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Life in authoritarian states is mostly boring and tolerable

Americans have an overly dramatic view what the end of democracy looks like.

There are elections in Malaysia, and even protests, like this one in Nov. 2016. But it’s still an authoritarian state.
NurPhoto / Getty

Malaysia is a country that I know well, and whose political system I have studied closely for 15 years. It is also not a democracy. Malaysia has a multiparty parliamentary system of government, but the same coalition of parties has been in power for six decades, and has never lost a general election.

In a holdover from the British colonial period, Malaysia’s government retains the legal authority to detain people without trial if it so desires. The print and broadcast media are fairly compliant, mostly owned by the corporate allies of political elites, and rarely criticize the government.

Living in Malaysia and working on Malaysian politics has taught me something important about authoritarianism from my perspective as an American. That is, the mental image of authoritarian rule in the minds of most Americans is completely unrealistic, and dangerously so.

Even though Malaysia is a perfectly wonderful place to visit and an emerging market economy — albeit one that is grappling with the same “middle income trap” issues that characterize most emerging market economies -— scholars of comparative politics do not consider it to be an electoral democracy. Freedom House considers Malaysia “partly free.” The Democracy-Dictatorship dataset codes Malaysia as a civilian dictatorship, as does another academic rating system that measures political freedom, Boix-Miller-Rosato.

The Harvard political scientist Steven Levitsky and Lucan A. Way of the University of Toronto, authors of Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes After the Cold War, consider Malaysia’s government to be a classic case of the type of regime mentioned in their title. There are quite a few other countries like Malaysia: Mexico and Taiwan for most of the 20th century, Russia, Turkey, Singapore, Cameroon, Tanzania, and others.

When Americans think of authoritarianism, they conjure the grimmest totalitarian states

The mental image that most Americans harbor of what actual authoritarianism looks like is fantastical and cartoonish. This vision has jackbooted thugs, all-powerful elites acting with impunity, poverty and desperate hardship for everyone else, strict controls on political expression and mobilization, and a dictator who spends his time ordering the murder or disappearance of his opponents using an effective and wholly compliant security apparatus. This image of authoritarianism comes from the popular media (dictators in movies are never constrained by anything but open insurrection), from American mythmaking about the Founding (free men throwing off the yoke of British tyranny), and from a kind of “imaginary othering” in which the opposite of democracy is the absence of everything that characterizes the one democracy that one knows.

Still, that fantastical image of authoritarianism is entirely misleading as a description of modern authoritarian rule and life under it. It is a description, to some approximation, of totalitarianism. Carl Friedrich is the best on totalitarianism, and Hannah Arendt of course on its emergence. But Arendt and Friedrich were very clear that totalitarianism is exceptional as a form of politics.

The reality is that everyday life under the kinds of authoritarianism that exist today is very familiar to most Americans. You go to work, you eat your lunch, you go home to your family. There are schools and businesses, and some people “make it” through hard work and luck. Most people worry about making sure their kids get into good schools. The military is in the barracks, and the police mostly investigate crimes and solve cases. There is political dissent, if rarely open protest, but in general people are free to complain to one another. There are even elections. This is Malaysia, and many countries like it.

Life is pretty normal, except that elections — which often exist — change nothing

Everyday life in the modern authoritarian regime is, in this sense, boring and tolerable. It is not outrageous. Most critics, even vocal ones, are not going to be murdered, as Anna Politkovskaya was in Russia; they are going to be frustrated. Most not-very-vocal critics will live their lives completely unmolested by the security forces. They will enjoy it when the trains run on time, blame the government when they do not, gripe about their taxes, and save for vacation. Elections, when they happen, will serve the “anesthetic function” that Philippe Schmitter attributed — in the greatly underappreciated 1978 volume Elections without Choice to elections in Portugal under Salazar.

Life under authoritarian rule in such situations looks a lot like life in a democracy. As Malaysia’s longtime Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad used to say, “if you don’t like me, defeat me in my district.” That this could never happen was almost beside the point; there were elections, and the ruling National Front coalition deployed the same language of democracy that American politicians do today

This observation has two particular consequences. One, for asking if “the people” will tolerate authoritarian rule. The premise upon which this question is based is that authoritarianism is intolerable generally. It turns out that most people express democratic values, but living in a complicated world in which people care more about more things than just their form of government — feeding their families, educating their children, professional success — it is easy to see that given an orderly society and a functioning economy, democratic politics may become a low priority. The answer to the question “will ‘the people’ tolerate authoritarian rule?” is yes, absolutely.

Americans need not look far to see what this kind of boring authoritarianism looks like. As University of Michigan political scientist Robert Mickey has argued, swaths of the US South were effectively under one-party rule during parts of the 20th century. These regions slipped into authoritarianism quietly, as local politicians sought to advance their careers and the interests of their supporters. It took not just the civil rights movement but also dedicated struggle to bring these pockets of authoritarianism to an end.

A second consequence involves how to tell if you are living in an authoritarian regime versus a democratic one. Most Americans conceptualize a hypothetical end of American democracy in apocalyptic terms. But actually, you usually learn that you are no longer living in a democracy not because The Government Is Taking Away Your Rights, or passing laws that you oppose, or because there is a coup or a quisling. You know that you are no longer living in a democracy because the elections in which you are participating no longer can yield political change.

It is possible to read what I’ve written here as a defense of authoritarianism, or as a dismissal of democracy. But my message is the exact opposite. The fantasy of authoritarianism distracts Americans from the mundane ways in which the mechanisms of political competition and checks and balances can erode. Democracy has not survived because the alternatives are acutely horrible, and if it ends, it will not end in a bang.

It is more likely that democracy ends with a whimper, when the case for supporting it — the case, that is, for everyday democracy — is no longer compelling.

Thomas Pepinsky is associate professor of government at Cornell University. He is the author of Economic Crises and the Breakdown of Authoritarian Regimes (Cambridge 2009), and blogs regularly about politics, Southeast Asia, and food at tompepinsky.com, where a version of this piece first appeared.


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