There has been a “rise of autocracy around the world” in recent years, according to Dr. Rachel Vanderhill.
Vanderhill, associate professor of international affairs at Wofford College, was the keynote speaker at this year’s meeting of the South Carolina Political Science Association (SCPSA), hosted by Lander University on Feb. 17 and 18. She said that a majority of the world’s people now live under some form of autocracy, and countries once considered democratic, such as India, “have seen a decline in democracy.”
She said that Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his “special military operation” in Ukraine, at least in part, out of concern about having a democracy on his doorstep.
“Democracy in that context is perceived as a potential threat to his rule at home,” she said.
Vanderhill said that autocratic states like Russia and the People’s Republic of China routinely “penetrate and manipulate the information environment of other states” as part of their “efforts to undermine democracy from within.”
She finds the distrust of election results and growing intolerance among some Americans for other people’s views worrisome.
“We see elements in the United States that we know from other cases of democratic decline are part of that process,” she said.
Vanderhill, whose current research focuses on digital repression and the politics of authoritarian succession, among other topics, is “cautiously optimistic” the U.S. will not “go over the cliff.”
“There are much more significant institutional checks in the United States than in many other countries in which we have seen declines in democracy. We also have a much longer experience with democracy in the United States.”
She noted, however, that some of the “checks” to which she referred, especially at the state and local levels of government, have recently been weakened.
“I don’t think that we should assume that we’re out of the woods yet, and that it’s not possible to move down a path of greater autocracy,” she said.
This year’s conference featured 29 other presentations on a wide array of topics, culminating in a roundtable discussion on “Promoting Civil Discourse in a Time of Political Polarization.”
During a business meeting that preceded the keynote address, Lander Assistant Professor of Political Science and Homeland Security Dr. Matthew Malone was elected president of the SCPSA.
Malone, who has been serving as vice president of the organization, and served as 2023 conference chair, said he was pleased with this year’s event.
“It was great to be able to showcase our campus to visitors from universities across the Carolinas. More importantly, it was a chance for Lander undergraduate students to gain research and conference experience in a familiar, comfortable setting. This will help them in future endeavors, both academically and professionally,” he said.