The final years of the 20th century and the early years of the 21st were a golden age for democracy. For the first time in history, it became the world’s most popular form of government. In 2005, by one estimate, 119 of the world’s 190 countries had democratic political systems. Democracy’s global momentum seemed all but unstoppable. It appeared to be the political format best suited to sustained economic growth, to which virtually every sovereign state in the world aspired. Its chief 20th-century rival—political and economic organization based on the principles of Marxism-Leninism as embodied by the Soviet Union—had been defeated and discredited. Countries everywhere seemed to be embracing the two component parts of democratic governance: popular sovereignty and liberty.
Then history changed course. Having surged, the democratic tide began to ebb. What came to be called a “democratic recession” set in, with autocratic rule staging a comeback. Now, democracy faces challenges in three different categories of countries.
Russia and China, the two powerful, ambitious, formerly orthodox communist countries, comprise the first category. While neither has had in its long history a stable, long-lived democratic government, both seemed at the end of the 20th century to have embarked on a path leading in a democratic direction. Russia had shed its empire and thrown off communist rule. China had abandoned orthodox communist economics and opened itself to the world. Unfortunately, the democratic progress did not continue in either. The leaders of the two countries, Vladimir Putin in Russia and Xi Jinping in China, made their respective political systems more autocratic, and at the same time began to conduct aggressive foreign policies that threatened their neighbors—in Putin’s case going so far as to invade them.
Democratic backsliders form the second category. These are countries that have had recognizably democratic governments but where leaders have begun, in different ways, to erode democratic norms and institutions. In India, Turkey, Brazil, the Philippines, Hungary, and Poland, among other countries, leaders have gathered more and more power into their own hands or limited the basic liberties of some of their citizens, or both. None of these sovereign states has become a full-fledged dictatorship—all are more democratic than Russia or China—but none is as fully democratic as it once was.
The third category consists of the long-established democracies of the West. There, populist sentiment has lifted to prominence, and sometimes to power, leaders who have not only opposed long-standing policies such as freeing trade but have sometimes seemed less than wholly committed to democratic norms. Among such leaders are Donald Trump in the United States, Boris Johnson in Great Britain, Marine Le Pen in France, and Silvio Berlusconi in Italy.
Three interesting recent books address the current challenges to democracy. The Revenge of Power by Moisés Naím of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C., is particularly illuminating on Latin America, which is not surprising since the author’s distinguished career includes his service as trade minister of Venezuela. The Age of the Strongman by Gideon Rachman, the chief foreign affairs commentator of the Financial Times, offers portrayals of the leaders who are challenging democratic principles and practices, some of whom the author has himself interviewed. Spin Dictators by Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman has a great deal to say about Russia, a country with which the co-authors have long and deep experience. All of these books address, in one way or another, countries in all three categories. On the basis of their analyses, an inventory of the motives and methods of the principal challengers to democracy, especially in the ex-communist giants and the democratic backsliders, can be assembled.
The fusion of wealth and power obstructs and erodes democracy. Where political power serves as a major means of acquiring wealth, political leaders have strong incentives to gather as much power as they can and keep it for as long as possible, for the purpose of making themselves and their associates ever richer. Corruption, that is, serves as a major motive for dictatorship. Corruption is the foundation of the Putin regime, which has therefore been termed a “kleptocracy.” In China, as well, membership in the Communist Party provides a clear path to personal enrichment; people join the Party for just that reason. In Hungary Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s cronies and in Turkey Recep Erdoğan’s family have become wealthy through the patronage of the leader.
The resurgence of autocracy also rests on the appearance—or, rather, the reappearance, since it was common in the 20th century and earlier—of the cult of personality. Putin, Xi, Erdoğan, and India’s Narendra Modi among others bombard the countries they govern with tributes to their own power and wisdom. Campaigns that exalt the leader have the goal of persuading the people that he (thus far all such leaders are male) is indispensable and that the democratic convention of accountability to the public therefore need not and should not be applied to him.
In addition, the new autocrats present themselves, as older ones routinely did, as resolute defenders of their countries against dangerous, predatory threats: Putin and Xi against threats from the West, Modi against threats from Muslims in both Pakistan and India, Orbán against the machinations of the Hungarian-American financier and philanthropist George Soros. The leaders portray these alleged dangers as creating national emergencies in which their countries cannot afford to indulge in democratic practices such as free speech and free and fair elections.
