There’s no lack of pessimism these days about democracy’s future.
“Democracy faced its most serious crisis in decades in 2017 as its basic tenets—including guarantees of free and fair elections, the rights of minorities, freedom of the press, and the rule of law—came under attack around the world,” warns the latest survey by Freedom House. The organization reports a 12th consecutive year of decline in global freedom.
Many tyrannies today fit a traditional pattern: autocratic regimes ruling over impoverished, resentful people. But now some analysts see something even more alarming: a capacity for dictatorships to build prosperity for their populations and, without political freedom, still win public support.
This observation has led to new “end of history” fears: a belief that the world’s experiment with democracy has already reached its zenith, and that even countries thought to have “consolidated” democracy may well lose it.
History, however, never fails to surprise. Whenever mankind has felt the future was clear, unexpected events have arrived to uproot our expectations. Armed conflict, it turns out, did not end in 1918. Russia recovered from the Soviet collapse and restored itself as a world player far more quickly than many expected. The Arab Spring, for all its excitement, failed to create a democratic Middle East.
Given our poor record of foreseeing history’s march, it’s quite a stretch to extrapolate from recent data points the inevitable decline of democracy—the system that has accompanied more liberty and prosperity than any other.
Democracy comes in cycles, and anticipating its next appearance can be a long game. We’ve been there: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty spent four long decades keeping a window of communication open to people behind the Iron Curtain before Soviet power fell. But fall it did, to the astonishment of those who had bought into the conventional wisdom about the Soviet Union’s enduring strength.
The paranoia today of many authoritarian states—their desperation to block outside ideas, their mania for social controls and surveillance—show they, too, are hardly convinced that democracy is on the ropes. For them, the main lesson of the Arab Spring or the latest demonstrations in Iran is not that the protesters lost, but that there’s certain to be a next time.
In fact, there are many features of the world today that suggest that democracy is far from finished as a successful and compelling force.
What are those characteristics? How can they be strengthened by those of us who communicate directly with people living without freedom?
The argument that democracy is in long-term decline stems from two major causes. The first is the tapestry of economic, social, and political woes in democratic countries. They have plunged many citizens of these nations into such a vortex of pessimism, self-doubt and mal du siècle that telling any good story about democratic values feels like espousing half-truths or propaganda.
The second is the perceived successes of non-democratic countries, particularly the galloping economic accomplishments of China and the military and cyber power of Russia.
The Russian and Chinese systems do not require non-stop repression. Their citizens do not live in daily fear of Siberia or re-education camps. Rather, Western analysts fear the systems work through a new grand bargain: populations willingly accept having no political input so long as the regime provides the outputs they consider essential. These include public order, an uplifting national narrative (true or not) and some measure of prosperity, at least for the countries’ dominant ethnic and social groups.
The current success of these regimes is not a happy trend, but it is also not an unstoppable one. While it’s hard to know when Western democracies will recover from their current malaise, other trends are unfolding before our eyes that will put heavy pressures on the authoritarian regimes that look so redoubtable today.
The first is communication. The ability of oppressive elites to compartmentalize information, whether about conditions in the country or their own corruption, is fading. So, too, are efforts to block citizens from communicating among themselves.
True, some regimes have become adept at technologies like web blocking. But information networks are so porous and fast-changing that this is a risky long-term strategy.
In 1978, with no internet at all, Iranian revolutionaries successfully spread their message by handing cassette tapes hand-to-hand. Today, a half-dozen nations try to block Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty on radio, satellite, or the internet. Their effectiveness is mixed at best. Trying to cut every means of communication in the modern era is a Sisyphean task.
The real enthusiasts in defying controls on communication are often the young. Young people are not necessarily advocates of democracy as a matter of principle. But they have never before been so empowered to connect with each other and to judge, on the basis of personal experiences, the difference between authoritarianism and liberty.
While modern authoritarian governments may look good enough to older generations who remember when things were worse, young citizens today want to live world-class lives right now. Many are highly entrepreneurial, requiring at least some degree of economic freedom. They are also increasingly plugged into even broader worldwide trends that threaten the whole basis of authoritarian power.
Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms identified some of these currents in an important article several years ago in Harvard Business Review. They noted that “old power” leaders have traditionally based their authority on hierarchies that own, know, or control something in limited supply—like capital, factories, or data. The hierarchies have plenty of these assets, and no one else does.
By contrast, “new power” is open, participatory and peer-driven. It creates ever more resources and products, with a premium on collaboration and sharing. Its virtues are transparency, teamwork, flexible alliances, and a “do it yourself” ethic, Heimans and Timms say. Together, these trends represent a nightmare scenario for regimes built on secrecy, rank and control.
