The 4 Characteristics of an Authoritarian Leader

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "How Democracies Die" by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What makes a leader authoritarian? What are the key characteristics that authoritarian politicians share?

According to Levitsky and Ziblatt, the authors of How Democracies Die, authoritarian leaders share several key characteristics. They refuse to accept the generally accepted rules of the democratic competition, they reject the legitimacy of their opponents, they don’t shy away from using violence, and they express willingness to repress civil liberties.

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the basic characteristics that are shared by norm-violating, anti-democratic politicians with some examples.

Identifying Authoritarians

Before looking at how anti-democratic forces take over the political system, it’s important to delineate exactly what constitutes authoritarianism. Levitsky and Ziblatt identify four warning signs of authoritarianism, singling out politicians who:

  1. Reject the generally accepted rules of democratic competition by refusing to accept unfavorable election results
  2. Refuse to accept the legitimacy of their democratic opponents by accusing their political competitors of being traitors or criminals
  3. Endorse violence or sabotage by their supporters
  4. Express a willingness to crack down on civil liberties by, for example, threatening to sue media outlets that don’t give them favorable coverage
Robert Reich’s Warning Signs of Tyranny

Other commentators have cited additional shared characteristics of authoritarian political leaders, separate from those labeled by Levitsky and Ziblatt. Former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich claims that authoritarians are marked by 15 common features, some of which include:

Repeated lying in an attempt to “gaslight” the public and make them doubt the veracity of information sources other than those approved by the leaderNepotism and the appointment of family members and personal friends to positions of high power.

Treating public office as an opportunity for graft and personal enrichmentBlurring the lines between civilian and military authority, especially by appointing active-duty generals to high-ranking positions in the civil bureaucracy

When How Democracies Die was published in 2018, Levitsky and Ziblatt argued that Donald Trump, in his successful 2016 bid for the presidency, was the only U.S. major-party candidate in history who met all four of their criteria. They concluded that this made him a unique threat to the stability of American democracy. 

They posit that Trump satisfied all four authoritarian characteristics:

  1. He rejected the rules of normal democratic competition by accusing the Democratic Party of using illegal immigrants to perpetrate a massive voter fraud scheme and indicated that he would not accept the results of the election if he lost.
  2. He denied the legitimacy of his political opponents with his embrace and spread of birtherism (the conspiracy theory alleging that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States), and his calls for Hillary Clinton to be imprisoned.
  3. He openly encouraged violence at his rallies, on several occasions even offering to pay the legal fees of supporters who beat up anti-Trump protestors.
  4. He advocated the curtailing of the civil liberties of his opponents with his promises to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Clinton and his announced intention to change libel laws to make it easier to sue journalists who criticized him.
The 4 Characteristics of an Authoritarian Leader

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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