Democracy, War and the Inherent Threat of Personalistic
Authoritarianism. A Conversation with Daniel Ziblatt

Yes, liberal democracies do need to build up a cohesive alliance to counter the threats – militarily and in the war of ideas – that are posed by aggressive authoritarianism, but without falling into two dangerous pitfalls. The first would be to inadvertently bring all illiberal regimes into a united geopolitical front – aligning Russia and China, rather than driving them further apart. The second would be to think that the threat of personalistic despotism is just somewhere “out there”, and not also within the fragile corps of Western democracies themselves. These are the dangers laid out in a conversation with Reset by Daniel Ziblatt, Eaton Professor of Government at Harvard University and co-author of How Democracies Die (Broadway Books, 2018), one of the most vivid accounts of the rise of Trumpism and a guide on how to anticipate and counter the inherent threats to democratic foundations.

Six weeks into the most devastating conflict on European soil since World War Two, Western citizens would do well to heed the scope of such domestic threat, Ziblatt warns – in America as well as in Europe, where the most crucial short-term test will play out in the next two weeks in France’s upcoming presidential run-off. But the resolve of the European political community to safeguard its very foundations will also be proved in the way it tackles the challenges presented by Hungary’s Viktor Orban, who recently shored up his self-proclaimed “illiberal democracy” with a new, landslide victory.


Prof. Ziblatt, among the many unforeseen consequences of Russia’s war on Ukraine is the newly divergent trajectory of Poland and Hungary – two countries and political regimes we were used to treat as inherent allies. Have Europe’s “democratic rebels” reduced to one all of a sudden?

Until recently both countries were often held up as clear cases of electoral autocracy where political institutions were under pressure from illiberal populist leaders. But, in the face of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Poland has in fact suddenly seemed to look much more like a good ally. In contrast, Orban has been very careful throughout his campaign to not be overly critical of Putin, and then on election night celebrated his victory by turning instantly against what he called “liberal leftism” and “globalism” – from Brussels to George Soros to the president of Ukraine himself. But a long-standing contrast between Orban and the Polish leaders is that Orban has much more firmly entrenched himself in power for 12 years now. As his recent election triumph shows, with a greater vote share than in any previous election, he has really now set up a system where he’s fully insulated and the regime is entrenched. So even before the Russian invasion he was pretty clearly in the autocratic camp much more firmly than Polish leaders. But on top of all of that, Poland is now facing a spectacular inflow of refugees fleeing the bombing of an arbitrary ruler, in much greater numbers and more immediacy than Hungary. So perhaps a divergence has opened up between the two countries.


As far as Orban’s Hungary is concerned, the key foundational question remains, in fact redoubles, for the EU: can it continue to live with such a clearly illiberal member within its value-based assembly of nations – precisely as it mulls enlarging to new potential European members?

The EU can, and I think should, continue to threaten to block its various funding streams and shouldn’t shy away from using these kinds of levers. The argument from the side of the defenders of Hungary has always been that if we pressure them too much, they may then turn to support Russia. I have never found this to be particularly convincing –even less now that Russia is so isolated. Is Hungary really going to abandon the EU to ally itself with Russia? That seems implausible as a credible exit option. So I do think more pressure could be applied, without worrying what the negative effects of that are. A lot of this, at the same time, hinges on what happens in France this month. If Le Pen triumphs, that would of course be a real game changer. There’s a lot of triumphalism these days about Putin having underestimated the unity of NATO and the West – but if after Orban’s massive victory Le Pen prevails in France, then the unity of the West will suddenly look very shaky. That’s why, I fear, it’s too early to say that Putin has lost this game.


In your book with Steven Levitsky, How Democracies Die, you stress the role of political parties as gatekeepers of democracy, by keeping extremists out of the room where it happens. Across Western Europe in recent years, precisely to try and contain the populist wave, mainstream parties from the center-left and the center-right have indeed joined their forces in grand coalitions – first in Germany, then most recently in Italy, and in a way in France too, at least for the presidential run-off once again. Does that dynamic reinforce democracy really, or risk weakening it on the contrary in the eyes of the citizens, by erasing differences between the main political parties?

That’s a fair concern. Long periods of grand coalitions provoke in voters a sense of collusion and a feeling of having no choice. Germany is a case in point: at the root of the rise of the AfD – the Alternative for Deutschland – was exactly the feeling that there were no alternatives to the grand coalition. But on the other hand, we have to be clear: it’s sometimes necessary to form these coalitions—not only for practical coalitional reasons but also to protect democracy.  Facing an emergency or a threat in the short run often requires these coalitions. Had Democrats and Republicans come together to keep Trump out, there may have been accusations of collusion, but a lot of damage to American democracy would have been avoided. In France as well, if the Republicans hadn’t mostly come to the defense of Macron in his first election, Le Pen may have been elected and the damage would have been enormous. So I think in the short run, these strategies may be necessary.

