The dictator’s two dilemmas
19 Aug 2020|

Authoritarian regimes often enjoy more public support than democratic governments do. To discover why, my colleagues and I administered the Asian Barometer Survey in four waves across 14 Asian countries between 2001 and 2016. What we found is that authoritarian regimes actually suffer from acute near- and long-term vulnerabilities.

When asked how much confidence they have in six different government institutions, respondents in China and Vietnam expressed ‘quite a lot’ or ‘a great deal’ of trust in 4.4–5.3 institutions, on average, whereas Japanese and Taiwanese respondents trusted only 2–2.6 institutions.

We then asked four questions about whether respondents thought their form of government could solve the country’s problems and thus deserved the people’s support. Japanese, Taiwanese, and South Korean citizens gave more ‘no’ than ‘yes’ answers, while citizens in Vietnam, China, Myanmar, Cambodia and other authoritarian countries answered yes much more often than no.

The conventional wisdom is that such results reflect the effects of nationalism and access to media. That is correct. In both democratic and authoritarian systems, citizens who express pride in their country also are more likely to express support for the regime.

Likewise, greater trust in media has a positive effect on regime support. In democracies, where media options are diverse and often critical of the government, citizens who have more trust in media are more likely to feel that they understand why the government does what it does. In authoritarian systems, where the media are government-run or government-influenced, citizens who believe official sources are more likely to support the regime.

Two other sets of variables are more surprising, and point to authoritarian regimes’ vulnerabilities. First, we found that the economic welfare of the respondent’s family had little effect on his or her support for the regime. People seemed to credit or blame themselves for how well or poorly their families did, even though they attributed the overall state of the economy to the regime.

By contrast, in both democracies and autocracies, citizens gave more weight to the government’s role in ensuring ‘fairness’, defined as providing equal treatment to rich and poor, safeguarding freedom of speech and association, and guaranteeing access to basic necessities such as food, clothing and shelter. And they gave even more weight to the government’s ‘effectiveness’, meaning its ability to fight corruption, administer the rule of law and solve what respondents identified as the most important problem facing the country.

These findings point to a near-term threat to authoritarian legitimacy. Authoritarian regimes are more susceptible than democracies to corruption, abuses of power and catastrophic policy mistakes due to secrecy and overcentralisation. In democracies, dissatisfied citizens can organise and vote. Under authoritarian rule, dissatisfaction tends to build up until mass demonstrations erupt, potentially jeopardising the regime’s survival.

A final reason for the differences in support between authoritarian and democratic regimes is culture. Here, the survey included a nine-item questionnaire to measure traditional social values like conflict avoidance, deference to authority and group loyalty over individualism. It also included a seven-item battery designed to assess support for core liberal democratic principles, such as the freedom of speech and association, judicial independence and the separation of powers.

In all but two of the countries surveyed, those who affirm traditional values tend to accord greater legitimacy to the regime under which they live, regardless of whether it’s democratic or authoritarian. Likewise, there is also a statistically significant relationship between affirming liberal democratic values and being critical of one’s government.

The combined role of performance and culture in generating regime legitimacy points to a long-term dilemma for authoritarian regimes. To achieve high marks for performance, both democratic and authoritarian regimes will pursue policies that promote modernisation. Yet, by definition, such policies run counter to traditional values, which helps to explain why those authoritarian countries that have modernised the fastest also have the fastest spread of liberal democratic values, especially among younger, more educated, urban citizens.

Moreover, while liberal democratic values—and criticism of government—are baked into the politics of democracies, they pose a unique threat to authoritarian systems, because they are strongly associated with a desire for an alternative regime.

In the survey, we presented three alternative forms of authoritarian rule and asked if respondents would approve of any of them. Perhaps not surprisingly, liberal citizens in both authoritarian and democratic regimes found all three options unattractive, implying that they see no authoritarian alternative that is superior to what they already have.

But when we posed four questions about the attributes respondents prefer in government, we found a preference for liberal democratic regime characteristics among citizens who believed in liberal democratic values. Respondents were asked, for example, whether they believe that ‘Government is our employee, the people should tell government what needs to be done’ or whether they believe that ‘The government is like a parent, it should decide what is good for us.’

The fact that adherents to liberal values display a preference for regime characteristics associated with liberal democracy is not surprising. But the implications are different for different types of regimes. If these liberal citizens live in a democracy, they may be dissatisfied with what they have, but they would not prefer an alternative. In authoritarian regimes, as liberal values spread, so does a preference for democratic regime characteristics. So, while democratic regimes need not worry about their liberal citizens favouring an alternative system, autocratic regimes do.

To be sure, authoritarian regimes can try to slow the erosion of democratic values, as China has done with its campaigns to revive Confucianism and promote a cult of President Xi Jinping. These efforts encourage younger and more educated citizens to feel proud of their country’s traditions and accomplishments. Yet the same cohorts are increasingly determined to assert their individuality, protect their personal and property rights, and learn more about the outside world. They want an accountable government that abides by the rule of law.

The better an authoritarian regime performs in its mission to modernise society, the more rapidly liberal democratic values will replace traditional values, and the larger the proportion of the population dissatisfied with authoritarian rule will become. The most effective authoritarian regimes, then, are gradually digging their own graves.