Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Saturday 30 June 2018

Could the US become a democratic dictatorship?

China calls itself a democratic dictatorship, so it looks like the title’s question is a very odd one to ask. You can find various indices that measure countries on a line with dictatorship at one end and democracy at the other. So how can a country actually be (rather than call itself) a democratic dictatorship?

Consider Hungary. Its Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has pledged to create an illiberal state like Russia or China. Perhaps as a result, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker at a 2015 EU summit dispensed with diplomatic protocol to greet Orbán with a "Hello, dictator." To further this aim he has gone about controlling the media and courts either directly or through placement of allies, with complete success. Yet he and his party remain popular in part because of the lethal combination of extreme nationalism, scaremongering about migrants and antagonism against Muslims and Jews. In addition NGOs have been attacked, which has led to legal proceedings by the European Commission. A host of public bodies like its fiscal council, the central bank, and the national elections commission, have been abolished or their independence limited.

Yet Hungary is still a democracy in the sense of having reasonably genuine elections. As the opposition is fragmented there is little need to resort to the kind of tactics used in other democracies, such as Turkey. When occasionally the opposition does win a local election, Orbán unleashes the full might of his nationalist, enemies at the door, enemies within narrative at them. With almost total control of the media and civil institutions, he can make life very difficult for the opposition. He won his last election with ease. It is an effective model that could survive for many years.

So would it be reasonable to call Hungary a democratic dictatorship [1], or is that just a contradiction in terms? Hungary is no longer a pluralist democracy, by which I mean there are no independent centres of power. But there are still elections, which are not a complete fiction. But you cannot call elections where one side completely controls the media fair. The acid test would be if a unified opposition under a credible leader ever did appear whether he would ever be allowed to win.


“American media should study Hungary’s record,” Newt Gingrich declared after a visit to Hungary. He was talking about the 13ft-high razor-wire border fence that Orban erected against the influx of “foreigners”, but few can doubt that Trump would like to emulate Orbán in other ways. He already has what is effectively a state TV station, the widely watched Fox News. His attacks on the independent press are relentless. He does not yet control the media in the same way as Orbán does, but he gets his apologists on CNN and other stations as these stations try and keep ‘balanced’.

Having Fox on his side is crucial in his ability to control the Republicans in Congress. Speak out and you risk losing your seat in a primary election against a Trump loyalist. The few who do speak out tend to be retiring from politics. The democratic norms of politics that have stood for decades in the US have gone out of the window. He breaks the norms because he knows no one will stop him. Other countries that are able to have long recognised that the way to get foreign policy favours is to grant some business perk to him or his family. (We see similar corruption in Hungary.)

He may not control the courts to the extent that Orban does, but he is not miles away. Soon he, or at least his party, will get a majority on the supreme court. He has pardoned whoever he likes at his whim. The Republican party have retained a majority in the House in part because of gerrymandering, and the supreme court allows this to continue. Orbán fights a long but successful battle to close down a university in Budapest, while Trump’s climate change denying appointees try to close down scientific research in the US. (On the latter, see this excellent essay from Carl Zimmer HT Tim Harford.)

Trump makes no secret of his admiration for dictators. In a way it does not really matter if Putin has ‘something on him’ in the form of a tape of whatever, as Trump admires Putin anyway as a strong man leading his nation. His natural enemy is Europe: hence his attack on Merkel and his constant and incorrect references to rising crime as a cost of immigration in Europe.


Another way of looking at this is to consider human rights and their suppression. Hungary has just passed a law making it illegal to provide legal help to undocumented immigrants seeking asylum, as part of a set of bills incredibly called ‘Stop Soros’. George Soros has become Orbán’s bogeyman. Trump separates the children of illegal immigrants from their families. As Fintan O’Toole says, this has not been a ‘mistake’ by Trump, but a trial run
“to undermine moral boundaries, inure people to the acceptance of acts of extreme cruelty. Like hounds, people have to be blooded. They have to be given the taste for savagery. Fascism does this by building up the sense of threat from a despised out-group”

Or to deal with an infestation of immigrants, as Trump said recently. And O’Toole thinks the experiment was a success: the base were happy, and Fox news talked about child actors pretending to cry. Italy’s new interior minister calls for a “mass cleansing” of migrants from “entire parts” of the country, street by street.


