People often think that politicians in democracies ought necessarily be democrats by personal conviction, and politicians in authoritarian countries are going to be authoritarians. This, for example, colors people’s ideas about the Trump administration. Many observers worry that President Trump is at heart an authoritarian, or that he has surrounded himself with authoritarians. This leads them to try to figure out what Trump – and other politicians – ‘really’ believe or want. As I’ve argued elsewhere, that’s probably a mistake.

Politicians’ innermost beliefs are not as important as we think

Take an example that at first appears very different to US politics. The former Prime Minister of Malaysia, Mahathir Mohamad, used to jail dissidents and defend one party rule when he was in charge of Malaysia’s authoritarian regime. Now that he has retired, he finds himself at odds with Malaysia’s current ruler, Najib Tun Razak. So he has dramatically changed his position, arguing against Najib’s perceived excesses and abuse of authority.

This probably isn’t a change of heart on Mahathir’s part. Instead, it’s the result of changing circumstances. When he was in control, he favored few checks on the power of the government. Now that he is out of power, he is much more in favor of restraint.

This may seem obvious – but it has important implications. Many people think that the key to political success is getting the right people with the right beliefs into power. But where people stand depends to a very great extent on where they sit. People are disappointed when someone like Aung San Suu Kyi, the former Burmese dissident, comes to power, but doesn’t live up to her reputation as a martyr for democracy once in office. However, these kinds of changes in stance are the norm rather than the exception. Individual politicians’ personal inclinations are important for politics, but they are not nearly as important as we think.

It’s better to focus on political systems than on politicians’ personalities

The better way to think about political regimes—the general term for democracies and dictatorships—is to think about them as systems. Systems may have features that are independent of the features of the actors who work within them. Political regimes are comprised of individuals arranged into parties, bureaucracies, factions, movements, organizations, and other collective actors that interact with one another and with the individuals that comprise them.

The key point then is that “democracy” is a feature of a system—the regime—rather than a feature of the individuals who comprise it. This view draws on political science research since Guillermo O’Donnell and Philippe Schmitter [PDF] which has focused less on mass or elite attitudes and more on the choices and strategies of actors and groups.

Viewed this way, democracy is not government by democrats. Instead, it is nothing more than the outcome of struggles among individuals and factions, none of whom need necessarily actually value democracy but who may nevertheless find themselves overseeing a democratic regime because no one faction can completely defeat all others. Adam Przeworski describes the underlying ideas in a useful academic paper here [PDF].

This also implies that an authoritarian regime is also not a government or rule by authoritarians. For some this may be reassuring, but it is not necessarily so. It suggests that:

You can become authoritarian without trying. If you corrode systems of parliamentary order to get things done you might undermine institutions that sustain them.

Just as democracies can be governed by authoritarians, so too can true-believing democrats lay the groundwork for authoritarianism.

This, to me, is where those studying American democracy in these times ought to focus. Not on what elites believe, but what they do to the norms and institutions that sustain our current political regime. This could then lead to a useful research agenda on how those democracy-sustaining norms and institutions might be strengthened, regardless of the actions of any administration or any elites.

Tom Pepinsky is an associate professor in the Department of Government at Cornell University