As two recent reports have made clear, the global recession of freedom and democracy is deepening. The latest “Freedom in the World” report, released last month by Freedom House, warns that electoral integrity, freedom of the press, and rule of law are “under assault and in retreat globally.” 2017 was the 12th consecutive year in which average levels of political rights and civil liberties have trended downward. 71 countries declined in freedom, while only 35 gained; and among those countries with significant changes, 20 sharply declined, only 6 sharply improved. Since 2006, twice as many countries have declined in freedom as have improved.
The annual Democracy Index, released by the Economist Intelligence Unit, notes a similar trend. Of the 165 countries (and two territories) measured, 89 declined in their democracy score, more than three times the number (27) that improved. Virtually every region in the world declined, and since 2006, western Europe has seen almost as much erosion as the east. Globally, the erosion encompasses not only growing curbs on freedom of speech, media, and the Internet, but declines in democratic trust, tolerance, and participation.
While the net numerical decline in democracies has so far been modest, the geopolitical weight of retreat is more alarming. In recent years, democracy has failed in big emerging-market countries, including Turkey, Thailand, Bangladesh, and Kenya. It is under serious pressure from autocratic leaders or parties in the Philippines, Bolivia, and Peru; from religious extremism in Indonesia; and from corruption and criminality in Brazil, Mexico, and South Africa. Most of the countries that experienced uprisings during the Arab Spring—notably Egypt—are now more authoritarian than they were at the time, and even the one successful case of democratic transition, Tunisia, is flailing due to regional insecurity and the resurgence of old authoritarian forces. In Pakistan and Myanmar, the military is ever more obviously in the driver’s seat, presiding in the latter case over large-scale ethnic cleansing of the country’s Rohingya minority.
But the most alarming setbacks are now coming in the once-solid core of liberal democracy, the West. In the postcommunist states of the “new Europe”, a crisis is gathering. Some of the biggest global declines in freedom last year were in Hungary and Poland, which continued their descent from liberal democracy to what Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán calls “illiberal democracy” but is better termed “postmodern autocracy.” It is an arrangement that leaves the shell of democratic institutions standing but hollows out the pluralist essence—a free press and civil society, an independent judiciary, a fair electoral playing field—that it is nearly impossible to defeat the ruling party through normal politics. By this means—long since perfected in Russia, Venezuela, and Turkey—the ruling party barricades itself in power. After neutering independent institutions and systematically rigging the political system, Orbán’s Fidesz regained its two-thirds majority in parliament in 2014 despite winning only 45 percent of the vote—and a smaller number of votes than in the party’s losing efforts in 2002 and 2006. He seems set to pull off the same trick in elections this April.
Orbán’s right-wing populist assault on liberal norms and institutions has inspired emulation across postcommunist Europe. According to a new report by the Tony Blair Institute, populists have won power in seven Central and East European countries (Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Bosnia and Serbia); they have joined as junior coalition partners in two more; and they constitute the primary opposition in another three. Between 2000 and 2017, the average populist vote share in the region more than tripled, to 32 percent, and the number of populist parties doubled (to 28).
In “old Europe”, the rise of xenophobic populism has not eviscerated liberal democracy, but it threatens key elements of the liberal order: historic Western commitments to freer movements of people, goods, and services; to social, political and religious tolerance; and even to individual and minority rights. The milestones include the victory for Brexit in the 2016 British referendum; the record 34 percent vote for the anti-immigrant, pro-Russian National Front candidate, Marine LePen, in the 2017 French presidential election; the prominent entry into Austria’s government of the far-right Freedom Party, after it won more than a quarter of the vote; the rapid emergence of the right-wing, populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) as the third largest party in Germany (with one in eight votes); and substantial electoral gains by extreme anti-immigrant parties winning in other very liberal democracies, such as the Netherlands and Sweden.
As Freedom House notes, the biggest jolt to the liberal democratic order came with the election of a populist, polarizing American president, Donald Trump, who has challenged key democratic institutions—the judiciary, the mass media, and the integrity of the electoral process—while denigrating immigrants, racial and religious minorities, international trade and engagement, and American support for civil society and liberal democratic norms abroad. A year into his presidency, Freedom House reported a significant decline in freedom in the U.S., as a result of Trump’s violations of basic norms of transparency and democracy.
Why is the erosion of liberal democracy now suddenly reaching crisis proportions? There is general agreement among analysts such as William Galston, Yascha Mounk, and Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt on three crucial drivers of populist backlash and normative erosion in the West: economic insecurity, cultural insecurity, and the polarizing effects of social media. In Britain, the U.S. and continental Europe, the strongest electoral constituency for rightwing nativist and illiberal parties has been among groups who feel threatened in their economic and social status by stagnant or falling wages, rising inequality, the closure or migration of factories, a general decay of infrastructure and living standards, and surging immigration and cultural pluralism. Whether the locus is the marginalized and de-industrialized interior of the U.S., Britain, or Germany, the common factor is threat to existing social status, which leaves people feeling that a world that once offered comfort and predictablity is now being torn asunder. In his classic mid-century work, Political Man, Seymour Martin Lipset identified declining middle class groups as a crucial base of support for right-wing extremist movements, in reaction—even revenge—against sweeping social and economic changes, big, impersonal corporations and institutions, and urban, intellectual elites.
