state institutions (Innes 2014). Party state capture aims at monopolization of state institutions and their dominance by one party (or party alliance). It serves partisan gain, which is staying in power for as long as possible. This party monopolization includes, for instance, courts, the office of the general prosecutor and government agencies. Corporate state capture relates to changes in state institutions, as a result of which public power is exercised mainly for the private gain of financially motived actors.

State capture can be viewed as a feature of almost all cases of democratic backsliding, also in advanced democracies. The question is to what extent state capture occurs and how much it subverts the processes of democratic decision-making. The extent to which government institutions change becomes clear when authoritarian actors come to power and hollow out the institutions of liberal democracy. For instance, since the beginning of his presidency, Donald Trump has been using government resources to advance his private business interests and the interests of his family. Among others, he has compelled state employees and foreign leaders to stay in his hotels and resorts while charging them higher prices (e.g. Fahrenthold et al. 2020).

Abby Innes (2014: 88) clusters the CEE countries with regard to these two types of state capture. From this perspective, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria present cases of corporate state capture, whereas Hungary and Poland stand for party state capture. These are the dominating, rather than exclusive, modes of state capture. Party state capture does not exclude corporate state interests subverting political institutions in league with political interests. Parties often turn into vehicles for personal enrichment (Hungary), whereas corporate interests might form political parties participating in government (Czech Republic). The fact that Donald Trump promotes his business interests through government institutions does not prevent him from capturing government institutions to advance his political interests as well. As Freedom House stated in its 2019 report: ‘The [US] president has […] urged the Department of Justice to prosecute his political opponents and critics. He has used his pardon power to reward political and ideological allies and encourage targets of criminal investigations to refuse cooperation with the government’ (Freedom House 2020: 18).

Still, these two model types of state capture do not only follow different motivations related to the subversion of government institutions, they also cause different consequences. Corporate capture is likely to promote weakening or disabling policies, as it aims to suppress the activity of the government institutions in favour of corporate interests. The ‘state as a firm’ slogan of the Czech prime minister Andrej Babiš and his ANO Party is a typical example of this. In opposition to corporate state capture, a party state is likely to increase the activity of the state by intensifying policy output, as party preferences are immediately turned into policies (Sata and Karolewski 2020). The difference between party state capture and corporate state capture can also explain why the former is highly visible in the public arena, since the bulk of government policies are directed at radically changing the institutional set-up of the state, while coming close to or even embracing constitutional violations. In contrast, corporate state capture avoids public attention, as it operates through dubious networks of private economic and political interests that are kept away from the public eye.

Party state capture undercuts the independence of state institutions openly but justifies it with intensive propaganda, lies and manipulation via state-owned media. Corporate state capture opts for the secrecy of business deals, as it subverts state institutions by modifying them surreptitiously and informally in tune with oligarchic interests.

Despite the differences with regard to public visibility, both types of state capture do not necessarily differ in their impact on democratic backsliding, as they equally subvert and capture democracy. Still, democracy quality indices (e.g. Freedom House, the Bertelsmann Transformation Index) seem to have a problem measuring corporate state capture. This also applies to the European Union and the Council of Europe, which criticize democratic backsliding in Hungary and Poland but remain silent when it happens, for instance, in the Czech Republic. Unlike Hungary and Poland, state capture in the Czech Republic might lack a powerful nationalist push and visibility, but there are crucial similarities in the way power is seized and checks and balances challenged. While Hungary and Poland have applied a polarizing nationalist ideology to harness support, similar processes of democratic backsliding have occurred in the Czech Republic, only in the name of efficiency and modernization (Hanley and Vachudova 2018: 289).

