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Freedom's Retreat
Killing Democracy Softly

Modern autocrats are less prone to violence and overt repression than their totalitarian predecessors—but that only makes the threat they pose all the more insidious.

Published on: January 16, 2018
Arch Puddington is Distinguished Scholar for Democracy Studies at Freedom House. He is the author of Breaking Down Democracy: The Goals, Strategies, and Methods of Modern Authoritarians.
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  • I don’t agree that freedom’s retreat has drawn remarkably little attention. In fact I have the impressions it’s what everyone is writing about all the time. Not that it makes the retreat itself less scary.

  • Matt_Thullen

    If by “Democracy” one means implementing the agenda of the liberal parties of the United States and Europe, then yes, “Democracy” is under threat. If “Democracy” is understood to mean allowing the people of a country have a say in their government, and allowing opposition parties to contest elections, then no, “Democracy” is not under threat.

    These crocodile tears regarding threats to democracy all center around the fact that certain subjects–such as mass global immigration–which were not to be raised in polite company, are now being raised by parties that our global elite do not like.

    Note that with all the examples raised by the author, he doesn’t address whether or not unelected judges should have the power to set immigration policy for the U.S., to take one example. If a single federal judge can, against law, caselaw and common sense, dictate immigration policy, is that a threat to democracy? If not, why not?

    • FriendlyGoat

      I’ll trade ya immigration law decided by one judge for all the conservative 5/4s at SCOTUS in the past and the ones you hope for in the future. Deal?

      • Matt_Thullen

        Sure, but the basic issue is why five judges have the power over so many aspects of our lives. Is it democratic to have the judiciary, on it’s own initiative, have the final say in, well, everything under the sun? Having judicial review and oversight of legal issues is fine, but taking the decision-making power out of the hands of voters and their elected representatives seems to be quite undemocratic. Not a single bill is enacted into law, not a single initiative is passed, without some judge deciding whether it is allowed or not.

        • FriendlyGoat

          Well, you know I’m gonna be a leftie in cheering the Court for expanding actual human rights and dissing it for being a stumbling block to good law—–both done these days in a totally partisan way. No one can have same-sex marriage without libs, and we libs cannot have the campaign finance limitations most Americans actually want while living with conservatives on the Court.

          • Matt_Thullen

            Getting beyond the politics, I believe that taking serious decision-making out of the hands of people and legislatures makes for greater posturing and less compromise. When all issues have to be framed in the all-or-nothing lens of litigation, opportunities to find common ground quickly disappear.

          • FriendlyGoat

            The opportunities to find common ground are going bye-bye. Democrats are seeking purists in their legislative bodies. Republicans even more so, it now appears. All of them are “scored” on purity by various interest groups. Compromisers get “primaried”. The result is the loss of what we called “statesmen” of old. For instance, there SHOULD have been some GOP votes for a PPACA-type health care bill years ago, given that it was largely modeled on market principles once suggested for health care by conservatives. And there should have been a tax bill last year which could have passed in a bi-partisan way—more balanced. But, alas, no. It’s a question whether enough compromise exists to keep the lights on from month to month.

    • Technically, though, some people argue that the United States is not a democracy, but rather a republic. Though that may just be a matter of semantics.

    • Margaret

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    • svadon

      Americans. You see how much you have shot the same as you Americans. You do not quiet, very loud and kill democracy.

  • FriendlyGoat

    Good link. Bad trend. Very important subject for contemplation. Have positive results from the democracy experiments permanently peaked already?

    • Angel Martin

      I don’t know if we’ve seen peak democracy.

      But I think we have seen peak progressivism, peak globalism and peak political correctness.

      • FriendlyGoat

        Then you have seen peak democracy, because those were the modern reasons for having it and the modern benefits to be expected from it. There is not much to be said for elections which produce politically incorrect results. One could ask Turkey about that, or any free people (including us) who have to deal with Turkey. Same with Russia.

        • Angel Martin

          “There is not much to be said for elections which produce politically incorrect results. ”

          Kinda says it all…

          • FriendlyGoat

            Please see that phrase with the two words separated so it is not the buzz phrase. There really is nothing to be said politically for elections which produce incorrect results. If, in Turkey, for instance, the elections produce a reversion to hardline Islam cemented in the ever-growing dictatorial powers of a guy like Erdogan, then the results are INCORRECT, PERIOD. That means they were (small-p) politically NOT CORRECT. The same is true of elections anywhere which result in any diminution of human rights or any desecration of environment. It is also true of any elections which produce a more rapid march toward an unnecessary war against freedom and truth. If Romney was correct in naming Russia under Putin as our greatest political foe, then we have to regard the election and re-election of Putin as a “politically incorrect” event. You know, regrettable, unfortunate, complicating, off track, backward-going, not positive, net negative,……….

          • Z’ing Sui

            Any person, a group of people, or a society can have a set of values and goals. They may name any outcome of a democratically held elections that doesn’t advance those values and serves those goals “incorrect”. So isn’t that what you’re doing?

            Because the nature of democracy is such that questioning the legitimacy of the outcome of any given election for any reasons that don’t have to do specifically with established election laws is undemocratic.

          • FriendlyGoat

            Aren’t you just stipulating that whatever a narrow majority chooses is right or correct by definition? Because a majority chose it in an election? If 52% in Britain vote to leave the EU, then re-fracturing Europe is the correct path for Europe? If far fewer than 1% of people in America swing the election of the candidate who says man-made climate change is a hoax, then the climate will conform itself to that electoral judgment?

