There was a time, not so long ago, when the “smart people” believed that we’d moved past history, that liberal democracies were destined to spread across the planet, that we lived in a unipolar world with the United States as the benevolent hegemon, spreading the fruits of globalism far and wide. 

The New Despotism
by John Keane
Harvard University Press, 206 pp.

Now liberal democracies are in retreat, damaged from within by racial supremacists and authoritarian demagogues, and challenged on the world stage by autocrats, dictators, strongmen, and murderous kings. The Chinese Communist Party leads the world’s rising superpower while countries that threw off Soviet Communism have embraced tyrants, from Budapest to Moscow. Three decades after the end of the Cold War, Western democracy hasn’t won over the world, its opponents have. Its survival even in the United States and United Kingdom is no longer assured.

Many writers, myself included, have asked how we got here and how the liberal democratic dream—to approach as near to universal freedom as possible via power sharing, representative government, and respect for civil liberties—might be saved. An important aspect of this is to understand the enemy, and scholars have identified it in different ways. Twenty-three years ago, Fareed Zakaria warned of the rise of illiberal democracies, countries where the public elects and supports movements that promise to trample the rights of unpopular political, ethnic, or religious minorities, as well as the constitutional limits on their own power. Months before Donald Trump was elected to the White House, the Princeton political scientist Jan-Werner Müller created a taxonomy of what he called “populists,” the illiberal forces that claim that “only some of the people are really the people,” and that traitorous elites have betrayed those real Hungarians, Germans, Americans, Turks, and Britons. Now John Keane, professor of politics at the University of Sydney and the WZB Berlin Social Science Center, has taken up the baton with a more dire and sweeping assessment. Today’s authoritarians, he argues, will prove more durable than the dictatorships that preceded them because they are backed by a broad, genuinely supportive middle-class base. This, in turn, makes them much more formidable competitors to liberal states. And we’re sleepwalking in the face of their dangers. “Dare to imagine that in the end most people fail to realize they are being marched inch by inch toward the scaffold,” he counsels. Despotism, he warns, could be the future of democracy if people don’t wake up and confront the threat.

Keane doesn’t use the term despotism by accident. He dedicates an entire chapter to argue for the reintroduction of this now archaic word, usually understood to mean absolute rule by a single individual. Although this is not at all how he describes the “new despotisms”—more on that in a moment—he believes the situation is too dire for more anodyne terms like hybrid regimes, authoritarianism, or autocracy; something with more shock value is in order. “The word ‘despotism’ still has a powerful ethical sting in its tail,” he explains. “Its practical effect is to underscore the universal dangers of arbitrary power.” 

These regimes—the “new despotisms” of the book’s title—are eclectic, ranging from China’s one-party capitalism and Viktor Orbán’s now literally dictatorial regime in Hungary to the Saudi monarchy, Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and semi-theocratic Iran. Indeed, at one point or another in the text, Keane includes Belarus, the Central Asian former Soviet republics, the United Arab Emirates, Cambodia, and Singapore. All these regimes have essential traits in common, he argues, characteristics that make them more resilient and dangerous than the tinpot dictatorships and totalitarian states that came before. They are “pseudo-democratic” governments “led by rulers skilled in the arts of manipulating and meddling with people’s lives, marshalling their support, and winning their conformity.” Rather than creating a barracked society ruled by fear, like East Germany or Nicolae Ceaușescu’s Romania, they are genuinely supported by a wide swath of the middle class, who have been persuaded to trade civil liberties for peace, quiet, and comfort. They are “earthquake proof,” having charmed and seduced the majority of their citizenry into tolerating or even cheering on the repression of the rest. 

New despotisms, he writes, are “top-down pyramids of power” crowned by the despots themselves, as well as wealthy government officials and business leaders who work together to channel the nation’s wealth into their families’ bank accounts. A CT scan of these societies would reveal “contacts, bargaining, deals, kickbacks, favors, and gifts both of money and in kind” spreading out beneath them, like roots sustaining and supporting a flowering plant. Courts, government agencies, legislators, universities, and private businesses are all captured in these networks, giving huge numbers of people a stake in the regime. The state is oiled by patronage systems extending throughout society.

