June 17, 2024

New Book on The Origins of Elected Strongmen: How Personalist Parties Destroy Democracy from Within

Washington, June 17, 2024 — Just released, a new book from co-authors Dr. Andrea Kendall-Taylor, senior fellow and director of the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), Dr. Erica Frantz, Michigan State University, and Dr. Joseph Wright, Pennsylvania State University.

The Origins of Elected Strongmen: How Personalist Parties Destroy Democracy from Within

Three leading experts on authoritarianism tell the story of how trends in today’s autocracies have become increasingly prevalent in democratic systems, and the negative effect it’s having on the health of democracy across the globe.

Politics is becoming increasingly personalized. Even in democracies leaders are taking on outsized influence relative to the parties that support them. This book documents the rise of personalism in democratic politics and the negative ramifications for democracies today. Frantz, Kendall-Taylor, and Wright offer a battery of empirical evidence and in-depth analysis from the world’s leading democratic strongmen—from El Salvadore’s Nayib Bukele to America’s Donald Trump—to demonstrate how personalism paves the way for leaders to destroy democracies from within.

“While many have pointed to populism or polarization as the source of democratic decline, The Origins of Elected Strongmen takes a different approach, arguing that the real culprits are the modern political parties that have become personal fiefdoms. A refreshing, thought-provoking analysis.”

– Anne Applebaum, staff writer at The Atlantic

This book offers a fresh and clear perspective on a key cause of ailing democracies today. It shows that the party of incumbent leaders is the critical player that can enable (or prevent) democracies from falling apart. When leaders come to power supported by personalist parties, there is little to stand in the way of their ambitions.

The fantastic trio of Franz, Kendall-Taylor, and Wright have delivered again! The Origins of Elected Strongman is a must reading for anyone who wants to understand democratic decline and collapse today. While many accounts of democratic decline point to populism or polarization as the main triggers of incumbent takeovers, The Origins of Elected Strongmen shows the key role of political institutions—specifically incumbent political parties—in paving the way for leaders to dismantle democracy. Where these parties are personalist, it is a red flag for democracy. And tragically, there are too many of these kinds of parties in too many important democracies today.

– Mike McFaul, Stanford University

Today’s democracies are being dismantled from within, typically at the hands of democratically-elected incumbents. This book identifies a new factor that explains this phenomenon: personalist political parties—or parties that exist primarily to further a leader’s personal political career rather than advance policy. Without the constraint of the party, personalist leaders are more likely to dismantle institutional checks on the executive, deepen political polarization, and weaken supporters’ commitment to democratic norms of behavior—all actions that pave the way for democratic backsliding and collapse.

Join CNAS on Monday, June 24 from 11:00 a.m.–12:00 p.m. EST for a timely, virtual event with the authors, and moderated by Susan Glasser, staff writer at The New Yorker. They will discuss the rise of personalism and what it means for democracy—critical issues as the United States prepares for the 2024 Republican National Convention. Register for the event here.

For media inquiries, please contact Alexa Whaley at [email protected].