The Highlighter

The Political Pendulum Has Returned to Authoritarianism

Karenna Doctor, Staff Writer

Hang on for a minute...we're trying to find some more stories you might like.

Email This Story

The US has recently made a full circle in domestic politics and is seeing similar patterns to the 20th century. The younger generations are pushing for changes similar to those of the 1960s, while there is a return of conservatism like that of the Reagan administration. On the other hand, the presidency of Donald Trump has been riddled with scandals and his political statements mirror those of Nixon. The US is involved in a cyber war with Russia, drawing parallels to the Cold War of the mid to late 20th century.

The US is not the only one facing times of political, economic, and social upheaval. Throughout the globe, a political climate saturated with authoritarian leaders is on the rise. No longer is there a battle between capitalism and communism–capitalism won when the Soviet Union fell in 1991–it is now a battle between democracy and authoritarianism.

Developing countries are the most susceptible to modern authoritarian powers and likely to suffer the consequences in all realms of society. Many of these areas have attempted to establish some form of democracy, but are struggling to stabilize it, leaving a void in power ripe for someone to take over.

Case Study: Brazil

In 2016, Brazil faced a controversial political situation where the president at the time, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached due to the economic instability she faced during her term. She was then replaced by Michel Terner. Some claim that it was a political coup, while others believe that it was necessary to improve the country.

Regardless, the ordeal was a threat to the relatively new democracy that has struggled since its creation in 1985. There have been multiple impeachments, corruption is rampant within government officials, and the coup in 2016 only decentralized the power of the government further, leaving an ample space for a power-hungry politician to occupy.

Jair Bolsonaro, the new President-Elect of Brazil, fills this role. He has reportedly been a threat to basic human rights in the country and has openly declared his hatred for Brazilian Indigenous peoples, LGBT+ groups, and women. He intends appoint military officers to high-ranking political positions and to use a heavy-handed approach to reduce violence and drug crime in Brazil.

“The lightest Afro-descendant there weighed seven arrobas [unit used to measure agricultural products and cattle]. They don’t do anything. They are not even good for procreation.””

— Jair Bolsonaro, April 2017

The militarization of Brazil is a major threat to a previously weak democracy. Once military officials begin to dominate the government, it is likely that the violence and anti-opposition rhetoric that Bolsonaro perpetuates will be echoed within society and Bolsonaro’s allies will be allowed to dominate the government unthreatened. This has the potential to slowly shift the country from democracy to a totalitarian state.

Case Study: Cambodia

This July, Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia won the elections with an 80% majority and his party, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), won 100 of the 125 Parliamentary seats. However, these elections have been called a sham by the UN and much of the Western world.

Sen is rooted in the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia; a fascist regime that led to a genocide of an estimated 1.7 million. The regime desired to have the entire country live in a style of subsistence farming and assassinated any who threatened its ideals. Sen was in exile for most of the Khmer Rouge after serving as a soldier until the mid-1970s but returned and became Prime Minister of the democracy in 1985. He is credited with stabilizing the economy and country after the fall of the regime and has now been Prime Minister for 33 years.

According to UN ambassadors present during the elections, the voters were threatened with their jobs and jail time if they did not vote for the CPP, in addition to the use of military power at polling centers. Most of the foreign observers and domestic monitors, meant to uphold democracy, had ties to the CPP and other authoritarian regimes, suggesting a bias at the polls.

Before the elections, Sen and the Supreme Court disbanded the opposing party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). The leader was put into exile and his replacement was then placed under house arrest. Members of the CNRP in Parliament were placed in detention for political reasons and most were released after Sen won the election.

The Cambodian People’s Party and Sen now dominate Cambodian politics, rendering the CNRP almost powerless and leaving the civilians in a precarious position. At this point, Sen has the power to execute any plans he may have despite the fact that he is considered a threat to human rights. In the past year, he has propagated an entire crackdown on all people who oppose him and taken away freedom of speech through illegalizing most media networks. The 12 military leaders in his control endorse the use of land-taking, murder, and torture, among other illegal methods to maintain power. These are all steps towards a totalitarian regime with complete disregard for humanity.

Case Study: China

China perhaps best exemplifies the new capitalist authoritarianism that has started to take hold throughout much of the globe. While the government still declares itself as communist, the economy is the second largest in the world, ranking just below the US, and it exports more commodities than any other country.

In 1979, a historic treaty was signed between the US and China. Afterwards, China adopted a series of economic reforms that encouraged free market competition, property rights, and growth within the private sector. China’s economy is now set to take over the US’s some time in this century and is distinctly capitalist. The politics, however, do not match up with the communism that China endorses.

The Communist Party is the only party in power, and its rivals do not come close in terms of dominance. The party’s leader and President of China, Xi Jinping, recently abolished all term limits, effectively consolidating power and moving towards an authoritarian state.

In the Western side of China, Xinjiang, “reeducation” camps for the Muslim minority, the Uighurs, have been established to prevent religious extremism. The existence of these camps, which hold about 1 million people, were first denied by Beijing but have now been justified as a measure to prevent terrorism. Senior official, Hu Lianhe, believes that the camps are not a form of ethnic discrimination, despite the reports of discriminatory acts towards the Uighurs and the reports of torture within the centers.

While the camps have not been fully investigated by any organization, the act of separating a minority through involuntary detention is the beginning of a terrifying trend of past fascist regimes. Creating the mentality of the “other” who supposedly poses a threat to the well-being of a nation plays on a form of nationalism that results in the dehumanization that precedes acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing.

China’s government is a fully authoritarian government, and cannot be kept in check within the country. The powerful are all associated with the regime, while the masses are oppressed and unable to act. When this is combined with the largest population in the world and a booming economy, the ideals that could be perpetuated throughout society have the potential to threaten the safety of millions.


In China, Cambodia, and Brazil, all of the leaders have taken advantage of people desperate for change in the midst of financial crisis. In both Cambodia and China, the leaders have helped to grow and stabilize the economy after long periods of social and economic instability, allowing them to gain political support and further fill their governments with their party.

This consolidated power changes the form of government from democratic to totalitarian, allowing the leaders to dominate all realms of life. Unitary forms of government are infamous for abusing power and instating vindictive programs that aim to rid society of outsiders in order to create unified populations that are easier to control.

The problem itself is not with a single ruler holding power, as one that aims to progress society would not pose a threat to human rights; the problem is with the platforms that the authoritarian rulers have run on, the methods used to maintain status, and plans for the use of power.

Bolsonaro from Brazil, supports the militarization of his country in order to eliminate outsiders and those who contradict him. He has also used hateful rhetoric against ethnic and social minorities to boost public support. In Cambodia and China, there is only one dominant party in which the leader is President or Prime Minister. Both leaders have been in power for decades and have no intention of leaving. Both utilize military officials, force, and the abolishment of term limits to maintain power.

In China, the of discrimination and the imposition of camps to separate minorities from society parallel what occurred in Nazi Germany. Cambodia has a history of genocide that could be repeated if certain political methods are employed.

Authoritarian leaders use vengeance and force to justify and accumulate their power, threatening to human rights. While none of the countries listed above have reached full-blown war or genocide yet, it is not unlikely that they could. Their tactics to dominate have been used in fascist regimes of the past including in Argentina, Germany, and Spain.

These regimes denounced the “others” (Jews in Germany, left-wing supporters in Argentina and Spain), killed those who posed even minor threats, gained support (or generated enough fear to prevent dissent), and thus were able to execute their plans for domination.

Around the globe, concern has been growing, as it should be. Human rights organizations and the UN are beginning to watch countries with significant authoritarian leaders more closely in order to prevent a repeat the tragedies of the 20th century. There is nothing humanity can do to prevent the rise and fall of authoritarian powers, as it fluctuates over time, but persecution and violence can– and should be– prevented at all costs.

Karenna Doctor, Staff Writer

Karenna Doctor is a Senior at Rocky Mountain High School and is also a staff member of the school literary and arts magazine, The Looking Glass. Outside...

Leave a Comment

Comments containing obscene, suggestive, vulgar, profane (including letters followed by dashes or symbols), threatening, disrespectful, or defamatory language will not be published and will be reported to the administration. Attacks on groups or individuals based on race, gender, sexual orientation, or creed will be rejected. The Highlighter does not allow anonymous comments and requires a valid email address. The email address will not be displayed but will be used to confirm your comments. The Highlighter is open to strong opinions and criticism of its work, but The Highlighter does not publish comments discussing its policies and practices. However, personal attacks on reporters will not be published. View full comment policy under the about tab.

If you want a picture to show with your comment, go get a gravatar.

The Community Experience of Rocky Mountain High School
The Political Pendulum Has Returned to Authoritarianism