Totalitarian democracy

In recent decades, there has been a political and scholarly consensus that liberal democracy includes independent institutions which prevent power abuse, the marginalization of minorities and tyranny of the majority (Krastev 2007). But as the seminal study by J.L. Talmon (1961) shows, democracy as an ideology can also espouse totalitarian ideas, since it does not have to imply individual rights and checks on excessive power. This brings me to the third dimension of democracy, where the ideology – next to the citizenry and the institutions – plays an essential role. Talmon argues that the totalitarian leanings of democratic ideology are part of Western political thought, rather than being imported from Eastern authoritarian traditions, and can be found in the European repertoire of 18th-century political ideas. Totalitarian democracy can be identified as a trend during the French Revolution – mainly in association with the Jacobins and even more with the revolutionary François-Noël Babeuf. However, it has experienced both ideological and political continuity since then, in particular with Marxism appealing to democracy as its most visible manifestation in the 20th century. In 1918, Vladimir Lenin stated famously in his pamphlet ‘The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky’ that ‘proletarian democracy is a million times more democratic than any bourgeois democracy’.

Talmon asserts that unlike the liberal understanding of democracy, the totalitarian approach to democracy thrives on ‘the assumption of a sole and exclusive truth in politics’ (Talmon 1961: 1–2) as well as the collectivist and conformist belonging of individuals to the state, rather than the state representing the people. ‘Nothing was left to stand between man and the State. The power of the State, unchecked by any intermediate agencies, became unlimited. This exclusive relationship between man and State implied conformity’ (Talmon 1961: 250). From this follows that, for instance, the rule of law is rejected by the proponents of totalitarian democracy, as politics is the domain of men rather than institutions constraining the power of the state. At the same time, democracy has to reflect the sole and unified will of the people, which needs to be defended against domestic and foreign enemies, often by radical means, as the Jacobin and Bolshevik terrors exemplify. At the ideological level, totalitarian democracy is sometimes difficult to differentiate from communist and fascist ideologies, which present themselves as an emanation of the authentic will of the people, embrace radical societal change and organize the bulk of their activities around combating the enemies of the people. In this sense, totalitarian democracy shares with other totalitarian ideologies certain features, even though it might not entail their genocidal inclinations.

Nevertheless, the current crisis of liberal democracy can also be associated with the return of totalitarian democracy – a deformation of the third dimension democracy, the ideology, which challenges the earlier liberal consensus. Anti-pluralist, conformist and anti-individualist features can be found in various versions of what we now tend to call populism. In Central and Eastern Europe there is one specific (but not the only) feature of totalitarian democracy that Mink and Neymayer (2013) call ‘memory games’, that is, policies and discourses dealing with a country’s past. They are framed not only to delegitimize political opponents for short-term electoral gain, as happens with populism; memory games are also about identity change. They serve a long-term political agenda, since they are powerful ideological instruments legitimizing a radical restructuring of the state and in many cases the weakening of liberal-democratic institutions such as those that guard the separation of powers.

For instance, after 2015 the Polish government extensively embraced the so-called ‘decommunization’ policies (Horne 2009 and 2017) and advanced a ‘retooling’ of historical events including the Second World War in order to redefine the real heroes and the real traitors. Far from being interested in a precise historical discourse, such memory games appear to serve the ideological purpose of framing political opponents as traitors and enemies of the state and the supporters of the ruling party as the victims and progeny of the heroes. From this perspective, memory games represent aspects of totalitarian democracy rather than the politics of commemoration, as the latter are often about shared ways of coping with a painful past and bringing about reconciliation (Etkind 2013). In contrast, totalitarian memory games are based on conflicted memory that becomes reactivated and used politically to stigmatize and discredit political opponents as well as to construct exclusionary identities based on a total division between the true people and the traitors. As Mink and Neymayer (2013: 1) maintain, memory games aim to reopen ‘historical cases’ and change the ‘verdict’. At first glance, it might appear as an instance of transitional justice (Elster 2004; Lawther et al. 2017). However, memory games convey a binary image of society consisting of good ordinary people (who were victims and silent heroes of communism) and the (morally and politically) corrupt elite of former communists and liberal parts of the anti-communist opposition who were in league during the transformation process of the 1990s. Certainly, the purpose of memory games is not to be historically precise or to reflect the real preferences of a society. Talmon quotes François-Noël Babeuf as follows: ‘[…] true lawgivers ought not to subordinate their laws to the corrupt morality of the people for whom they are destined, but they ought to be able to restore the morality of the people by their laws, first to base these on justice and virtue, and then to surmount every difficulty in order to impose them upon men’ (Talmon 1961: 211).

