Is populist authoritarianism the ‘new normal’?


Observing the outcome of elections around the globe is a sobering pastime. Simply put, you would see a trend of anti-democratic, authoritarian governments being installed. No matter what metric you use, the data comes to the same conclusion. According to the University of Birmingham, less than 5% of the world’s population will be living in a full democracy by 2026. The WFD (Westminster Foundation for Democracy), funded by the governmental FCO department, issued a report last year detailing how even nations that our government pledged to send asylum seekers to, in Rwanda, are “not free” and that President Paul Kagame’s regime is “very good at pretending to be progressive”. It is no surprise then that authoritarian ideas seem to be the new normal outside the microcosm of Western democracy. To explain this, we must start with China’s introduction to the global stage with its ‘opening up’ policies.

Modern China embraces President Xi Jingping as the benefactor of the supremacy of classical Chinese thought, and China’s uniqueness as a secular global superpower.

In December 1978, Deng Xiaoping introduced a series of groundbreaking economic reforms to the Eleventh Central Committee of the Communist Party. The concept of ‘opening up’ and leading a ‘socialist market economy’ that hoped to unlock a ‘Xiaokang’ society for all of China was adopted, prefacing what would become modern China. Previously, it had struggled on with an underperforming economy marred by state ownership and central planning, per Maoist theory. In fact, from 1950 to 1973, its economy ranked in the middle of other Asian states with growth of 2.9% per year. During this period, Confucian ideas were abandoned by Chairman Mao and the CCP with an ironic belief that they embodied the static nature of Chinese society.

However, the modern Chinese state has experienced an amalgamation of several competing ideas, including that of the previously shunned Confucianism. Modern China embraces President Xi Jingping as the benefactor of the supremacy of classical Chinese thought, and China’s uniqueness as a secular global superpower. The humanistic foundations of the ideology — that human endeavour was sacred — were capitalised on to promote the Xiaokang society (“the moderately prosperous society”), which emphasised a successful middle class. It implied that it is the party that leads the nation along this distinctly Chinese path which bridges past tradition and a future utopia. Mr Xi consistently references this and has cemented his role as its patron by enshrining ‘Xi Jingping thought’ in law as the new doctrine for Chinese society, just as Mao coined ‘Mao thought’. 

What is the relevance of all of this to a potential authoritarian resurgence globally? Whilst China’s history is specific to their region and culture, the assertion of a nation’s ‘special path’ and the need for a strong leader to lead them down it is not a new idea. The Nazi regime promoted Germany’s own ‘special path’ and that emergency action needed to be taken against the ‘international Jewish conspiracy’ to keep that hope alive. By providing an explanation as to why this prophecy hasn’t been fulfilled and framing your own ideology as the key to unlock the nation’s potential, you are then able to declare opponents of your movement as enemies of the state and traitors to the nation.

Project 2025 … is essentially the Republican’s version of Xi Jinping thought

It is in the nature of both the populist and the revolutionary to declare that the usual processes of achieving power can be put aside and the playbook must be ripped up in these emergency circumstances. Thus, the authoritarian doctrine of Xi Jingping — which is so intrinsically linked to his cult of personality — is framed as the only way that China can achieve its potential. Donald Trump’s populism echoes this; Project 2025 — a collection of policy proposals aimed at reshaping the executive branch of the US government — is essentially the Republican’s version of Xi Jingping thought. An ideologically driven set of reforms that declares special action must be taken to enshrine conservative thought, as the ‘deep state’, Antifa, and the cabal of Liberal elites, are purportedly destroying America’s future. 

At Sir Peter Westmacott’s Durham Union address, I asked him about the potential of authoritarianism to capitalise on the ‘strong man’ epidemic we are seeing. He answered by saying that certainly in the US — it is more likely than not that if Mr Trump wins the election — the American political system will veer towards populism. Whilst in the UK, we don’t have a candidate of the same ilk as Donald Trump. The likelihood of a Labour victory may provide the political right with a common enemy for the Tories and Reform UK to rally against, uniting populist ideals with the Conservative brand. Mr Trump’s possible re-election and the internet’s growing tendency to distill complex problems — such as immigration — to simplistic buzzword solutions, will only add more to fuel this fire.  

Increasing authoritarianism could be put to the ‘temporal fallacy’ — seeing different processes as linked by a common factor purely because they are happening at the same time

Arguably, the perception of increasing authoritarianism could be put to the ‘temporal fallacy’ — seeing different processes as linked by a common factor purely because they are happening at the same time. In the US, political apathy, concerns for living standards, and misinformation leave the door open for populism. The lack of democracies in sub-Saharan Africa before the backsliding trend means that you cannot make a case for global authoritarianism, as existing regimes remaining from the power vacuum left by rushed decolonisation continue to operate independently of global trends. However, they would only be encouraged by a permissive United States.

Very recently, Niger repudiated a deal that has allowed US military bases to remain operative on its soil, following Wagner group intervention that offered their services to the military junta. The Republican’s isolationist mindset will permit this Russian relationship in the Sahel to flourish, whilst the American global policeman retreats to Washington. 2024 is the year of elections, and it is arguably the year when we discover whether Francis Fukuyama needs to revise his ‘end of history claim’ — liberal democracy vs populist authoritarianism is the new dialectic. 

Image: Christophe Meneboeuf via Wikimedia Commons


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