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ISU professor Ali Riaz tracks the rise of autocrats and democratic backsliding

ISU Distinguished Professor Ali Riaz will give an address marking his award on November 9 at the Bone Student Center.
Ali Riaz
ISU Distinguished Professor Ali Riaz will give an address marking that recognition on Nov. 9 at the Bone Student Center.

Over the last 30 years democracy has kind of hit the skids.

Political scientist Ali Riaz is now a Distinguished Professor at Illinois State University. His public lecture celebrating the award of the distinguished professorship is coming up Nov. 9.

Riaz said some long held conventional wisdom about the strength of democracy has turned out to be wrong. In each recent year, democracy has weakened around the globe.

"For example, if you take the Freedom House data, for the last 14 years we have been witnessing the gradual decline in the number of countries which can be called democratic. But most importantly, the countries which have improved in democratic quality is far less than the number which have deteriorated over time," said Riaz.

Less than half the global population now lives under some sort of democracy, he said.

Democratic backsliding itself is not new, he said. There have been two other occasions, before and following the second World War. The third wave some scholars argue began in 1974. In some of those cases, it can be argued the backsliding is among nations that did not fully establish democratic traditions — they went part way and stopped and are now regressing.

What is unique now, Riaz said, is that confidence in democracy has declined in countries that already have consolidated the system into stability — in the U.S., U.K, and France, for example, where democracy is taken for granted.

"What we have witnessed is a new kind of governance — a hybrid regime that looks like democracy, but does not function like it," said Riaz.

In the 1990s, there was a faith in the power of institutions to safeguard democracy. If you have robust institutions and checks and balances things will go well, the conventional wisdom went. Riaz said it hasn't turned out that way.

"Most importantly, what we have seen is executive aggrandizement. That is power concentrated in the executive. It is not only in the (U.S.) presidency. It is also happening in parliamentary systems. Hence the institutions which were safeguards, legislative bodies, for example, which would be a check on the executive, that didn't happen. In many cases those legislative bodies have been captured by those who are also in the executive branch," said Riaz.

Riaz calls it democratic backsliding. There is no single factor you can point to, he said. In general in the west it is the decline of the middle class, he said. It has been widely accepted by political scientists that the bulwark of democracy is a strong middle class. Riaz said the data disproves that as a blanket rule.

In some nations around the world, such as Turkey, Bangladesh, the Philippines and Poland, a stable middle class is helping the move to authoritarianism, he argues.

Riaz said what is unique about this democratic backsliding is the middle class is benefiting.

"All these instances have the rich which have gained enormous wealth, but also the middle class has gained it because they have become part of this regime. All these policies allow them to operate without any kind of hindrance because they are tied to the regime. So, they enjoy some kind of impunity. Even, if you take environmental degradation, they can do anything and get away with this kind of thing," said Riaz.

Riaz is optimistic it won’t be like this forever, though reversing the backsliding will be difficult. He said the outcome requires a global leader like the United States.

"It has made mistakes and it will make mistakes. But at least ideologically, is why we have to fix what is happening here. We will have to set our house in order. Challenges to democracy within the United States has implications beyond the United States," said Riaz.

Riaz said the United States has its own issues, but can still model democracy for the world.

Riaz will present “The Rise of Autocrats: Democratic Backsliding and the Middle Class” at 5 p.m. Nov. 9, in the Old Main Room of the Bone Student Center at Illinois State University.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.