Arguments that democracy is still safe in the US seem rather naive. A Washington Post piece from just a year ago says there are four barriers to the US becoming a ‘populist’ state. The four are the independence of congress and the judiciary, being restrained by the Republican party, limited patronage powers, and the absence of any crisis. The first two have not done too well and the last two do not seem to matter. Tyler Cowan thinks the US government is just too large and complex for one man or group to take control. He is correct insofar as Mueller has been allowed to continue. But there is little chance of Trump being impeached by this Republican party. Whether Mueller is allowed to continue depends a lot on whether he goes after Trump family members, and Mueller probably understands that. The important point is that Trump does not need to control every part of government to control what happens.

Trump certainly acts like a dictator would act. The barriers to Trump becoming an Orbán type figure are that his supporters do not control most of the media, and he faces a single and organised opposition party. These are the two threads by which this pluralist democracy hangs. You might think it an exaggeration to call these two only threads, and I hope we will see that it is in the midterms, but there are worrying signs in the US and elsewhere that popular support for democracy is falling, as documented by Yascha Mounk in a book reviewed here. The fact that Trump could be elected and then supported in the first place by one of the two main political parties in the US is a clear sign that all is not well with US democracy. Those, like Paul Krugman, who have for a long time appeared ‘shrill’ about what was happening to the Republican party have been fully justified in their fears.

The rise of the far right and democratic dictatorships in the West have happen before, of course. It is no coincidence that in the 1930s and now economies were scarred by deep recessions followed by bad policy. That may be important in part because it fosters intolerance of ‘outsiders’, particularly immigrants, which parties of both the far right and unfortunately the centre right have exploited. (In the UK, and also in Hungary and Poland, the EU has also become an outsider.) Since perhaps Nixon, the Republicans have exploited race: more explicitly and vigorously as time has gone on. Parties of the right do this in part because their backers want to avoid redistribution being used as a way of mitigating the impact of bad economic times, and focusing on social conservatism can capture voters who would otherwise vote left on economic issues. I have described both the bad policies (austerity and fears about immigration) as forms of deceit (using debt as a cover for reducing the state and setting targets for immigration without intending to meet them), and collectively as neoliberal overreach.


If the demonisation of immigrants is the common thread in these moves towards democratic dictatorships, then it becomes important to resist the early stages of this process. One lesson of the experience across countries is that popular concern is not primarily about numbers. It is not the reaction of citizens worried about being overwhelmed by immigrants. Less than 5% of the population in Hungary are immigrants: 3% if you count only immigrants from outside the EU. Nor is it true that attitudes to immigration are always going to be hostile. This year for the first time in a decade more people in the US think legal immigration should be increased rather than decreased.

But this idea is difficult to get across. In the UK for example it is true that rising concern about immigration follows rising numbers, but it follows increased newspaper coverage even more closely, and which newspapers people read is the best explainer of immigration concern. [2] With a few important exceptions the concern is generally about immigration ‘in the country’ rather than locally. In the UK stoking fear about immigration may not as yet have created the conditions for a democratic dictatorship, but it has spawned a ‘hostile environment’ policy that led people to be locked up and deported illegally, and of course it was critical in forcing the country make one of its biggest policy errors for a generation.

I have heard people say that we have to have Brexit because otherwise half the country will feel betrayed (as opposed to the other half already feeling that). But in reality the opposite is true. Xenophobia becomes strong when economic conditions are bad, and Brexit will make them worse. Brexiters are going to feel betrayed anyway when they realised they have been sold snake oil. If we are to avoid a self reinforcing cycle of economic and political decline, we must give priority to the economy and stop scapegoating immigrants for each policy failure.

[1] Whether the term dictatorship is more accurate than one party state or the term plutocracy that I have used before is interesting, but not I think critical for the discussion here.

[2] Let me try and be clear what I mean by immigration concern not being about numbers. Of course large numbers of immigrants make it easier for newspapers to talk about ‘floods’ and ‘being overwhelmed’. The mistake is to think that if only the numbers could be reduced somewhat, the concern would disappear. It will not because it is not in the interests of those whipping up concern for that to happen. Any attempt to appease the concern by, for example, vetting patients in A&E only gives credibility to the idea that immigrants are responsible for reduced access to the NHS: in reality the opposite is true.


  1. Trump not only acts like a dictator I believe that is his leaning; the CEO, "You're fired!" mentality.

    However you do have the concept of the "Deep State". Eisenhower warned about the Military Industrial Complex and the notion of the Deep State is an extension of that. In my view the notion of a Deep State where society is controlled by a complex web of business, politics, the rich and academia is somewhat more compelling than the dictatorship idea; in any case Trump has the air of Mussolini rather than Hitler and his shelf life may be shorter.

