Gloom about the state of democracy pervades Washington and other Western capitals. Restless, insecure, and alienated citizens in many democracies are challenging their leaders on the streets, electing illiberal demagogues, or simply rejecting all of the political choices available to them. Meanwhile, China, Russia, and several other authoritarian powers are growing more assertive and self-confident, claiming that democracy’s time has passed and working to bolster fellow autocrats.
Yet all this attention on the decline of democracy has obscured a story that is just as important: many authoritarians, dictators, and other nondemocratic leaders are also in trouble. Just like their peers in free countries, many citizens in nondemocracies are deeply frustrated with their political systems and have in the last several years been acting on that unhappiness by challenging those in power. The central political dynamic of the current moment is thus not the gradual eclipsing of democracy by authoritarianism. It is, rather, the growing difficulty of political elites in all types of regimes to satisfy the demands of their citizens.