Kagan manages to put together an entire column in which he never once shows that he understands the difference between “liberal autocracy” a la Singapore and illiberal democracy. For the truncated democratist imagination in which there is liberal democracy and everything else lumped under “tyranny,” this oversight is typical. No one, or at least no one of any consequence, thinks that Putin, Hu Jintao (or whoever will succeed him) or Chavez represent “liberal autocracy,” and only committed opponents of Putin’s and Chavez’s regime prefer to call their political systems autocratic. I’m prone to throw around the word autocracy to make a polemical point, too, but it is plainly imprecise and does not describe the form of government that prevails in these countries.
In China, the government is oligarchic and authoritarian and still significantly party-based. Russia’s government is oligarchic and authoritarian and based in the security services, but retains a number of formal democratic and constitutional features. Venezuela’s government is a much more straightforward illiberal democratic one, whose claim to being democratic has been denied by many American observers because the government is illiberal and quasi-socialist, which is to show that these observers cannot make basic distinctions in political theory.
So it is difficult for “autocracy” to be resilient in a place where there isn’t actually an autocracy. The authoritarianism in Russia and the populist demagoguery in Venezuela are both products of the very elections Kagan boosts. The fact is that liberalism has a small constituency in both countries (outside of a very few western European, Anglophone and North American countries, this has often been the case), and when put before the electorates of Russia and Venezuela liberalism fares very poorly. Some of this has to do with the fact that relatively liberal politics was associated with the wealthy elite and tycoons, and the effects of policies carried out in the name of liberalism were generally poor or even disastrous for the people who now back authoritarian populist leaders. There will be objections that Russian elections in particular are not fully “free and fair,” but against this I would note that even with fully free and fair elections the overwhelming majority would still want nothing to do with the Russian liberals. This is hardly surprising: in mass democracy, the politics of liberty tends to lose and lose badly, while one form of demagoguery or another (be it nationalist or revolutionary socialist) usually prevails.
Update: Ross has more.
One of Ross’ commenters makes what I assume he thinks is a clever remark:
This is really important work you’re doing. Thanks. Now that we know Venezuela is not an “autocracy” I can go to sleep tonight, comfortable that my children will not improperly label the various oppressive governments around the world.
Very droll. Of course, one might observe that misunderstanding the nature of a regime and then building an entire argument off of that misunderstanding will lead to the wrong conclusions. One might suppose that sloppy and inaccurate use of language reflects poorly on an argument. Suppose that someone thinks that the answer to the problems of Russia and Venezuela is a lack of elections, when the current regimes are at least partly the product of elections, and then that someone opts, whether out of laziness or sloppiness, to label these elected governments autocracies. Suppose that he also has a record of promoting confrontational policies against other such “autocracies.” Might it matter then that we give things their proper names and try to address the world as it is, rather than as it appears in the democratist comic book version?
Second Update: I have written on Kagan’s autocracy talk before.