Here’s the problem: over the long run these coalitions become a vulnerability, and competition needs to be restored. So my advice is always: avoid forming grand coalitions whenever possible, but use it as a kind of last resort solution, in emergency scenarios, to prevent dangerous demagogues from getting to power. In 1932 Hans Kelsen, the famous Austrian legal theorist teaching at Berlin’s university, was asked what he thought was to be done about Hitler. “If you believe in democracy” – he said – “you have to stand by your principles and be willing to go down on the sinking ship and hope to rebuild democracy in a future date”. A year later, Hitler came to power, Kelsen fled Berlin, moved to the Berkeley Hills and spent the rest of his life in the sunshine in California. That was not a very viable strategy.


The leisurely pace of reckoning that American democracy has with regard to its own rather imminent threat doesn’t look as a very smart one, either.

Indeed, there are at least two areas where we can see the response taking shape is not sufficiently urgent. One is in the electoral arena, and the idea that the Republican Party may try to steal the presidential election in 2024. It’s a real possibility. There are a lot of maneuvers taking place at the local level, especially in Republican “red states” to change voting rules, to make it harder to vote.  This unfortunately is mostly being met by indifference or inattention, because the details of rule changes appear so obscure. Much of the focus within the Democratic Party is instead on internal debates, a kind of obsessive self-criticism and a focus on internal fractures over symbolic politics while a threat to democracy is out there building his edifice to steal an election.

The second threat is in the rule of law domain, and relates to the proceedings of the commission investigating the assault on the Congress on January 6, 2021. Now, I’ve always been somewhat sympathetic to the idea that “we don’t want to investigate our political opponents because this is not how democracies are supposed to operate”. Yes, you’re not supposed to investigate your political opponents when they don’t break the law. But when they do break the law, it may in fact be necessary. So I think in fact that the U.S. attorney general should be pursuing this all, pursuing accountability with greater speed and urgency. In our constitution there’s space for pursuing insurrectionists and people who violate or undermine the Republican form of government. The full force of the law ought to be deployed.


Isn’t there a third arena, though, too, which is within the Republican Party itself? Aren’t there some of those Austrian philosophers in Senate seats right now?

Yes. I didn’t even mention that because the game is almost over there unfortunately. When I wrote my book with Steve Levitsky, we had the view that the Republican Party needed to stand up to Trump, and I do continue to insist upon that. But it gets harder and harder to see that that is a bulwark in any way. I think the Republican Party has been so fully transformed that it’s hard to imagine a resurrection taking place, before a major electoral defeat. The power struggle is over, and I think the only way that will change is through electoral defeat. That’s the only method of change we have within a democracy. We may be frustrated with this, and waiting and waiting for this to happen may seem foolish. Yet, within a democracy, unless somebody breaks the law, there’s really not much else we have at our disposal. It’s come to this: the Democratic Party needs to figure out how to win massive elections at least in the short run to compel change within the Republican Party, in order to save democracy.


You don’t see any sort of short-term grand coalition of the kind we discussed in Europe emerging in the US as well to save democracy?

That is theoretically possible, but it’s just hard to imagine how it may work in our two-party presidential system. But beyond electoral politics, there’s one domain where a grand coalition may well take shape, and that is within civil society. There are great untapped resources here, both within the business community and church and religious institutions. If these large business associations themselves understand the scale of the threat and put pressure on Republicans, that could really have a big impact. And I think they should in fact understand the scale of the risk because although capitalists can survive in authoritarianism, capitalism itself cannot. The only kind of capitalism compatible with authoritarianism is crony capitalism. So I think anybody who really is interested in free market competition has to understand that a second Trump presidency would be devastating. In Hungary, you have former schoolmates of Viktor Orban being one of the richest men in the country – that would be our future. And the same goes for religious institutions. Indeed, one of the greatest differences between the US and Hungary is the strength of American civil society. That has to be leveraged.


Coming back in conclusion to the broader, tragic picture – do you also read Putin’s war as not just a military assault on Ukraine, but an ideational one on liberal democracy itself? Or is such framing of a new epic global battle between authoritarianism and democracy exaggerated?

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration, but I don’t think it’s exactly right. Russia is a particular kind of authoritarian regime – a personalized, patrimonial kind of regime where you have a single leader who’s essentially unconstrained. There is a fascinating line of political science research in international relations, which shows that personalistic dictatorships are more likely to start wars than any other kind of regime. That’s where Putinism is different from China’s authoritarianism, which is much more of a party state in which leaders are more constrained.

Broadly speaking, I think that the threat that democracies face today is the rise of personalistic, patrimonial regimes. This is in fact what Trump wants to establish in the United States. This is what Orban has established in Hungary. This is what Putin has established in Russia. I think Bolsonaro would have liked to establish something like this as well in Brazil. And as a strategic matter, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to lump China and Russia together because, in fact, we want China to not align itself with Russia. This is not smart geopolitically. One can of course recognize that the Chinese regime poses threats to its own population and to the world. But to me, the biggest lesson to draw from all that is happening is the double-face danger of personalistic leadership: this kind of leaders threaten their own populations, and they are also much more likely to make massive foreign policy mistakes. That’s a warning to Western democracies, because that’s exactly the threat within our democracies as well.


Cover Photo: Will Kirk /

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