The problem has been compounded by historically high levels of immigration, particularly in Europe but also in the United States. The current proportion of immigrants in the United States (about 14 percent) is nearing the record level (14.8 percent) set in 1890; it is three times the level in 1965; and it is projected to rise to 18 percent in 2065. The number of immigrants in the U.S. quadrupled between 1970 and 2013, to over 40 million, and the composition of the immigrant population has changed dramatically, from mainly European in the 1970s to predominantly Latin American and Asian today. Europe, which has less experience with immigration, particularly from outside Europe, has lower levels of foreign-born populations. But the proportions are rising more rapidly (to eleven percent, on average), and as a result these countries are feeling greater cultural stress. For example, while Hungary’s population was less than 6 percent foreign-born in 2016, it experienced the second fastest surge of immigration in Europe. And by 2016, the proportion of immigrants was greater than the U.S. level in Germany, Austria, and Sweden, which also have among the fastest-growing immigrant populations. These new waves of immigration are bringing degrees of cultural and religious diversity that most of these countries have little experience absorbing, especially so rapidly. Thus, they present a ready target for blame attribution.
With economic and social change have come anxieties about national sovereignty. And the three anxieties are deeply intertwined. In Europe, rightwing anti-EU parties condemn a politically distant Brussels bureaucracy for forcing their countries to accept European migrants, Syrian refugees, and open markets, which they blame for the loss of jobs and economic security. The common chord is a deep-seated fear of losing control, security, status, and tradition—of falling, falling into the unknown. Rightwing populist demagogues have brilliantly exploited these fears, as Trump did with his famous characterization of Mexican immigrants: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” The common vow of illiberal populists is to roll back globalization and restore “the good old days” of economic security, social order, and (relative) cultural homogeneity—one or another national version of “America first” and “make America great again.”
Stirring this mix of toxic forces has been the rise of Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. In empowering anyone to broadcast anything, social media have further eroded the traditional gatekeeping (and norm-preserving) roles of established media and political party organizations. In the process, they have coarsened the political dialogue, facilitated the easy proliferation of “fake news”, and made it vastly easier for extreme and marginal figures to mobilize followings. By enabling like-minded people to quickly find and engage one another exclusively, they have also heightened social and political polarization. There have been positive effects as well, in leveling the playing field for political mobilization and campaign finance, but social media have fit populist politics like a hand in a glove.
Most devastatingly, social media have lowered the barriers to foreign authoritarian manipulation of democratic politics. And that points to a fourth driver: the resurgence of Russian power and the rise of China as the next global superpower. With different styles and methods, these two powerful autocracies have been penetrating the political systems and cultures of democracies new and old, putting at risk the integrity of elections and information flows, and even endangering some freedom of expression. By hacking into digital information stores, manufacturing fake news, and flooding social media with outrageously polarizing posts, Russia has ruthlessly fanned fear and division. Having succeeded brilliantly in Britain and the United States in 2016, Putin’s troll and bot factories are now targeting the 2018 elections in Mexico and the United States.
As democracies appear ever more dysfunctional, divided, and irresolute, as authoritarian regimes exploit and propagandize these difficulties, and as China expands its economic and political muscle through its Belt and Road Initiative and surge of development “assistance”, global faith in democracy as the best system is eroding. The specter that now haunts the world is something unseen since the 1930s: an authoritarian zeitgeist celebrating the suppression of political and individual freedom as a better way to govern.
A simplistic reading of the social science literature could say the rollback of democracy was to be expected in countries lacking the key conditions for democratic success—a large middle class, highly levels of education, a strong civil society, and a cultural of tolerance and mutual restraint. But many democratic success stories began under difficult circumstances. It is analytically fatuous and morally wrong to write off democratic aspirations anywhere. As India and Botswana have shown, democratic norms and institutions can take hold in poor countries. And they can unravel in rich countries—including, we should not be so arrogant to doubt, our own. Democratic values must be cultivated and renewed in every generation. And they need to defended and promoted across borders.
The most important contribution of Samuel Huntington’s landmark study, The Third Wave, was not to give this name to the democratic expansion of the late twentieth century, but rather to see how indispensable international—and especially American—efforts to foster democracy were to this transformation. In particular, the renewal of American power and resolve under Ronald Reagan, and the expansion of efforts and instruments to support democracy abroad, helped bring about the end of Soviet communism and the rapid spread of freedom. Back then the zeitgeist was all about democracy. Now it is about democratic weakness, apathy, and decay.
We are at a tipping point. Around the world, many democracies are hanging by a thread and autocrats are preparing more savage assaults on what remains of freedom. Two things stand in the way: pressure from below, in civil societies that will not go quietly into the dark authoritarian night, and pressure from outside, particularly from the United States and the European Union. Although doubts about democracy are growing, public opinion polls still show considerable support for democratic and accountable government, not just in Europe and North America but in Africa, Asia and Latin America as well. Democratic parties, mass media, think tanks, and associations need material support and technical assistance. At least as much, they need diplomatic support—clear messages of Western democratic solidarity with people struggling to fight corruption and defend their freedom, and clear warnings of consequences—in terms of economic aid, security assistance, and political support—if rulers trample on democratic constitutions and individual rights. These messages need to come both from our ambassadors on the ground and our highest officials in Washington.
No great power can pin its global engagement on principle alone. But in most countries, we can do and say something on behalf of freedom and the rule of law. And on many fronts, including the troubled transitions in Ukraine and Tunisia, our engagement and pressure could make the difference between success and failure. If we do not renew our global leadership for freedom, and our resolve to assist and defend it where we can—including against Russia’s ongoing cyber assaults—the long decade of democratic recession will give way to an authoritarian rout.