A recent New Yorker piece about the shadowland between democracy and autocracy taught me a new word — “anocracy” — and added to my worries about Donald Trump and his semi-criminal gang who tried to steal the 2020 election (and some would say appear to be planning for another try in 2024).
If you’re already an expert on anocracy, feel free to stop here.
The New Yorker piece was an interview by New Yorker Editor David Remnick with Barbara F. Walter, a University of California at San Diego political scientist, who writes about anocracy.
An anocracy is a form of government that is neither a full democracy nor a full dictatorship, but has elements of both.
For example, a governing anocracy may hold elections, but the franchise is limited to far less than the governed. South Africa under Apartheid, in which the black majority of the nation couldn’t vote, was a powerful example. Or an anocracy may be characterized by smaller or subtler quirks that nonetheless prevent the majority from participating in democratic self-rule.
(One could consider the U.S. Electoral College system, which makes it possible for a president to be “elected” without winning the popular vote raises the issue of anocracy in our country. But, more typically, it would be restrictive voter registration features.)
Typically, anocracy is a form of government that “mixes democratic with autocratic features,” Prof. Walter explained. She described it thus:
Anocracy is a fancy term that political scientists give to governments that are neither fully democratic nor fully autocratic. They’re something in between. You could think about these as partial democracies,” in which there are elections but some aspects of full democracy are absent.
Perhaps especially (for purposes of this analysis) the aspect of democracy in which the candidate who gets the most votes wins the election is one of those that is missing in U.S. presidential elections, where the popular vote loser can still win via the magic of the Electoral College.
But Walter, who served for years on an advisory committee to the C.I.A. called the Political Instability Task Force, which studies the roots of political violence around the world, highlighted a perhaps surprising finding. It turns out that:
Full democracies rarely have civil wars. And full autocracies rarely have civil wars. It’s the ones that are in between that are particularly at risk.
Read that quote again. It may be the scariest thing in this piece.
The Trump experience — Book One of which ended in what might be described as a violent attempt to overthrow the U.S. government on January 6 — gives rise to the question: Can the U.S. system recover from the Trump experience and avoid the threat of “anocracy?” Especially the part about anocracies having a tendency to lead to civil war?
It’s hard to know where we are on the anocracy spectrum at present. Did the various violent riots associated with the Trump candidacy, especially the one in Washington on January 6, qualify as a violent riot designed to overthrow the government? If it wasn’t, it was certainly a dangerous approach to one.
Has that threat gone away? Trump and his followers certainly haven’t gone away and they have their eyes set on 2024. And their minds are not set on winning with the support of a majority – or even a plurality – of all voters. The 2024 strategy will surely focus on making Trump the first person in U.S. history to win the presidency twice without ever winning a popular vote majority or even a plurality.
The Trumpists at the moment are focusing on various state-level changes in voting and especially vote-counting laws and procedures that suspicious minds might see as laying the groundwork to steal the 2024 election without winning the popular vote. I’ll leave it to them to explain where they stand on the question of anocracy. Or civil war, should they lose again in 2024.
Referring to data compiled by the Center for Systemic Peace, which the Political Instability Task Force uses to analyze political dynamics in foreign countries, Walter noted that the “honor” of being the oldest continuous democracy, which had been held by the United States since the Center and the Task Force have existed, is now held by Switzerland, followed by New Zealand.
In the U.S. case, Walter noted, the Center’s task force found that “encroaching instability and illiberal currents present a sad picture.” As Walter writes, “We are no longer a peer to nations like Canada, Costa Rica, and Japan,” which are still rated as full democracies.
By the way, the full New Yorker “daily comment” article based on the interview with Prof. Walters, can be accessed here. It was titled: “Is a Civil War Ahead?”
The magazine also presented a podcast option of New Yorker Editor David Remnick interviewing Walters. It was headlined “A New Civil War in America,” and can be accessed here.