Why we must go beyond the “backsliding paradigm”

Seán Hanley, Associate Professor in Comparative Central and East European Politics, UCL SSEES and Licia Cianetti, Research Fellow at the Royal Holloway University of London, argue why we must move beyond the “backsliding paradigm” by demonstrating how it can lead to reproducing, in reverse, the transition paradigm. They draw on lessons from East-Central Europe to propose a broader focus.


Why we must go beyond the “backsliding paradigm”

There is broad pessimistic consensus among political scientists and commentators that the world has entered a period of wide-ranging democratic decline. This supposed global ‘democratic recession’ or ‘third wave of autocratisation’ embraces phenomena as diverse as dictatorships clamping down, the power of big tech and the diminishing of US influence in the world. However, it is the failure of democracy that has most captured the popular and scholarly imagination.

Not only are weak young “third wave” democracies like Myanmar faltering, but one-time democratic success stories like Hungary and Poland appear to have gone into sharp reverse under determined national-populist governments. Democracy even appears threatened in its West European and North American bastions, undermined by rising populism, growing polarization, a coarsening of the public debate and falling trust in democratic institutions. For some, the 2016 election victory and extraordinary one-term presidency of Donald Trump starkly illustrated the ‘it could happen here’ logic of how an authoritarian populist might bring down an established democracy – with political scientists reaching for comparisons with interwar Europe, Latin America and post-communist Europe. It also propelled a previous marginal concept centre-stage: that of ‘democratic backsliding’.

The basic contours of the democratic backsliding argument are widely agreed: it is a gradual process, led by democratically-elected governments (often illiberal populist) and, in contrast to old-style military interventions, extremist takeovers or presidential ‘self-coups’ which sweep away democracy more or less overnight, it takes the form of a slow but relentless “executive aggrandisement” stripping away constitutional checks and balances and capturing or side-lining public institutions. Hungary’s decade-long slide under Viktor Orbán from model post-communist democracy resting on solidly-built institutions and robust two-party competition to an ‘electoral authoritarian’ hybrid regime and laboratory for new forms of illiberal capitalism is a case in point.

Threats to democracy are real and merit serious scrutiny and serious action.However, as we suggest in a recent article in Journal of Democracy, viewing alltroubled democracies through the single lens of “backsliding” may obscure more than it reveals. The growing new pessimistic consensus about democratic regression risk repeating in reverse the narrowing of intellectual horizons once associated with the over-optimistic post-Cold War ‘transition paradigm’.

A reverse transition paradigm?

In 2002, Thomas Carothers published a celebrated (and controversial) critique of what he termed the “transition paradigm”. It identified five flawed assumptions that policymakers and democracy promoters held about democratisation. Chief among these was a tendency to see any country moving away from authoritarianism as in transition towards democracy and to think in terms of a linear path to or from democracy with “options all cast in terms of the speed and direction with which countries move on the path, not in terms of movement that does not conform with the path at all”. These same assumptions –in reverse – are now increasingly shaping the current debate on democratic decline: all forms of democratic difficulty and instability within democracy are narrowly viewed in terms of potential or incipient regression toward a hybrid or authoritarian regime unfolding along relatively predictable lines.

As a civic position, there is much to be said for keeping constant watch for threats to democracy. But by reducing our study of (un)democratic development to the question “is this democracy backsliding or not?”, the backsliding paradigm risks blinding us to more complex dynamics which are closer to political realities on the ground. And if we reach for a Hungary comparison at any sign of democratic trouble we might even fail to see when and how a Hungarian-style backsliding scenario is genuinely in play.

Like transition, backsliding is a metaphor for movement. And like the “transition paradigm”, the emerging “backsliding paradigm” also reduces all possible trajectories to three options: democracies can move forward, slide backwards or stagnate on a linear path running between autocracy and democracy. Trade-offs and nonlinear movement get flattened out by aggregate measures that tally pluses and minuses to determine in which direction a democracy is moving. However, clear-cut backsliding cases are the exception rather than the rule even in a region such as East-Central Europe – whose previous democratic success now makes it a zone of ‘most likely’ cases for democratic backsliding. As a result, we are left with a broad and loosely theorised “twilight zone” of non-backsliders or non-quite-backsliding cases for which the backsliding paradigm offers little further explanation.

Unsettled politics as a different game in town

We need to understand these cases better and keep our minds open to a wider range of patterns of (un) democratic transformation, which includes backsliding, but is not reduced to it. To take two examples from East-Central Europe, Czechia and Slovakia, examined through the prism of a backsliding paradigm defined by the experiences of neighbouring Hungary and Poland, the two appear rather different: Czechia emerges as a case of partial backsliding, albeit fitting the pattern of executive aggrandisement only awkwardly, while Slovakia seems a case of democratic resilience or backsliding averted.

Dropping the backsliding lens, however, shows both countries follow a similar pattern of periodic populism and countervailing liberal pushback, each camp too weak and internally incoherent to enforce a new stable settlement. This looks less backsliding or democratic consolidation than what Dan Slater calls “careening”: a movement “back and forth from side to side, with no clear prospect for steadying insight” resting on an unstable balance between “populist” and “liberal” camps and an unresolved tension between their (opposing) democratic claims. We should understand (un)democratic developments in these two countries in terms of this bumpy dynamic, rather than forcing them into ill-fitting backsliding or backsliding averted narratives

Trade-offs: Not all good things go together

“Non-backsliders” with consistently high and/or stable aggregate scores across democratic indices can also hide dynamics that remain invisible to the “backsliding paradigm”. Estonia and Latvia, for example, are consistently high performers in democratic indices at the same time as they are also notable for their ethnocentric politics. Far from being in contradiction, these two aspects of Estonian and Latvian democracy reveal a persistent trade-off between democratic stability and democratic inclusion, which defies the simplistic logic (inherent to all democracy measures) of adding up pluses and minuses to determine a democracy’s direction of travel. Indeed, by restricting entry into the political arena, ethnic-based and other forms of exclusion are not simply a minus to be added to the tally but can function as stabilization mechanisms to shore up the democratic status quo from destabilizing (albeit democratically invigorating) challenges and contestation. In this context, asking: are these democracies backsliding? is simply not a very illuminating question.

“If the only tool you have is a hammer…”

The concept of democratic backsliding is not obsolete. It captures the reality of countries like Hungary and Poland well. But it is over-stretched – and over-used. Even in regions like East-Central Europe, such a sustained slide in the direction of hybrid authoritarian regimes seems more the exception than the rule. Its export to explain the turbulent changes in the US and West European democracies look increasingly like a classic instance of comparative over-reach and ‘conceptual stretching’.

The narrowing down of research agendas to testing for some form of backsliding risks narrowing our understanding at a time when, perhaps more than ever, we need to open to new forms of (un)democratic change. As Abraham Maslow famously observed, “It is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” To go beyond the backsliding “hammer”, we need to develop concepts capable of capturing the dynamics of disturbed and unstable democracies, where change happens but not necessarily as a linear process of democratic transition in reverse.


The authors have released a new journal article titled, ‘The End of the Backsliding Paradigm’ in the Journal of Democracy, you can find it here.


Photo by Fred Moon on Unsplash.


NoteThe views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s