Some people refuse to be co-opted and are subjected to different treatment. Members of the ruling class use the law to defeat the rule of law, protecting themselves from accountability while criminalizing their opponents’ activities. They use the media—and social media mobs—to harass and intimidate dissenters. They have adversaries demoted or fired. They can deploy thugs to beat journalists, political candidates, or entrepreneurs whose compliance cannot be bought. Or they have them arrested on trumped-up charges. Not a few simply disappear. Casualties include the Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov (assassinated in broad daylight in view of the Kremlin) and the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Together they represent what Keane calls “a fundamental challenge to power-sharing democracy as we have known and experienced it,” one unlike anything seen since the 1930s. That the pace of their conquest is slower has served to lull those still living in liberal democracies into a false sense of security, at least until the 2016 election placed the White House in the hands of a man with many of the characteristics of Keane’s new despots.

The New Despotism is right that these autocracies are an existential threat to democracy. But it’s on weaker footing in its assertion that these regimes are, in Keane’s words, “something new under the sun.” He points out that these governments belie the notion that capitalism and power-sharing democracy are closely linked, embracing one and not the other, but so too did the antebellum, Confederate, and post-Reconstruction American Souths, where huge numbers of people were formally or effectively denied citizenship and dissenters were eliminated by death squads. He describes as novel the pervasive patronage networks that infiltrate the new despotisms from top to bottom, mixing “formal rules and informal practices” and enabling “people to get their hands on goods and services that are needed or in short supply.” Yet this precisely describes life in Ceaușescu’s Romania, an old-school totalitarian state if there ever was one. Keane’s description of the “organized meshwork of bribery and extortion run by money” sounds very much like life in a great many authoritarian states in the late 20th century. That these regimes claim to rule for “the people” when they’re really empowering themselves is something they share with the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, Mao’s China, and Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. 

Indeed, if you survey the book for regimes Keane specifically does not think are “new despotisms,” the main quality they share is that they are no longer in power today. He cites Mussolini’s Italy, Pinochet’s Chile, Trujillo’s Dominican Republic, and “twentieth-century African and Latin American dictatorships” as not belonging to his category. But there’s not a word one way or the other about today’s Cuba, Venezuela, or any of the many unfree regimes in sub-Saharan Africa. The only present-day regime that’s explicitly excluded is North Korea. This lack of clarity leaves readers wondering if the main requirement of Keane’s “new despotisms” is that they be active authoritarian countries on the Eurasian landmass.

It’s also not entirely clear that these regimes, for all their structural advantages, will outlast their cruder predecessors. The Soviet Union lasted for seven decades—a pretty long run—and North Korea is still going strong (and increasing its threat capabilities on the world stage) 72 years after its creation. Many of the world’s supposedly resilient liberal democracies, like Spain, are younger than either of them. The new despotism may simply be old wine more attractively bottled. 

But that doesn’t make it any less frightening. It has clearly been imported and quaffed here at home, for example. Indeed, I would argue that’s where its greatest danger could lie. Patronage networks, crony capitalism flaunted by the ruling family, demagogic invocations of “real” members of the nation, the use of media to intimidate opponents, an erosion of democratic norms and the rule of law: It’s all happening in America, much as it played out in Hungary earlier in this decade. 

For the United States, I believe the crisis is even deeper than for Hungary in that our national survival is at stake too. Support for the illiberal, ethno-nationalist authoritarianism that is Trumpism varies greatly by region, and the president’s abdication of duty in the face of the ongoing pandemic is leaving states and regions to fend for themselves. Hungarians, citizens of the only liberal democracy to have thus far succumbed to the newfangled despotism, can at least count on the survival of their relatively unified polity. They have a chance to one day topple Orbán in the streets or at the ballot box, just as they sent the Communists packing decades ago. 

The U.S., by contrast, has many sharp, long-standing cultural differences demarcated by geography. We’re much more like Yugoslavia than we realize. If we lurch further toward despotism, our federation may not survive.

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Colin Woodard is the author of six books, including Union: The Struggle to Forge the Story of United States Nationhood. He is the director of the Nationhood Lab at Salve Regina University’s Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy.