Karrie Koesel: Authoritarianism, Electoral Autocracies, and Democratic Backsliding

Author: Rebekah Go

Karrie Koesel is an associate professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame and a faculty fellow with the Ansari Institute. She specializes in the study of contemporary Chinese and Russian politics, authoritarianism, and religion and politics.

Karrie Koesel Headshot

Professor Koesel published her first book Religion and Authoritarianism: Cooperation, Conflict, and the Consequences in 2014 and was co-editor of a second book, Citizens & the State in Authoritarian Regimes: Comparing China & Russia in 2021. She is currently working on a third book, Learning to be Loyal: Political Education and Authoritarian Regimes.

Over Zoom, Professor Koesel sat down with Rebekah Go, the Ansari Institute’s Program and Communication Manager, to talk about her research and scholarship. The following has been edited and abridged for clarity.


Since you're the author of Religion and Authoritarianism: Cooperation, Conflict, and the Consequences and the co-editor of Citizens and the State in Authoritarian Regimes: Comparing China and Russia, can you help us understand what characterizes an authoritarian government?

That’s a great question. Democracies share a common set of characteristics, usually elections and other institutions. But there are differences within democracies, such as parliamentary systems with multiple parties and two-party systems as we have in the United States. Authoritarian regimes, on the other hand, run the gamut. You can have a monarchy, a military regime, or a single-party dictatorship like China, ruled by the Chinese Communist Party. You can also have a personalistic regime where there's a “strong man” or a “boss man,” a charismatic leader who essentially makes most of the decisions of the state and has very few checks on his or her power. However, the most common type of authoritarian regime today - and one that is growing - is a hybrid.

Book Cover - Religion and Authoritarianism

Political scientists sometimes call these hybrid regimes competitive authoritarian regimes or electoral autocracies. Essentially, they are regimes with characteristics of both democracy and dictatorship. A competitive authoritarian regime, for example, often has legislatures. It may even have multiple political parties, but the parties don't compete on a level playing field with the party of power. A competitive authoritarian regime may also have free media - or some free media able to do investigative journalism, so long as it doesn't reflect poorly on the leader or the party in power. These hybrid regimes are the most common forms of authoritarian regimes today.

Would you say that hybrid regimes are a more insidious or dangerous form of authoritarianism because they present themselves as not? Can you give examples of what would be considered more fully authoritarian and one that is more of this hybrid?

Interestingly, most modern autocratic regimes embrace the language and identity of democracy, even if they don't have democratic institutions or support democratic values. China, for example, defines itself as a “socialist democracy,” and this Chinese version of democracy, at least as described by the CCP, is seen as more representative and responsive than democracy in the United States or other Western countries. And so it's not new that autocratic regimes have embraced the language of democracy. However, China is a fully authoritarian regime.

Research shows hybrid regimes tend to be less repressive than fully authoritarian ones. Fully authoritarian regimes are those that don't have any democratic decorations, and there tend to be greater restrictions, whether on religious communities, civil society groups, or restrictions on civil and political rights. Hybrid regimes are often more open. This doesn't mean that repression is not present, but there isn't the same level of repression on opposition or restrictions on civil and political liberties. Of course, the danger is that hybrid regimes may not be terribly stable. This is because they have one foot in democracy and one foot in dictatorship. They have mixed identities and are being pulled in different directions, which can lead to instability and political uncertainty.

Russia is an interesting case because, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the country transitioned to democracy. However, by the late nineties and in the early 2000s after Vladimir Putin came to power we saw democratic backsliding. Under Putin we have seen the centralization and consolidation of power. So Russia is an example of a country that has gone from a very new democracy to a hybrid political system to a much more closed authoritarian regime over the spand of three decades. Of course, there are still elections in Russia - Putin was recently reelected again - but there was no meaningful competition in this election. Leaders of the opposition have been imprisoned, poisoned, or they have left the country. And so, while elections are held in Russia today, there's no viable or meaningful alternative to Putin on the ballot. Russia has moved from a hybrid political system into a much more closed, and restrictive authoritarian system.

I am in conversation with another professor, Liang Cai, who researches Confucianism and its impact within the imperial system of China. It’s interesting because Confucianism definitely promotes a life of virtue and morals much like Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. It also leads to high standards of behavior which - according to Professor Cai - leads to high rates of criminalization. Could it be argued that rather than an authoritarian government – China is just a highly religious government? What’s the difference?

Professor Cai is a historian, and I study contemporary China. Today, China is governed by the Chinese Communist Party. Although Confucian philosophy continues to have influence in China and even among government elites, China is ruled by the communist party, which is an atheist political party.

