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Democratic Decline in the United States: What Can We Learn from Middle-Income Backsliding?

  • Robert R. Kaufman and Stephan Haggard


We explore what can be learned from authoritarian backsliding in middle income countries about the threats to American democracy posed by the election of Donald Trump. We develop some causal hunches and an empirical baseline by considering the rise of elected autocrats in Venezuela, Turkey, and Hungary. Although American political institutions may forestall a reversion to electoral autocracy, we see some striking parallels in terms of democratic dysfunction, polarization, the nature of autocratic appeals, and the processes through which autocratic incumbents sought to exploit elected office. These processes could generate a diminished democratic system in which electoral competition survives, but within a political space that is narrowed by weakened horizontal checks on executive power and rule of law.

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They are co-authors of The Political Economy of Democratic Transitions (1995), Development, Democracy, and Welfare States (2008), and Dictators and Democrats: Masses, Elites, and Regime Change (2016). They thank Inbok Rhee for research assistance and Haohan Chen, Francisco Garfias, Peter Gourevitch, Blanca Heredia, R. Daniel Kelemen, and David Lake for comments on earlier drafts.



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