UChicago Magazine Explores Ginsburg and Huq's Work on Democratic Erosion

Can democracy survive?

Their analysis of recent global political history shows that imperiled democracies rarely end in sudden seizures of power such as military coups. Instead they tend to suffer “death by a thousand cuts”—the degradation of legal protections for citizens, civil servants, and political opponents, and the weakening of institutions’ independence from the governing regime. Democracy seldom can be said to have disappeared altogether in such cases; instead it remains in a diluted form that gives the cover of legitimacy to leaders who have exploited the system to expand their power.

Democratic erosion often occurs by means that do not violate the law, such as Hungary’s power-consolidating legislation, all passed through proper parliamentary processes. Leaders with authoritarian impulses in Venezuela, Turkey, and Russia, among other nations, have used similar legal means to tighten their grip on power. In all, Ginsburg and Huq found examples of significant “democratic backsliding” in 25 countries since World War II. 

Since many antidemocratic strategies have the tacit support of the people, enacted through constitutional amendments or legislative processes, “Alarm in response to each of them can thus be condemned as excessive or histrionic,” Ginsburg and Huq wrote in a 2017 article. “But the cumulative effect of many small weakening steps is to dismantle the possibility of democratic competition, leaving only its facade.”

Read more at The University of Chicago Magazine