New power challenges old power, or simply ignores it. The rise of cryptocurrencies is an example of large-scale collaboration to create an entire financial system that once would have been unthinkable without government involvement and control.
Certainly, authoritarian states dabble in the tools of new power themselves, manipulating social networks to sow chaos with bots and trolls and using cryptocurrencies to launder money. But fundamentally they remain defenders of hierarchical, closed systems.
The task for democracy advocates is to encourage new-power trends in the interests of freedom. That means championing developments that allow for greater civic participation and information sharing, while seeking to mitigate the potential downsides that new power can bring. As the HBR authors themselves acknowledge, the disappearance of traditional authority can all too often lead to destructive mob mentalities.
In short, friends of democracy need to promote not only trends that help people collaborate and unite, but also the values that will lead people to work together with reason, compassion, and tolerance.
RFE/RL is a news company that focuses on local news inside the countries we serve. We are required by U.S. law to be professional and objective in our reporting, which can stand up to rigorous journalistic scrutiny. At the same time, we seek to promote political freedom, free markets, and tolerance. We see no contradiction in this mandate. We don’t feel that journalistic objectivity requires being indifferent to what happens in the world, and we maintain a particular editorial focus on interests and values that are important to democracy.
This mission animates our work throughout all of our coverage area, which includes the Balkans, the former Soviet Union, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Our reporting, whether in English or one of the 24 local languages used in our bureaus, promotes constructive new power trends and democratic values, while seeking to hold the powerful to account.
Consider just a few of the topics we cover:
- Corruption. Few abuses by governments upset populations more than corruption. From explaining how money laundering works in Azerbaijan to covering anti-corruption demonstrations in Russia that official media ignore, we emphasize the importance of honest government.
- Charity. We promote kindness and charity, regardless of nationality or politics. Our subjects include a selfless Russian doctor in Guatemala, a disabled Kyrgyz boy finally getting a motorized bike, a man who gives bread to the poor near Moscow and a blind man who finally got his own apartment thanks to our reporting.
- Entrepreneurship. We encourage creativity and imagination in business, whether it’s an innovative way to share cows or an imaginative product creating jobs in the countryside.
- Government accountability. We expose child abuse in Uzbekistan and cover anger at authorities over pollution in Kosovo and road taxes in Russia.
- Internet and culture. We report on threats to free use of the internet—a key pillar of new power—and limitations on creative freedom.
- Women’s rights. We report on forced virginity tests in Tajikistan, women in Iran daring to take off their headscarves and brutality against fashion models in Afghanistan.
- Sexual minorities. Many nations where we operate outlaw or barely tolerate LGBT people. We cover the issue broadly, even in Chechnya, one of the worst places for sexual minorities and notoriously hard to report from.
- The toll of extremism. We report on how extremism tears families apart, the case for religious moderation and how local groups, in the absence of government support, take fighting extremism into their own hands.
We also fight vigorously against false news. We produce video explainers on how to identify false narratives. With the Voice of America, we operate sites in Russian and English to fact-check controversial claims.
But as RAND Corporation researchers argued last year, it’s essential to offer positive narratives in addition to combating falsehoods. That’s why we try to emphasize positive results that come from democratic and humanistic values. Though we cover those who speak out against authoritarian regimes, our goal is not to just be the voice of dissidents, but to focus on what a democratic future might look like.
How do we know if our work is helping to move the needle? If “new power” forces are trending up anyhow in the long term, does American-financed encouragement make a difference?
One indication of our value is the size of our audience. We estimate that we reach 15 million people every week in the countries of the former Soviet Union. In Iran alone, we reach nearly 10 million. Last year our websites in 25 languages got nearly a billion page views. On social media, the number of interactions with our content—likes, comments and shares—topped 50 million. Audience comments consistently show that we bring them information and ideas that they can’t get from local media.
We are also proudly transparent about our American funding. U.S. international media have consistently supported democratic ideals since the 1940s. Networks supervised by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, including RFE/RL, the Voice of America and three others,1 now operate in a total of 61 languages.
Some of our target populations are broadly favorable toward the United States. Others are not. Regardless, clarity about America’s values is essential. It is better for America to enunciate its principles and let people judge how well we live by them, rather than let unfriendly actors define what we stand for.
That’s why we constantly seek out stories inside our coverage area that show the importance of the best American and universal values. We believe this reporting resonates with young populations, advances new power, and, despite what the pessimists say today, will ultimately serve the interests of a coming democratic renewal.
1 The other BBG entities are Middle East Broadcasting Networks, Radio Free Asia and Radio/TV Marti, serving Cuba.