Stealth Authoritarianism

70 Pages Posted: 26 Apr 2014 Last revised: 16 Feb 2016

See all articles by Ozan O. Varol

Ozan O. Varol

affiliation not provided to SSRN

Date Written: April 24, 2014


Authoritarianism has been undergoing a metamorphosis. Historically, authoritarians openly repressed opponents by violence and harassment and subverted the rule of law to perpetuate their rule. The post-Cold War crackdown on these transparently authoritarian practices provided significant incentives to avoid them. Instead, the new generation of authoritarians learned to perpetuate their power through the same legal mechanisms that exist in democratic regimes. In so doing, they cloak repressive practices under the mask of law, imbue them with the veneer of legitimacy, and render anti-democratic practices much more difficult to detect and eliminate.

This Article offers a comprehensive cross-regional account of that phenomenon, which I term stealth authoritarianism. Drawing on rational-choice theory, the Article explains the expansion of stealth authoritarianism across different case studies. The Article fills a void in the literature, which has left undertheorized the authoritarian learning that occurred after the Cold War and the emerging reliance on legal, particularly sub-constitutional, mechanisms to perpetuate political power. Although stealth authoritarian practices are more prevalent in nondemocracies, the Article illustrates that they can also surface in regimes with favorable democratic credentials, including the United States. In so doing, the Article aims to orient the scholarly debate towards regime practices rather than regime types.

The Article concludes by discussing the implications of stealth authoritarianism for scholars and policymakers. The existing democracy-promotion mechanisms in the United States and elsewhere are of limited use in detecting stealth authoritarian tactics. Paradoxically, these mechanisms, which have narrowly focused on eliminating transparent democratic deficiencies, have provided legal and political cover to stealth authoritarian practices and created the very conditions in which these practices thrive. In addition, stealth authoritarianism can ultimately make authoritarian governance more durable by concealing anti-democratic practices under the mask of law. At the same time, however, stealth authoritarianism is less insidious than its traditional, more repressive alternative and can, under some circumstances, produce the conditions by which democracy can expand and mature, in a two-steps-forward-one-step-backward dynamic.

Keywords: Authoritarian, Democracy, Authoritarianism, Semi-Authoritarianism, Competitive Authoritarianism, Rational Choice, Turkey, Russia, Hungary, Discretion

Suggested Citation

Varol, Ozan O., Stealth Authoritarianism (April 24, 2014). 100 Iowa Law Review 1673 (2015), Lewis & Clark Law School Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2014-12, Available at SSRN:

Ozan O. Varol (Contact Author)

affiliation not provided to SSRN

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