Understanding what authoritarianism is | University of Amsterdam | Political Science Department

Understanding what authoritarianism is | University of Amsterdam | Political Science Department


Many considered the fall of the Berlin Wall
as the beginning of a free world. The United States had won the Cold War. The idea was that all countries would embrace
democracy. Internet would spread information and undermine
dictatorships. These dreams have not come true. China has become a dominant power, the Arab
Spring failed, and countries like Russia and Turkey have moved away from democracy. And even in the West a free media can no longer
be taken for granted. And independent judiciaries are also under
pressure. And while internet did increase people’s
access to information, it has come with fake news and massive digital surveillance. Many people are worried about authoritarianism. Political scientists can help us understand
what authoritarianism is, and how it might relate to other tendencies such as populism
or xenophobia. To understand authoritarianism, we need to
look at more than elections. We must get away from seeing states as separate
units that are either democratic or authoritarian. Instead, we should study authoritarian practices. These can occur within democratic states,
by several states collaborating, or with the help of corporate actors. These authoritarian practices are about sabotaging
accountability. This is done in two ways: First is lying to the public or keeping secrets
from them without a legitimate reason. The NSA for example, helped by secret agencies
in many countries, was snooping on millions of people. This was done with data obtained from the
biggest tech companies. Their spying programme was repeatedly denied
until this became impossible. The second way of sabotaging accountability
is by disabling voice. Even in democracies like India and Mexico,
journalists and activists are regularly found dead after criticizing those in power. Governments like Iran and Syria harass and
try to shut up critical voices even far beyond their borders, through the internet. Understanding authoritarianism as a practice
allows us to understand how these practices function: not just in dictatorships but even
in democracies, in transnational settings, and with corporate help; when they thrive,
and how they are best countered. Do you want to know more about authoritarian
practices and what research can tell us? Go to

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