In the early 1990s, an expectant euphoria attended the fall of the Berlin Wall: the historic triumph of liberalism and democracy seemed within reach and the "end of history" was in view. A quarter century later, gloomy anxiety had replaced that confident excitement; the world seemed convulsed by anti-democratic sentiments and movements. Promising efforts at democratization had given way to autocratic restorations and intractable violence in the Arab world, while illiberal populism seemed to threaten consolidated democracies across Europe and the Americas, from Russia to Hungary to Venezuela. Even the established democracies of the erstwhile "free world," including the world's oldest democracy, the United States, had witnessed divisive elections, shaped by angry, resentful electorates rallied by anti-establishment political figures espousing antidemocratic programs and platforms. Democrats struggled to shore up liberal institutions in the face of what seemed to be widespread disappointment in, and even contempt for, democratic politics across the globe.
The rise of illiberal and anti-democratic politics presented analytical as well as political challenges. As the president of the American Political Science Association said in her 2016 presidential address, many political scientists were "relatively pessimistic about the public arena and its trajectory"; quoting from the mission statement of a project at the Social Science Research Council, she said that their worries included those "about whether the core institutions of established democracies... can capably address large problems in the public interest." (1) Scholars and analysts puzzled over what accounted for the adoption of political platforms that seemed so patently at odds with the interests, if not the attitudes, of ordinary people around the world. From the rise of the self-referential "echo chambers" of the new media to deliberate efforts by powerful authoritarian governments to shape global political discourse and local political outcomes to growing inequality fueled by globalization, numerous explanations for anti-establishment sentiment and populist movements were offered up. Conventional analytical perspectives seemed to provide little guidance for such questions.
In part, this failure by social scientists to anticipate the rise of antidemocratic politics was a reflection of post-Cold War complacency. For much of the preceding 25 years, political scientists, like political leaders, had assumed that the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe represented the end of any serious challenge to liberal democracy. American triumphalism infected its scholarly community, often imperceptibly but with tangible consequences. (2) Confident in the ultimate ascendancy of democratic institutions, American political scientists turned away from the big questions of political philosophy--how best, in the words of the American Constitution, to "establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity" to perfect the methods of their science--for example, statistical analysis, formal models, experimentation, data mining, and game theory--in the study of political behavior and institutions.
That these methods and models did not equip political scientists to address the political challenges of illiberal and non-democratic politics systematically has a much older pedigree, however, than mere post-Cold War self-absorption. As Erica Frantz observed, "misconceptions about dictatorships abound at least partially because political scientists have paid far less attention to them than they have to democracies." (3) And indeed, as it emerged in late nineteenth century, American political science was designed not as a science of the universal purposes and practices of politics, but a response to the pressing problems of liberal democracy in the United States at the time. The Progressive Era reformers who were the discipline's founders fashioned a field of study that was designed to be, as Woodrow Wilson put it in 1887, a "practical science," one that reflected a "need to know it." This project was urgent because, as Wilson stated, "the very fact that we have realized popular rule in its fulness has made the task of organizing that rule just so much the more difficult." Democratic government was complicated and it required fresh, independent, and purposeful research. As Wilson argued, while it may have been worthwhile to examine the European science of administration, "it is not of our making; it is a foreign science, speaking very little of the language of English or American principle.. .If we would employ it, we must Americanize it, and that not formally in language merely, but radically, in thought, principle, and aim as well." (4)
Wilson and his colleagues succeeded in creating an American science of politics, organized around what American policymakers needed to know, how to "organize popular rule." As a result, democracy became not just a normative standard, but the scientific measure of political practice. This would profoundly influence the scholarly and scientific study of non-American, and particularly nondemocratic, regimes and polities. (5) For the next century, American political scientists would struggle, and in some important ways fail, to incorporate the study of nondemocratic regimes fully into the discipline. Like the precise observations and elegant mathematics of pre-Copernican astronomy, American political scientists put their increasingly vast empirical databases and computational power to the service of a discipline premised on a proposition that democracy is the default condition of humankind or, as President George W. Bush put it in 2003, "liberty is the design of nature;... liberty is the direction of history," (6) which was fundamentally flawed.
In fact, the conviction that democracy was the standard by which politics should be measured privileged the experience of a relatively small number of relatively modern political experiments, relegating the vast bulk of human experience to a residual category, that of "nondemocratic." It asked that nondemocratic, democratizing, or transitional countries be examined not for what they were but for what they might become, as if to find what had sidetracked their natural evolution. Many politicians and policy advocates, and indeed, many political scientists, shared this disposition, and from the very outset of the discipline, its founders struggled to distinguish scholarship and partisanship, science, and politics. As Robert Adcock pointed out, "in doing so, however, they did not offer a theoretical grounding for their policy activities." Instead they "responded to the challenge of differentiating scholars from partisans by acting the part." By ensuring that the American Political Science Association did not take partisan positions and by using "scientific" language, the early political scientists established a professional reputation as disinterested scholars that had little underlying justification. (7)
In the ensuing decades, the profound bias around democracy that had been built into the discipline was rarely noticed, much less addressed. After all, as an ideological or normative stance, a preference for democracy was undeniably appealing. It was difficult not to sympathize with President Barack Obama's assertion of his "unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things" and that these include "the ability to... have a say in how you are governed and... the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights." (8) Yet, as an analytical proposition, the assumptions that "all people yearn" for the same things or that human rights could be equated with "American ideas" was demonstrably false. Nonetheless the impulse to confuse normative commitment with positive analysis was sufficiently strong that as early as 1975, political scientist Morris Fiorina had felt constrained to warn that "models become inappropriate when they cease to be tools and become ends." (9) The temptation, as he put it, to take the "model as the norm" would be quite evident, and particularly costly, in the study of what had come to be called authoritarian regimes.
This essay offers an interpretation of the historical development of this democracy-centric, or what one might call Ptolemaic model of politics in American political science through an examination of historical approaches to authoritarianism. It is based on examination of the articles published in the discipline's flagship journal, the American Political Science Review (APSR), the annual presidential addresses of the American Political Science Association (APSA) since the association's founding in 1903, and as the discipline grew and became more differentiated over the succeeding century, some of the foundational works on what came to be called regime types. Naturally, there are many more eddies and byways in the course of this history than can be captured in an essay, but the main current is unmistakable: the privileging of democracy inhibited efforts to genuinely develop a scientific, or systematic, logical, exact, and controlled understanding, in the United States and beyond, of politics in nondemocratic settings. (10)
A Practical Science: The Early History of "Authoritarianism"
For the first generations of American political scientists there was little tension in the association of the domain of political science with democracy. The first two volumes of the APSR, first published in 1906, include in their two dozen articles only two that address any foreign countries at all, and they were about local government in Canada and Germany. (11) It was not until 1914 that an article appeared in the APSR devoted entirely to nondemocratic polities, on "Government in Spanish America." (12) By...