The dismantling of freedom begins with attacks on unfettered media and an independent judiciary.
Nothing ages so badly as visions of the future. When the fall of the Berlin Wall was followed by the implosion of the Soviet Union, Francis Fukuyama celebrated by publishing his bestseller, The End of History and the Last Man. The book argued that, with the demise of its main ideological competitor, the world would belong to liberal democracy. He has been much mocked since for failing to foresee that democracy would face the emergence of fresh threats and the resurgence of old foes in new guises in the shape of nationalism, religious extremism, autocratic capitalism, unaccountable tech titans, cyber warfare and even, in the case of North Korea, legacy Stalinism. But fair’s fair. For a while at least, his thesis was true.
The end of the Cold War accelerated what is sometimes referred to as “the third wave” of democratisation in the late 20th century. The peoples of eastern Europe were liberated to choose their own governments. African presidents-for-life were sent into retirement. Much of Latin America, once a grisly tableau of coups, insurgencies, juntas and death squads, embraced the tenets of democracy. India was no longer a shining exception to autocracy in developing Asia, as more of the world’s most populous continent followed the democratic path. By the turn of the century, more than 100 countries could be reasonably classified as democracies, albeit often flawed ones. A hundred years before, you could barely find 10 democracies on the world map. If your definition of democracy includes, as really it ought to, women having the vote, then there was New Zealand by 1900 and some bits of Australia and that was it.
Democracy won the 20th century. The hubristic mistake was to think that this trend was so powerful that it could not be reversed. The size of that error is illustrated by the latest report from Freedom House, a non-partisan thinktank that conducts an annual audit of global freedom. The fundamentals of democracy, particularly regular and honest elections, a free media, the rule of law and the rights of minorities, are under attack around the world. Last year was the 12th consecutive one in which the number of countries becoming more free were outnumbered by those becoming less so. The report’s authors conclude that “democracy is in crisis”.
Does the evidence justify this alarming assessment? Some autocratic brutes have been given the boot, among them Robert Mugabe, whose removal at least gives the possibility of a better future for Zimbabwe. Many countries remain robustly democratic. Britons may feel a squeak of patriotic pride that Freedom House awards a high 94 points to our country. You have to be Scandinavian to achieve the maximum 100.
It is hard, though, to disagree that the big picture is a negative one. From Venezuela to the Philippines, more countries have become less free. And many of those countries that remain democracies are becoming more dysfunctional. The charnel house that is Syria is a daily reminder that the hopes associated with the Arab spring have crumbled into the dust. Tunisia, democracy’s lonely outpost in the Arab world, is now very troubled. Closer to home, there is the slide into autocratic rule in Turkey and creeping authoritarianism in Poland and Hungary, countries that had been presumed to be permanent gains for liberal democracy. The danger here is not so much the old spectre of tanks on the streets. The dismantling of freedom begins with attacks on what some call “the soft guard rails” of democracy: unfettered media, an independent judiciary, a basic level of respect for political opponents. Freedom is not devoured in one gulp, but in a series of bite-size chunks.
Political scientists are conducting a lively argument about how worried we should be and what has caused this global retreat, but I think we can pick out some clear drivers of what has gone wrong. Start with the democratic victors of the Cold War. Their cohesion and confidence are being corroded by economic pressures, social inequalities, rebellions against the consequences of globalisation and a resurgence of nationalism and regionalism. Populists of left and right have exploited voter anger to gain support and parliamentary seats across Europe. The result is that they have got into power in some places and in others made it harder for mainstream parties to form viable coalitions, as in the Netherlands and Germany. This wave has not yet broken. Ahead of Italy’s elections in March, populists of left and right lead the polls and have cornered two thirds of the electorate.
Populists have profited at the ballot box by telling voters that democracy is a sham or a scam rigged in favour of outsiders or an elite or both. The populist prescriptions are nearly always snake oil, but their diagnosis has resonance with many voters because the economic discontents are real. It is no coincidence, as the old Marxists liked to say, that western democracy has come under so much stress since the Great Crash of 2008 and the protracted squeeze on living standards that has followed it.
In western countries that previously promoted liberal values, there is what Human Rights Watch calls a “frontal assault on the values of inclusivity, tolerance and respect”. America is mesmerised by Trump. Britain is obsessed with Brexit. Germany struggles to put together a government. All have become fractiously inward looking. This has bloody consequences for the rest of the world, by helping to allow mass atrocities in Myanmar, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen to continue with near impunity.
The United States has shrunk from its traditional role as exemplar of democracy and global champion of it. America was always extremely imperfect in this role, but its postwar leaders at least paid lip service to the idea that the shining city on the hill should be a beacon of liberty. The Oval Office is occupied by a president who has spent his first year in office trashing democratic norms at home while expressing no sense of responsibility to be an advocate for universal human rights. He has triggered a plunge in international respect for American leadership to a record low. The United States has often in the past been an enabler of undemocratic regimes, but never before has it had a president who expresses so much open admiration for authoritarians in the Kremlin and elsewhere, and so much undisguised contempt for his country’s traditional allies among the other democracies.
Division and disarray among democracies has encouraged the pursuit of an aggressively anti-freedom agenda by the major autocracies, China and Russia. During the optimism of the third wave, it was presumed that democracy had a world-winning formula. The more prosperous countries became, the more they would want to be free; the more free they were, the more prosperous they would become. The belief that a richer China ought to become a more liberal China is not shared by President Xi Jinping. He is intensifying repression at home and promoting the Chinese model of autocratic capitalism as a superior recipe for stability and prosperity. It was Xi’s recent boast that China is “blazing a trail” for developing countries to emulate. China’s autocrats blaze while the democracies fiddle.
As is their way, political scientists have seen a disturbing phenomenon and given it geeky labels. Some call it “democratic deconsolidation”. Others go for “democratic recession”. I prefer “recession”, because at least that description implies a seed of hope that this trend does not have to be permanent. Recessions can and usually do come to an end.
Reading the recent flurry of reports about the endangerment of liberty around the world, you could be driven to the despairing conclusion that democracy is dying. That fatalism would be as large an error as the assumption that democracy would be everywhere and permanently triumphant. Democracy has a lot going for it, not least that it is a better form of government than any other type that the human race has yet managed to design. Millions of South Koreans are not trying to flee to the north. There was something both bizarre and fantastic about watching the White House physician take questions from reporters about the most intimate details of the president’s health on live and global television. They don’t do that in dictatorships.
Democracy is not doomed. The lesson of the past decade is the subtler one that democracy is more fragile, vulnerable and contingent than many liberals have often complacently supposed. The arc of history is not irreversibly bent in favour of freedom. The case for it has to be renewed and reinvigorated for each generation. The biggest mistake we make about democracy is to take it for granted.