          • Z’ing Sui

            Not at all. What I’m discussing is democracy, because morals and values are subjective even within rather uniform and mostly white Western societies that share a lot of their cultural heritage, much less globally.

            For example, you seem to be frustrated with people in US that support a climate change-denying president. After all, they’re a minority, why the hell do they get to swing the vote, right? And in the case of Brexit, how dare those people use their majority to pass decisions that go against the minority wishes. You could say that one is a smaller minority than the other, but exact proportions of what is to be considered small or large minority aren’t known in each separate case.

            That’s why each nation or even groups of nations have formal rules to determine the way decisions are taken. Those rules are agreed on by all parties that enter the democratic process, and abiding by those rules is crucial. It sometimes leads to making the wrong decisions, that’s why nations have elections and ample time between them to convincing people to change their minds.

          • FriendlyGoat

            Democracy in three major places is running on religion these days. It’s all downhill.
            Putin in Russia. Erdogan in Turkey. Trump in America. None of those occurred without the assembled majority of voters voting for foggy and unreal religious notions over any rationality whatsoever. The question is “When does this result in errors from which recovery is impossible?” Nuclear war is one of those risks.
            Climate change in a longer term is another. When the errors are big enough, there is no justification of democracy’s accidental stupidity which is going to look good and sound good.

          • Z’ing Sui

            Well all that’s debatable. Perhaps there are rational reasons why many Americans voted against the establishment with its globalization, mass emigration and neocon/neolib interventionism, or why many Russians support the guy that presided during the time their wages increased 5 to 10 times, or why Turkey supports a religious conservative strongman after two decades of NATO waging wars that destabilize neighboring countries. Perhaps the only problem is you’re blind to any logic save your own?

            In my view Iraq war is a “big error”, same as the mass exodus from ME/North Africa caused by similar wars started by globalists. Escalation with Russia (and for that matter China and even North Korea) is a “big error”. Trump, Erdogan, and to an extent even Putin are only logical consequences.

          • FriendlyGoat

            There is no escalation like the Trump escalation. If you are China, Russia, DPRK, Iran or even Turkey and this new American guy is acting like he can roll anyone on earth, what are you going to do? You’re going to do everything possible to strengthen your own military position and make every possible alliance that is not with the USA. There is nothing about that in American citizens’ interest.

          • Z’ing Sui

            But this is not different in any way from previous US administrations. Trump, for now, hasn’t started any wars that would annoy and frustrate those countries you’ve mentioned, unlike both Obama and Clinton. Bush, of course, is in a league of his own. I’d say Trump is more likely to catch up than not, but it hasn’t happened yet.

            Simply continuing the wars he inherited is the ‘default’ action that any US presidential primaries candidate would’ve taken in his place, sadly.

          • FriendlyGoat

            What he is doing by his mercurial personality—-reported EVERY DAY all over the world—–is hardening the resolve of every major power to hedge against him in every possible way. Heck, every one of them is now cheering for DPRK to snooker Trump with deployed weapons we become obligated to respect (if not surreptitiously helping it happen). Every one of them is more determined every day to build capability to resist, resist, resist the USA. This is not what American “leadership” is supposed to look like in the 21st Century. Every outside observer can see that American voters were hoodooed (barely) by an egomaniac and they have no intention of being vulnerable to same in any respect whatsoever. They will “play” with Trump from a correct understanding of NEVER trust him, NEVER actually cooperate.

          • Z’ing Sui

            But again, statements and personality are important when it comes to leadership, but more important are actions. For example, if Trump breaks the Iran deal, that would be a severe breach of trust, much more so than any statements he makes or however coarse a language he uses. But it won’t be the first time.

            For example, Obama’s coalition using Russian and Chinese silent ascent to a no-fly zone in Libya to instead carry out illegal airstrikes was such a breach of trust, same as Bush’s fabricated WMD evidence and false claims about Saddam’s Al Quaeda connections that lead to the war, or general US policy of trying to engage China in a dialogue while at the same time trying to economically isolate it with TTP.

            Trump might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back in some respects, but he won’t be alone in creating a reality when any non-allied country has to hedge its bets when it comes to making any agreement with US. Even when Iran deal was signed when nobody in the would could predict a Trump presidency, there’s been a clear (mostly) Republican intent to go back on that deal, if possible.

          • FriendlyGoat

            It’s cat and mouse all the time with any president and foreign competitors, I concede. It’s hard for me to imagine an obviously self-aggrandizing guy enhancing the process.

          • Dale Fayda

            FG is a very scary progressive totalitarian (redundant, I know), when he lets his mask slip a little.

  • Angel Martin

    “The ruling party follows a playbook meant to ensure that, once secured, power is retained indefinitely. The election laws are changed to favor the ruling party. The press is brought under control and ultimately transformed into a propaganda instrument. The judicial system is made into an appendage of the ruling clique. ”

    Obama tried this, but didn’t succeed.

  • Tom Scharf

    I just can’t read these “death of democracy” articles anymore. They all seem to define democracy as “my side winning”. Trump winning is a very good example of democracy working as intended. The ridiculous paranoid predictions of all these democratic institutions disappearing or being under actual threat never materialized much to the detriment of the credibility of those espousing them.

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