In 1930s Europe, a economic crisis toppled democratic governments, and swept dictators into power. Liberal societies seemed ineffectual; authoritarianism was the coming thing.
The crash of 2008, though, may end up having the opposite effect. Over the last few years, both American alarmists and anti-American triumphalists have emphasized the disruptive power of populist, semi-authoritarian political actors — from Ahmadinejad’s Iran to Vladimir Putin’s Russia to Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela. But these regimes, which depend on petro-dollars for stability at home and influence abroad, may prove far more vulnerable to economic dislocation than their democratic rivals.
Amid the wreckage of the Great Depression, intellectuals and policymakers looked to fascist Italy and the Soviet Union for inspiration. But it’s hard to imagine anyone seeing a model in the current crop of authoritarian governments. It’s much easier to imagine them being swept away, if the recession endures, by domestic discontent.