Nations known for defending and promoting liberal ideals are now dissing democracy. The latest Freedom House figures are shocking. From our perch in the West, we are witnessing a train smash in the making. Rights and liberties are being snatched away as I write. Only 20% of the world’s people now live under free democracies.
In 2019, political rights and civil liberties deteriorated in 64 countries. Freedom House reports from 2005 to 2019, more countries evidenced declines in aggregate freedom scores than gains. Half the world’s democracies saw declines in functioning governments, freedoms of expression and belief, and the rule of law.
Even the United States has lost democratic ground. Our 2020 “Global Freedom Score” indicates we have drifted away from ideals of liberal democracy. A score of 100 means a country is completely free, this year the U.S. received a combined civil liberties/political rights score of 83, placing it alongside 25 countries with the greatest declines in 10 years.
According to the 2021 V-Dem report, electoral autocracies are now the most common regime type. There are 87 countries that are electoral or closed autocracies. That is, 68% of the world’s people are ruled by autocrats. India, the world’s largest democracy, became an electoral autocracy this year with 1.37 billion citizens now under authoritarian rule.
Authoritarian foes such as Orbán of Hungary, Bolsonaro of Brazil, Netanyahu of Israel, El-Sisi of Egypt, and Erdogan of Turkey are shifting the balance toward tyranny. They do this by capturing the gatekeepers, polarizing and curtailing civil society, repressing freedom of expression by censoring media and limiting academic freedoms. Authoritarians delegitimize the political opposition, manipulate voting rules, and violate electoral integrity. All this creates an uneven playing field for the opposition Lucan Ahmad Way and Steven Levitsky.
Kim Lane Scheppele writes, “If they [autocrats] can simply maintain the formal trappings of democratic government while undermining democracy in technical ways, they can reign forever” through the creation of a ‘Frankensteinstate.’ Here, bits and pieces of democratic institutions are assembled in monstrous ways, making it impossible to challenge the leader’s power. Orbán’s Hungary is an example of such a state.
The world’s most infamous authoritarians, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and Kim Jong Un are responsible for years of “democratic recession” but are too big to spank. Russian democracy is a farce, and Putin would like nothing more than to inflict the same fate on the American version. Sadly, half the U.S. government doesn’t seem to care. Rather than calling out the past president for his love affairs with Putin and Kim Jong Un, the Republicans sat for four years like dashboard ornaments, smiling, heads bobbing in agreement with their populist leader.
Anne Applebaum contends that history will judge those who turn a blind eye to attempts to dismantle democracy. Chris Cillizza argues the antics of the previous U.S. administration and the January 6th insurrection provided fodder for authoritarian propaganda. Xi and Putin assert, “autocracy is the wave of the future and democracy can’t function in the complexities of the modern world.” A liberal ideology, Putin claims, has outlived its purpose—President Biden disagrees. Finally, we are seeing some push back. “We’ve got to prove democracy works,” Biden asserts. “This is a battle between the utility of democracies in the 21st century and autocracies.”
Secretary of State Blinken emphasised that NATO and our other alliances are our strongest assets in confronting the autocratic visions of China and Russia. Blinken assured, “Our alliances were built to adapt – to keep evolving as new challenges emerge.” Biden and Blinken reiterated, we must re-commit to investing in our alliances and partnerships in order meet the challenges in this new era of great power competition against China and Russia. But concerns remain Interim National Security Strategic Guidance.
We need a way forward to strengthen our hand against malign actors who would damage our future. Maybe the answer lies in a deeper union, a “western union” of advanced economies that share liberal values. Some argue against such a democratic alliance, suggesting we first must repair and strengthen democracy at home Foreign Affairs. Biden is confident, however, that a U.S. led Democracy Summit will send a clear message to the world that America continues to be committed to democracy, and we will not allow it to be dismantled by autocrats Yascha Mounk.
On the economic front, Biden warns, “China is out-investing us by a long shot. China wants to become the most powerful county in the world.” A recent Council on Foreign Relations task force report suggested the U.S. should earmark $100 billion for federal research and development; universities and research institutions; and private-sector investments in technology, and Biden calls for something similar to a Belt and Road Initiative to reduce our dependency on China for critical technology. Such world problems are cause for alarm.
At once Levitsky and Ziblatt seem to reassure but at the same time provide a warning: “Comparing our current predicament to democratic crises in other parts of the world and at other moments of history, it becomes clear that America is not so different from other nations. Our constitutional system, while older and more robust than any in history, is vulnerable to the same pathologies that have killed democracy elsewhere. Ultimately, then, American democracy depends on us—citizens of the United States. No single leader can end a democracy; no single leader can rescue one, either. Democracy is a shared enterprise. Its fate depends on all of us.”
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