    1. As my footnote [1] said, I hedged my bets between dictatorship and plutocracy. But at the moment it does not look like plutocracy as in government by the representatives of any kind of complex. At best it is that this complex tolerates what Trump does until it gets too much. With his antics on trade we may find out more quite soon.

    2. Robert apart from the usual suspects for the 'deep state', there are the billionaire funded 'think tanks' such as the Heritage Foundation who claim to have written two thirds of Trump's legislation. There is a site where one can check this!

    3. As usual your analysis makes a lot of sense. Another two part term I often read is "America is not a democracy: it is a constitutional republic." This belief is firmly held but I have never been able to extract a clear definition.

    4. One of the major problems with a country as large and complex as the US is that radical change has to pass many hoops.

      Many years ago I read a study by the Brookings Institution on the Medicare system and the final legislation only came at the very end of a long period of failure lobbying, gerrymandering by such as the AMA. Effectively what was enacted under LBJ was not an LBJ initiative; he was just at the point where a compromise was possible.

      The notion of the Deep State is not plutocracy; it is a much more complex web involving business (not just the rich); the military; CIA; media etc; however I agree with you that Trump is tolerated by the Deep State until he goes overboard.

    5. It's safe to say Trump does not control Fox News but they cooperate for mutual benefit. Who does Fox represent? The 1%. Since Trump needs Fox for support, that's the complex controlling Trump.

      I thought if there's one thing Trump gets through Congress, it'll be the big tax cut. He got that.

  2. Hi, I suggest calling the US a "capitalist democracy".

    Since the 1980's, democracy in the US seems to benefit the wealthy, especially the top 1%. There was a time when GDP growth used to be skewed towards lower-income groups, but since the 1980's I understand GDP growth is skewed towards the higher-income groups, with the low-income experiencing stagnation or even a reversal.

    According to the recent UN human rights report on poverty in the US, even the Obama administration did nothing to address poverty in the United States. President Obama seemed helpless in addressing gun violence, he thought it best not to prosecute CIA officials for torture, he left Guantanamo Bay operating, and it seems he even imprisoned illegal migrants.

    While he did have success with reforming healthcare, climate change, and regulating banks, these successes may prove temporary.

    That said, the Women's March and the vigorous criticism by civil society shows democracy in the US is still strong! Democracy is not just about elections; it is about public scrutiny and reasoned debate.

    Just my perspective!

    1. I wouldn't agree that Obama's administration did nothing to address poverty. The passage of the PPACA was a huge, huge deal for many of the poorest in the US, as the Medicaid expansion made guaranteed coverage for most of them. Of course, it did nothing to actually reduce poverty, but it definitely was a huge improvement, even though Republicans, with the aid of Justice Roberts, managed to sabotage much of the bill.

      That said, it shouldn't be much of a surprise that not much of substance got done while Obama was in office. The Democratic party only had control of the House and a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate for a single year (and even that filibuster-proof majority was razor-thin, including a number of conservative Democrats who extracted huge concessions in legislation that was passed). After 2009, the Republicans successfully blocked most Democratic-proposed legislation, and then after the 2010 elections when the Republicans retook the House, essentially all Democratic-proposed legislation stopped because of the Republican policy of refusing to allow any legislation to the floor which isn't supported by a majority of Republicans (making compromise between the parties with a Democratic president effectively impossible).

      My bet is we would have seen many more important reforms in the following years if either the Republicans had not adopted a scorched-Earth obstructionism strategy, or if the Democrats had not lost control of Congress.

  3. Krugman used the work of Rick Perlstein to describe Conservatism, and he speaks of the Goldwater-Nixon-Reagan movement (Corey Robin would add William F Buckley at the start of things).

    I use that Arnoldian triplet form for the UK and speak of the Powell-Joseph-Thatcher movement.

    Everything in the US and the UK in 2018 can be explained using those histories. We are not seeing anything new here.

    And we do not need the terms fascism or populism.

    These are Conservative movements.

  4. So many people are asking this same question today in various iterations - a question absolutely impossible just a couple of months ago - that it seems to become not so much a question of "could" but "why?". Why is it all happening? Why I go in London with my family to watch Paddington and see in a very large fast food joint near the cinema Russia Today blaring from dozens of screens? Why people prefer to trust all the lies about immigration and about many other things they are so readily served? Why so many people wilfully choose lies? Isn't it a sign of great despair among millions in the US and the UK? And if it is, why such despair? Numerically, these both countries (but also Hungary or Poland, or even Russia for that matter) couldn't be better off; probably, they now enjoy their absolute best in history. Dictatorship is not a luxury, like democracy - it's an absolute necessity; it's a sign of very poor, continuously insufficient performance. What brings such necessity about in so many places and among so many people? The US didn't reject Trump; the UK didn't reject Farage; both seem to need such people (or their incarnates) in power. Why? What for? To make political extremes not unthinkable but outright possible? (Like Putin and Trump threatening Europe with war. This was also unthinkable just half a year ago.) Why so many people who seemingly live high off the hog these days openly discuss such suicidal political moves, which only recently were the privilege of extreme, fringe groups like ISIS? What's wrong with all this prosperity if it generates such questions?