To persuade their populations that they are all-wise and that they alone can ward off the threats that are becoming ever more menacing, 21st-century autocrats, potential and actual, rely on what used to be called propaganda. Guriev and Treisman call it “spin” and Naím terms it “post-truth.” To put it in more familiar terms, autocrats lie. The digital age, with far more information available to far more people than ever before, would seem to have the potential to weaken this age-old political technique. The Chinese government, however, has managed to exert sweeping control over the internet, and authoritarian leaders in other countries have found ways to use the multiple channels of communication now available to saturate the public with their messages and drown out or discredit opposing viewpoints.
Kleptocracy, the cult of personality, the invocation of threats, and propaganda are challenging democracy around the world. What can be done to reverse this general trend? The answer varies across the three categories.
For Russia and China, the removal of the current leaders is a necessary although probably not a sufficient condition. When Putin leaves office, whether sooner or later, the political system he has created may well not survive, although what will follow is not guaranteed to turn the country in a democratic direction. The disappearance of Xi would in all likelihood leave the Communist Party in power in China, but the next Communist leader or group of leaders might conduct less repressive policies at home and less aggressive ones abroad. Unfortunately, other countries have little to no capacity to bring about such changes, although Western military assistance to the Ukrainian forces resisting the Russian army increases the chances of Russian failure in Ukraine, which would weaken the political standing of the person responsible for the war, Vladimir Putin.
A change of leadership also offers the most plausible path to the restoration of full-fledged democracy in the backsliding countries, and in these countries such a change can come about peacefully, and indeed democratically. Turkey, India, the Philippines, Hungary, and others in this category continue to hold elections, which even autocratically-inclined leaders probably cannot cancel. The elections, moreover, tend to be free, because everyone can vote in them and the votes are on the whole counted accurately; but these elections are often not fair, because incumbents have far more money than the opposition and get much more media exposure—especially on television—which tilts the electoral battlefield in their favor. Still, the democratic opposition does win seats in the legislatures of these countries, and people and parties better disposed to full-fledged democracy can hope ultimately to gain control of the government. In some cases the West may be able to exert political or economic pressure to help ensure that elections are conducted fairly.
The Western democracies, with their populist movements, differ from the other two categories in a fundamental way. While some of the leaders of these movements undoubtedly have autocratic predilections—and while one of them, Trump, in refusing to accept the result of the 2020 presidential election even after having exhausted the legal avenues to challenge it, did violate the boundaries of legitimate democratic conduct—populism in these countries is best understood not as an assault on democratic government but rather as a protest against policies that substantial numbers of people not only do not favor but also feel were foisted on them by their countries’ political elites.
Populism is directed against elites, and in both Europe and the United States elite-driven policies have caused what populism’s supporters regard, not entirely incorrectly, as harm to themselves. In Europe, mass immigration has generated a backlash, and the structural shortcomings of the continent-wide currency, the euro, contributed to a steep economic recession. Political elites believed in both initiatives. Much of the wider public, it turned out, did not. In the United States, the Iraq War, the financial crisis of 2008, and the loss of manufacturing jobs due in part to expanded trade and the admission of China to the World Trade Organization—each of them the result of projects of the political elite, none of them a response to popular demand—aroused resentment that found political expression in, among other things, the presidential candidacy of Trump.
It follows that reducing populist political strength requires devising and enacting policies that can both command majority support and address the grievances that have produced political constituencies for the Boris Johnsons, Donald Trumps, and Marine Le Pens of the world. This is obviously not an easy task, but reconciling diverse interests and striking compromises are, after all, what democratic political systems are intended to do and are supposed to be good at doing. The antidote to democracy’s troubles in the West, therefore, is more effective democratic politics.
Michael Mandelbaum is the Christian A. Herter Professor Emeritus of American Foreign Policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, a member of the editorial board of American Purpose, and author of the new book, The Four Ages of American Foreign Policy: Weak Power, Great Power, Superpower, Hyperpower, which was published this month.
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