The ideal regime type
Discussion of the end of democracy reliably captures the attention and fear of many Americans. As members of the most powerful liberal democracy in the world, it is understandably difficult to imagine the sacrifice of some personal liberties in favor of some higher objective or goal. This hostility toward other regime types has been obvious throughout American history, most notably in the emergence of McCarthyism during the Cold War. Americans have continuously used this high valuation of democracy to justify invasive and harmful democratization attempts abroad.
Democratic erosion literature often implicitly asserts the value of democracy over competing regime types. The arguments often neglect to justify the grounds of the assumption, leading to subtle suggestions of social engineering. Such recommendations rely on the same dubitable assumptions of the supremacy of democracy and can have devastating effects when invoked as a call to action. Scholarship on democratic backsliding is much better employed as a tool for those within a country to fight the erosion of democratic institutions and norms, rather than as motivation for foreign intervention.
Bermeo’s desire to “change preferences”
One of the more concerning invocations of social engineering or international intervention that I have encountered was in Nancy Bermeo’s “On Democratic Backsliding” . She writes:
“Contemporary forms of democratic backsliding are most ambiguous and most difficult when they marshal broad popular support—and they often do. As recent events in Thailand illustrate, huge numbers of citizens may support an elected official’s unlawful removal. This uncomfortable truth means that those seeking to reverse backsliding must cope not only with the state actors who engineer backsliding but with their mobilized supporters. Silencing or simply ignoring these citizens’ preferences may stoke reactionary fires and undercut the quality of democracy. Yet changing their preferences is devilishly difficult and a long-term project at best.” (16)
In addressing “those seeking to reverse backsliding,” Bermeo may simply be referring to competing parties or activist groups hoping to preserve their own democracy . However, in failing to clarify the pronoun, she invokes an air of social engineering. This implication is supported by her admittance that some forms of democratic backsliding may generate popular support. If popular rule is part of the foundation of democracy, how can we reconcile internal support for democratic backsliding with external intervention efforts to change the course of events, or perhaps more strikingly, to change preferences?
A brief look at Thai politics
Following a tumultuous history of governance in Thailand, a constitutional referendum was orchestrated by the military junta in 2016. The new constitution was approved by about 60% of Thais who voted, though under manipulated circumstances: opposition campaigning was banned preceding the referendum, roughly 200,000 police officers were deployed, and the junta refused to accredit independent observer groups to monitor the vote. The legitimacy remains contested, as the opposition claims an obvious undermining of the ideals of a free and fair election, while supporters tout the 60% approval rate of the draft and the scheduled elections.
While electoral authoritarianism continues to inspire fear here in the US, it appears that a large group of Thais actually supported the constitution that helped to implement such a regime. The draft called for an unelected Prime Minister, a 250-member upper house appointed exclusively by the military, and a 500-member lower house chosen by a new electoral system designed to produce a weak coalition government. Some of the votes in favor of the Constitution may simply have been pragmatic, aimed at restoring regular governance and addressing ongoing violence. However, this pragmatism certainly does not diminish the significance of these votes or the movement they represent.
We will never know whether the supporters of the draft technically composed a majority, but we do know that the vote was close and the supporters held significant sway. The internal support for the change in governance was real, though perhaps unfavorable to U.S. foreign policy or painful to democracy-lovers in the West. Unrestrained intervention in situations in which democratic erosion is opposed by the public are of a different kind; however, international intervention on grounds of foreign policy gains or moral supremacy, in the face of public support for democratic erosion, reeks of social engineering. One of the assumptions that grounds the study of democratic erosion–namely the high valuation of democracy–should prohibit rather than promote interventionism in politics abroad, as such an attempt to socially engineer would contradict the very same principle of democracy that spurred the involvement in the first place.