  5. Just as there is a coalition of the rich with racists in the republican party, there is a coalition in the democrats of those who are economically right leaning but vote left because of civil liberty issues. The support for lowering taxes and reducing the state is pretty strong among many who vote for democrats. They vote left only because they don't want to support racists and misogynists, not because they care more about socialism, redistributing wealth, or uplifting the poor.

  6. "Brexiters are going to feel betrayed anyway when they realised they have been sold snake oil"

    If recent American history is anything to go by, your Brexiters will never, never realize this. Certainly the Republicans haven't learned it in the last 40 years; they've been voting for the same snake oil since Reagan.

  7. > The barriers to Trump ... are that his supporters do not control most of
    > the media, and he faces a single and organised opposition party. These
    > are the two threads by which this pluralist democracy hangs.

    It strikes me there is a third thread: an independent judiciary. Trump's Muslim ban got a lot of judicial resistance; he had to remove explicit religious tests. Even as he appoints more federal judges, I do not see why they would be his lapdogs. More accommodating than RBG, sure --- but there's still a big distance from John Roberts to a kangaroo court.


  8. Regarding one of your two threads by which US democracy hangs: Sinclair Media now owns 70% of all local tv stations. Unlike Fox, it is not blatant, but softly pushes the Trump line in the local news. Trump’s FCC approved this takeover. So it’s worse than you think.

  9. The USA is a democracy, Hungary is a democracy, Russia is a democracy. They just happen to pander to the illiberal instincts of the masses. The real war is against liberalism, as it's always been for decades now.

  10. My thinking is it all depends upon the next two election cycles.

    Right now in the US, many aspects of voting rights are under attack. A recent Supreme Court decision struck down major portions of the Voting Rights Act, paving the way for many more laws design to suppress non-white votes (e.g. voter ID laws). As the US as a whole is getting more diverse with time, the white nationalist political strategy of the Republican Party cannot survive long, not unless they suppress non-white votes. A Republican-friendly Supreme Court will make this much easier, but it will take time to overturn current systems enough to swing elections by more than a percent or two. Republicans need to be removed from power before that can happen.

    One fortunate thing is that special elections over the last year or so have swung a median of 20-25 points in Democrats' favor, I believe in large part because even though the extreme white nationalist politics of Trump's Republican party are popular among most of their voter base, there's a large chunk that are made very uncomfortable by it (while at the same time energizing Democratic voters). The hard pivot against Latinx people is especially damaging to the Republican party's chances moving forward: Latinx people have historically been split between the parties, and are a growing sector of the electorate.

    If the Republican party can retain power through the next two election cycles, they will have enough time to completely reshape the courts and the election system to ensure victory for decades to come. If they can be kicked out of power now, it will be almost impossible for their white nationalist political strategy to win them back the Federal government (a strategy which they can't abandon because of their base). I'm hoping that the party itself is eliminated, and the Democratic party splits in two, though it's possible the Republican party will reform itself internally and pivot to an entirely different political strategy after being locked out of the Federal government for long enough.

  11. Maybe China is the last relevant state according the idea of Westphalia. "All" the rest are just states as instrument of those capable of maneuvering them.

    What we see is people stealing and perpetuate themselves in power so the justice do not go after them.

    Revolutions happen on those contexts.

    All of the sudden... booommm

  12. Oh SImon. You retweeted a guy who said "Very relevant now that Trump has the chance to rig the Supreme Court to his own favour."

    Appointing Supreme Court justices is not rigging. The Constitution gives him that right and the Congress the right to confirm or fail to confirm them.

  13. A host of public bodies like its fiscal council, the central bank, and the national elections commission, have been abolished or their independence limited.

    The idea that a central Bank is autonomous or independent is just wishful thinking, people are appointed not elected and in any case operates under the guise of whatever ideology is predominant.

    We musn't assume that just because Trump is president that he has the support of the majority of Americans. It doesn't pass people by in his own country what a fool the man is and that his policies are patently working against people generally.

    There is change afoot in America and it is rocking the establishment.


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