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The Democratic Threat to Democracy

Although the current trend of democratic backsliding has been framed as a competition between Western-style democracy and Chinese-style authoritarianism, the truth is more complicated. Today's liberal democracies are more likely to succumb to illiberal majoritarianism than to a revolutionary vanguard that dispenses with elections.

WASHINGTON, DC – US President Joe Biden’s recent Summit for Democracy came at a time when democracy appears to be in retreat. Autocratic leaders such as Chinese President Xi Jinping are claiming that their systems can weather pandemics, deliver economic growth, and ensure security more reliably than liberal democracies can. China’s stellar economic performance over three decades is used to bolster that claim. But when assessing the current challenge to democracy, one must distinguish between two types of autocratic models.

First, there are regimes such as China’s, where the Communist Party’s leadership and power cannot be contested. As was the case in the Soviet Union, the only elections are Party elections (such as for politburo membership). The competitive nature of these intraparty elections has changed over time. Now that Xi seems to have sufficient personal power to control the outcomes, elections are merely a mechanism to install his allies in key positions.

There is a big difference between rule by one person and rule by one large, self-perpetuating party that allows for some degree of internal “democracy” (the original Leninist model). Even when they occur behind closed doors, relatively free intra-party debates can produce wiser decisions and reflect the wishes of a larger share of the society.