A lousy year for autocrats, theocrats and would-be despots
19 Dec 2022|

A pundit’s privilege at year’s end is to pronounce on the progress of presidents and princes and point the paths of power.

Wield a broad-brush broadsword to dub the winners and smite the losers.

The message of hope is that 2022 was a lousy year for autocrats and theocrats and would-be despots.

The hard men tripped over and stuffed up in all sorts of heartening ways.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s great blunder in Ukraine is a cautionary tale of autocratic arrogance. The war he boasted would be won in 10 days has hit 10 months. The would-be conqueror has been branded as a war criminal. He has deeply damaged Russia’s interests and reputation.

Putin quickly found the limits of the ‘no limits’ partnership he announced with China’s Xi Jinping in February. It became a limited-liability deal with Russia a liability. The limited future confronting Russia is as China’s vassal.

Putin is fresh evidence of the dangers autocrats pose to life and peace—their whims can become war. Behold the Putin proof of ‘democratic peace’ theory: democracies are less likely to go to war because of institutional checks and balances. And because of the power of the people, democracies kill far fewer of their own people than authoritarian regimes.

The power of the people confronted China’s surveillance state with the largest and most politically charged protests since Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Xi should have been basking in his other ‘no limits’ moment this year, the Chinese Communist Party congress where he became emperor for life. No term limits for him. Yet the tides beat against Xi. China’s Covid-19 reckoning is the immediate crisis. The middle-income trap snaps. The demographic reckoning looms. Debate rages about whether we’re approaching ‘peak China’.

Xi’s junking of collective leadership took me back to a key judgement made in 2003 by one of Australia’s great China scholars, Ross Terrill. Surveying the CCP as the latest in the line of dynasties, he wrote: ‘Legitimacy and succession problems were the two fundamental problems of the Chinese polity.’

Xi has smashed the succession process and fractured the party’s ‘social contract’ with the people.

The Terrill judgement preys on Xi: ‘Still today, in the People’s Republic of China, the Chinese autocracy is without an answer to the challenges—made more acute by an international environment that is increasingly democratic—of legitimacy and succession. In truth, legitimacy and succession must always be time bombs in a dictatorship.’ In 2022, the ticking got louder.

Legitimacy leaks, too, from Iran’s theocratic regime. Demonstrations have erupted in every corner of the country—1.6 million battles or protests in 130,000 places. Protest movements as deadly as Iran’s often end in revolution or civil war.

The headline ‘lifting the veil’ has many meanings for Iran’s clerics, as the regime dithers about whether to disband the morality police who enforce the mandatory wearing of hijabs. The symbol of the struggle is women taking off their headscarves in public or even burning their hijabs.

In a tough year for would-be despots, former US president Donald Trump took hits. Trump’s post on 3 December declared that even the US Constitution should not stand in his way: ‘A Massive Fraud of this type and magnitude allows for the termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution. Our great “founders” did not want, and would not condone, False and Fraudulent elections!’

So, throw out the constitution and annul the 2020 election. US voters (‘we the people’) have two years to ponder whether Trump should ever again hold power. Because he’s demonstrated that if he does get power again, he won’t let it go next time. Never letting go is what autocrats do.

Across the Americas, in Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, the US and Peru, ‘the guardrails of democracy’ have held, James Bosworth writes: ‘Institutions can restrain populist leaders who abuse their authority. Hyper-presidentialism, in which the executive can do whatever it pleases, is not guaranteed. Checks and balances can work.’

A tough year for tyranny throws contrasts with the power of its opposite—democracy.

The Putin proof points to a unique feature of democracy’s software: a leader and a government can be removed without violence. With a simple vote, the people approve or punish; then, at the same instant, they set a new course. Tested repeatedly for centuries, the software offers an extraordinary combination of flexibility and strength.

Angst for autocrats should start the pushback against the ‘global expansion of authoritarian rule’. Freedom House’s 2022 report charts 16 years of democratic decline:

Authoritarian regimes have become more effective at co-opting or circumventing the norms and institutions meant to support basic liberties, and at providing aid to others who wish to do the same. In countries with long-established democracies, internal forces have exploited the shortcomings in their systems, distorting national politics to promote hatred, violence, and unbridled power. Those countries that have struggled in the space between democracy and authoritarianism, meanwhile, are increasingly tilting toward the latter. The global order is nearing a tipping point, and if democracy’s defenders do not work together to help guarantee freedom for all people, the authoritarian model will prevail.

As the authoritarian model shows its flaws, the Churchillian truth is burnished anew: ‘[D]emocracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried.’ The joy of this truth is its nod to the clash and confusion of the democratic contest as well as the freedoms.

The line that ‘The best argument against democracy is a five–minute conversation with the average voter’ is also credited to Winston Churchill. But the great man was usually positive about voters while despairing at democracy’s slowness in confronting threats. The politician’s ache at the voters’ lash is expressed in Churchill’s wonderful line, ‘Democracy is more vindictive than Cabinets’—and the old warrior certainly knew how dangerous a place a Cabinet could be.

Autocracies proclaim their strength but their foundations are weak—the problems of legitimacy and succession and how to change a leader who veers towards disaster.

Democracy is loud and messy. Certainly when compared to the ‘order’ despots always promise. But democracy’s messy combination of flexibility and strength confers great power on the people and the government they create.

A lousy year for autocrats is a good moment for people and freedom.