In China today, Confucianism is not considered a religion, but a philosophy. The Chinese government recognizes only five religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Catholicism, Protestantism, and Islam. Confucianism is not one of the five official religions. You can visit a Confucius temple. You can offer incense. You can pray at a Confucius temple or meditate, but the Chinese government doesn't recognize it as one of the five official faiths. It's not a legal religion in China.

Some scholars view Confucianism as a philosophy, while others see it as a religion, and some view it as both. However, having Confucian values informing one's worldview or influencing one’s ruling elites does not make a country a religious state or a theocracy. There are not many theocracies out there. Iran is the only example of this close fusion of religion and the state.

Book Cover - Citizens and the State in Authoritarian Regimes

In the United States, some have argued that ours is a Christian country and others say that the founders intended for it to be religiously pluralistic. However, religious pluralism does not seem to be a requirement for democracy. Some current democratic governments also have an explicit state religion. For example, the United Kingdom’s official religion is Christianity, as is Zambias. Islam is the official state religion of Somalia and Bangladesh. Judaism is the state religion of Israel. Based on your research, how does religious pluralism intersect with authoritarianism? Are there particular dangers with not being pluralistic?

It’s an interesting question when we think about religious pluralism and autocracy. Often what we see in authoritarian regimes is the privileging of one religion over another. So there's the majority religion or the official religion which - for historical reasons or cultural reasons - establishes a religious monopoly. If you think about a religious marketplace, and religious communities competing with one another for believers, space, or resources in this same marketplace, in authoritarian regimes we tend to find a religious monopoly being propped up by the government. In these cases, religious freedom, especially for religious minorities, can be limited. There can be laws and policies that discriminate against religious minorities, or it can be informal practices. For example, government subsidies for religious schools or charities would be only funneled towards the majority religion and not to religious minorities, which is an indirect form of discrimination.

It's a major election year here in the United States and a lot of faith based organizations will try to influence voters one way or another. And then, even within faith traditions, there is religious diversity. What would you advise a voter to do? Especially a new voter who is engaging in the electoral process for the first time? How would you advise them? You've probably worked with a lot of undergrads about how to integrate their faith into their election discernment. Your research shows that this is really important. There are consequences.

My first and most important piece of advice is to vote! The health of a democracy is measured by participation, and it requires active and engaged voters. The second is to do your research. I say this as a professor, but also to future voters: look at the candidates and read their platforms. What resonates? What doesn't? There will never be a perfect candidate or a perfect political party. However, you should vote based on your interests and values. Do your homework, vote, and then stay engaged. Democracy does not begin and end with showing up and filling in a ballot. Volunteer, join a political party, canvas, make phone calls, raise money. We should do all of these things to make democracy work.

Recently some of us have heard quite a bit about Democratic backsliding. Can you explain what that concept is – and perhaps provide a few examples? And is the concern with democratic backsliding that it ultimately leads to authoritarianism? Or is there some middle step?

The idea of democratic backsliding - and democratic erosion - is that within a democratic system, the institutions, values, and norms that make democracy work are being undermined. Institutions are being pushed and under pressure, and in some cases the rules that guide these institutions are being rewritten or ignored. Backsliding is taking place in many democracies from the United States and India to the Philippines to Russia.

The important thing to remember is that democratic backsliding is a process, and that it is incremental. Backsliding happens piece by piece. It could be legislation that targets journalists or undermines the free speech of opposition groups. Democratic backsliding doesn't happen overnight. It is piecemeal, this is why it is so dangerous because the changes are incremental and, therefore, easy to overlook. Over time, however, democratic erosion builds until we arrive at a non-democratic system where the rules of the game have changed. These are the hybrid political systems where democratic institutions are hollowed out.

The best global measure of democracy, but also captures democratic erosion is the Varieties of Democracy Project or V-Dem, which started with some political scientists at Notre Dame, including Professor Michael Coppedge. I mention V-DEM because it is a wonderful resource to measure different kinds of democracy, but it also helps us understand and study democratic erosion over time. V-DEM helps us explore changes in freedom of media, political violence, or political opposition among many other variables, and allows us to track erosion and resilience.

You are currently working on a new book called Learning to be Loyal: Political Education and Authoritarian Regimes. Can you give us a little bit of an idea of what this book will be about, and why everyone should run out and buy it as soon as it's released?

I have to finish writing the book first, but it explores political (sometimes it's called patriotic) education in autocracies. In democracies, the equivalent would be civics education. Many of us were exposed to civics courses in high school or government classes in junior high. Political and patriotic education is essentially civics in non-democracies. The book explores: What does civics look like across the authoritarian world? What political information do authoritarian regimes want to teach young people about their political systems, leaders, and institutions? And, what are the implications of political education? Is it building support for the regime? Is it cultivating political loyalty?


Dr. Koesel is currently working on her book titled Learning to be Loyal: Political Education and Authoritarian Regimes.