Stealth Authoritarianism

Author:Ozan O. Varol
Position:Associate Professor of Law, Lewis & Clark Law School
Pages:1673-1742
1673
Stealth Authoritarianism
Ozan O. Varol
ABSTRACT: Authoritarianism has been undergoing a metamorphosis.
Historically, authoritarians openly repressed opponents by violence and
harassment and subverted the rule of law to perpetuate their rule. The post-
Cold War crackdown on these transparently authoritarian practices provided
significant incentives to avoid them. Instead, the new generation of
authoritarians learned to perpetuate their power through the same legal
mechanisms that exist in democratic regimes. In so doing, they cloak repressive
practices under the mask of law, imbue them with the veneer of legitimacy,
and render anti-democratic practices much more difficult to detect and
eliminate.
This Article offers a comprehensive cross-regional account of that
phenomenon, which I term “stealth authoritarianism.” Drawing on rational-
choice theory, the Article explains the expansion of stealth authoritarianism
across different case studies. The Article fills a void in the literature, which
has left undertheorized the authoritarian learning that occurred after the Cold
War and the emerging reliance on legal, particularly sub-constitutional,
mechanisms to perpetuate political power. Although stealth authoritarian
practices are more prevalent in nondemocracies, the Article illustrates that
they can also surface in regimes with favorable democratic credentials,
including the United States. In so doing, the Article aims to orient the
scholarly debate towards regime practices, rather than regime types.
Associate Professor of Law, Lewis & Clark Law School. Many friends and colleagues
shared their thoughts on this Article, and I particularly thank Richard Albert, Alexander Blum,
Ed Brunet, Joel Colon-Rios, A.E. Dick Howard, David Fontana, Leah Gilbert, Tom Ginsburg,
Samuel Issacharoff, Jeremy Kidd, David Landau, David Law, Eugene Mazo, Bertil Emrah Oder,
Ana Ibarra Olguin, John Parry, William Partlett, Erin Ryan, Christopher Schmidt, Kim Lane
Scheppele, Juliet Stumpf, Kathy Varol, Yurdanur Varol, Tacettin Varol, Mila Versteeg, Adrien
Wing, and the participants at workshops and conferences held at Cornell Law School, the Center
for the Constitution at James Madison’s Montpelier (the Montpelier Roundtable in Comparative
Constitutional Law), Lewis & Clark Law School, Koc University Law School in Istanbul, Turkey,
and the Third Annual Conference of the Younger Comparativists Committee of the American
Society of Comparative Law. For outstanding research assistance, I thank Eric Brickenstein,
Brandon Hawkins, Philip Thoennes, and Lynn Williams.
1674 IOWA LAW REVIEW [Vol. 100:1673
The Article concludes by discussing the implications of stealth
authoritarianism for scholars and policymakers. The existing democracy-
promotion mechanisms in the United States and elsewhere are of limited use
in detecting stealth authoritarian tactics. Paradoxically, these mechanisms,
which have narrowly focused on eliminating transparent democratic
deficiencies, have provided legal and political cover to stealth authoritarian
practices and created the very conditions in which these practices thrive. In
addition, stealth authoritarianism can ultimately make authoritarian
governance more durable by concealing anti-democratic practices under the
mask of law. At the same time, however, stealth authoritarianism is less
insidious than its traditional, more repressive alternative and can, under
some circumstances, produce the conditions by which democracy can expand
and mature, in a two-steps-forward-one-step-backward dynamic.
2015] STEALTH AUTHORITARIANISM 1675
I. INTRODUCTION ........................................................................... 1676
II. THEORIZING STEALTH AUTHORITARIANISM ............................... 1681
A. AUTHORITARIANISM, DEMOCRACY, AND HYBRID REGIMES ...... 1681
B. STEALTH AUTHORITARIANISM ............................................... 1684
III. MECHANISMS OF STEALTH AUTHORITARIANISM ......................... 1686
A. JUDICIAL REVIEW ................................................................... 1687
1. Consolidating Power ................................................... 1687
2. Bolstering Democratic Credentials ............................ 1691
3. Avoiding Accountability .............................................. 1692
B. LIBEL LAWSUITS .................................................................... 1693
C. ELECTORAL LAWS ................................................................. 1700
1. Voter Registration Laws .............................................. 1701
2. Electoral Barriers to Entry .......................................... 1702
3. Campaign Finance Laws ............................................. 1705
D. NON-POLITICAL CRIMES ........................................................ 1707
E. SURVEILLANCE LAWS AND INSTITUTIONS ................................ 1710
F. BOLSTERING DOMESTIC AND GLOBAL LEGITIMACY ................. 1713
1. Space for Discontent ................................................... 1713
2. Democratic Reforms and Democratic Rhetoric........ 1715
IV. RATIONAL CHOICE AND STEALTH AUTHORITARIANISM .............. 1718
A. IMPLEMENTING STEALTH AUTHORITARIANISM ....................... 1719
B. CHOOSING STEALTH AUTHORITARIANISM .............................. 1722
1. The United States and Other International
Actors ........................................................................... 1723
a. The United States .................................................... 1725
b. Other International Actors ....................................... 1727
2. Domestic Actors ........................................................... 1730
3. Incumbent Officeholders ........................................... 1731
C. REGIME TYPES AND THE COST-BENEFIT CALCULUS .................. 1734
D. STEALTH AUTHORITARIANISM: IMPLICATIONS ........................ 1738
V. CONCLUSION .............................................................................. 1741

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