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Democratic Party (Hong Kong)
National League for Democracy Poster (Burma)
Poster Opposing Honduran Coup


To judge threats to American democracy, we can draw on two reference points. One is to compare to past practices within the United States to determine what is outside the norm. Yet this is somewhat limiting since change is not necessarily anti-democratic. The other is based on how democracy has declined in recent history, especially in countries as similar as possible to the United States.


Most recent cases of democratic breakdown have not been military coups. Rather, they featured elected leaders pursuing the steady erosion of democratic functioning. These cases have tended to follow a similar pattern, which we identify below and used in designing our survey. We also list several of the most relevant comparison cases for judging threats to American democracy.

Common Features of Modern Democratic Erosion

  • Attacks on independent media and increasing state control of information

  • Consolidation of executive power at the expense of the judiciary and legislature

  • Steady decline of election quality, attacks on the opposition's legitimacy, and reduced freedom to campaign

  • Encroaching limits on political freedoms and civil liberties (such as speech and assembly)

  • Widespread political violence and intimidation, often including paramilitaries and citizen-led violence

  • Rhetoric from leaders stressing emergencies, threats to order, nationalism, and weaknesses of democracy

  • Other: high political polarization, corruption, abuse of state resources, low trust in institutions

Democratic Erosion Cases


Hungary 2010-

  • Steady decline of political competition and civil liberties under Viktor Orbán's Fidesz party

Poland 2015-

  • Undemocratic moves by the Law and Justice party, especially regarding the free press and judiciary

Turkey 2013-

  • Increasing monopolization of power under Recep Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP)

  • Has accelerated after failed coup of 2016 with crackdown on political opposition and bureaucracy

Venezuela 1999-2005

  • Consolidation of power by Hugo Chavez, ending in democratic breakdown

  • Currently a competitive authoritarian regime under Nicolás Maduro

Others: Brazil 2019-, The Philippines 2007-08 & 2016-, Nicaragua 2007-, Russia 1998-2001, Belarus 1995-96

Democratic Breakdown: Coups


Thailand 2006, 2014

  • Military coups in response to Thaksin Shinawatra's populist electoral victories and political gridlock

Peru 1992

  • Self-coup (with support of military) by Alberto Fujimori, a populist elected president who clashed with legislature over economic and security policies

Others: Honduras 2009, Argentina 1976, Uruguay 1973

Historical Cases


France 1958, Spain 1936-39, Germany 1933, Italy 1922-25

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