This ideology of totalitarian democracy can be found in various versions of democratic backsliding across the globe. Trump’s alternative facts, his rants against imagined enemies as well as Johnson’s anti-EU identity-making based on lies are very much in tune with the ideas of totalitarian democracy. Totalitarian democracy posits that the people do not really know ‘what to will’ and need to be told what their real identity is. As Talmon points out, it implies two things: ‘[…] the sense of a provisional state of war against the anti-popular elements, and an effort at re-educating the masses till men were able to will freely and willingly their true will’ (Talmon 1961: 251). As a result, the ideology of totalitarian democracy transforms the idea of popular sovereignty into despotic rule.


Democratic backsliding occurs as we speak. We are still uncertain about its real causes, as hypotheses abound (e.g. Przeworski 2019, Norris and Inglehart 2019, Albertus and Menaldo 2018). In this article, I have argued that liberal democracy is a structurally fragile political system that has come under pressure in recent years. I have claimed that in analysing democratic backsliding we need to consider its three modes, which relate to three core dimensions of democracy: (1) the citizenry, (2) the institutions and (3) the ideology.

For liberal democracy to survive, all three core dimensions need to be intact, otherwise democracy is deformed or is transformed into a nondemocratic regime. The deformation of liberal democracy can assume the form of spectator democracy (citizenry), captured democracy (institutions) and totalitarian democracy (ideology).

Spectator democracy relates to changes in the citizenry, as citizens become spectators that make political choices through plebiscites on the popularity of politicians. They cease to be fully fledged members of the citizenry, no longer weighing up various political options and keeping themselves informed. Spectators can vote, but their main political activity consists of watching politicians on TV or reading their tweets. The binary yes or no of plebiscites reduces the role of citizens to an audience that gives ‘likes’ or withholds them. At the same time, leaders often seek direct contact with the spectators, as it allows them to marginalize institutions and undercut power limitations.

Captured democracy relates to the hollowing out of state institutions, as economic rents or partisan power are extracted from them. State institutions cease to function as institutions of representative democracy exercising their controlling functions as a result of their subversion by partisan and corporate interests. We have identified two models of state capture: party state capture and corporate state capture, which represent two modes of dominance over state institutions. Party state capture aims at the monopolization of state institutions and their dominance by one party. Corporate state capture opts for the secrecy of business deals, subverting state institutions by stealth in tune with corporate interests.

Totalitarian democracy is based on an ideology rejecting individual rights and checks on excessive power in democracy. It includes a totalitarian understanding of popular sovereignty, according to which democracy has to reflect the sole and unified will of the people. However, this will needs to be forged to counter domestic and foreign enemies. One of the tools of totalitarian democracy in CEE is the tactic of memory games, that is, policies and discourses dealing with a country’s past. Memory games are powerful ideological instruments for legitimizing a radical restructuring of the state and in many cases weakening liberal-democratic institutions such as those that safeguard the separation of powers. Totalitarian memory games are based on conflicted memory that becomes reactivated and used politically to stigmatize and discredit political opponents as well as to construct exclusionary identities based on the division between the true people and the traitors.

Democratic backsliding can occur in all three dimensions of democracy, as it affects the citizenry, the institutions and the ideology. They all are subject to deformation to varying degrees. However, should democratic backsliding progress considerably in all three dimensions, liberal democracy transforms into a nondemocratic regime and democratic rule becomes despotic power.


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