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Leonid Bershidsky

Democracy Has No Ideal Form

Countries constantly move up and down a spectrum that ranges from authoritarian to liberal.

Viktor Orban’s Hungary is a work in progress.

Viktor Orban’s Hungary is a work in progress.

Photographer: Ferenc Isza/AFP/Getty Images

(This is the fifth of a series of columns on economic growth and the challenges to democracy. Read the other parts here: The Democracy Dividend: Faster Growth Hardliners Learn That Democracy Can Pay OffCentral Bankers Shouldn’t Have to Rescue Democracy; Democracy’s Dividend Is the Right Kind of Growth.)

According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, most of the world’s governments are “authoritarian regimes,” “hybrid regimes” or “flawed democracies” (even the U.S. falls into the latter category). That’s not necessarily a problem: Democracy isn’t a rigid structure or a terminal point of development; it’s a moving target, and countries continually shift their positions on a spectrum that ranges from dictatorship to liberalism.

Hybrid or authoritarian regimes often use the word “democracy” to describe their political systems. There’s often a modifier, though. During the transition to Vladimir Putin’s authoritarianism, Kremlin ideologues spoke of “sovereign democracy” and “managed democracy.” In 2014, Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary explained that his regime was an illiberal democracy. China’s Communist leaders invoke Lenin’s principle of “democratic centralism,” which holds that decisions reached democratically within the ruling party are binding for all members, even those who didn’t back them. All of these concepts add up to a dictatorship of the majority: A leader or a force that has the support of a large majority of the population makes sure to dismantle the checks and balances that allow the minority to challenge the rulers’ power.