Less than 5% of the world’s population now lives in a full democracy. A third live under authoritarian governments. Over half the nations in the world are experiencing significant democratic decline. That’s according to the latest edition of the ‘Democracy Index’, published in January.
It’s a far cry from the optimism that followed the ‘Autumn of Nations’ at the end of the Cold War, when a wave of revolutions swept away the repressive governments of the former Eastern Bloc. Liberal democracy was on a seemingly unstoppable march, and the dictators were on the run: a moment some historians opined as ‘the end of history’, as the whole world converged on this democratic ideal. Unfortunately, history had other plans.
Having reached its peak in the 1990s, the advance of democracy stuttered, before shifting into reverse gear – hitting the accelerator pedal with the financial crisis of 2008. And even as the global economy recovered and returned to growth, this ‘democratic recession’ has continued with frightening pace.
By now we’re all pretty familiar with the most obvious culprits. Russia’s nascent democracy was strangled at birth by Vladimir Putin’s macho authoritarianism. Turkey – once a Middle Eastern success story – has slipped towards becoming a modern-day sultanate as Recep Erdoğan consolidates his power. The rest of the Middle East, briefly flirting with democracy in the wake of the Arab Spring revolutions, has slipped back into dictatorship, repression, and in many places – civil war. China has never been a democracy, but it has shifted back in the direction of deeper authoritarianism under the reign of the autocratic Xi Jinping.
This trend has not escaped the EU – where democracy, human rights and rule of law are meant to be sacrosanct. Since his 2010 victory at the helm of the right wing ‘Fidesz’ party, Viktor Orban has dragged Hungary’s once rosy democratic credentials into the dirt in his quest to build a self-described ‘illiberal state’. His government has rapidly moved to alter the constitution in its favour, systematically assaulting the judiciary, media and civic groups, while taking a brutal attitude towards the rights of migrants.
This is a situation increasingly mirrored in Hungary’s close ally Poland, under the ruling Law and Justice Party. Last November, tens of thousands of far-right protesters marched through the streets of Warsaw, calling for a ‘White Europe’ and an ‘Islamic Holocaust’. The government’s response was to shrug its shoulders. Then there’s Austria, where a neo-Nazi-linked party forms part of the new governing coalition that came to power in December. Within Central and Eastern Europe there is increasingly an illiberal, anti-democratic axis forming, one which will likely attempt to steer the direction of the EU in the years to come. And one which Britain will, regrettably, no longer be able to counterbalance.
And to prove that attacks on democracy don’t just come from the right, across the Atlantic, Venezuela has also seen its democracy slip dramatically down the rankings. In part due to the general collapse of society, but also due to the machinations of Nicholas Maduro’s repressive government – the roots of both of which can be traced to the reign of Hugo Chavez. Those who once apologised for the Venezuelan regime should take note.
But it is in America that we see the biggest, and indeed, most tragic episode in the retreat of democracy unfolding before our eyes. To say this began with the election of Donald Trump would be a lie. Republicans after the election of Barack Obama made a conscious decision to deny the will of the voters. A decision which played out in their obstructionist tactics and promotion of the Tea Party, whose de-legitimisation of the institutions of government fed directly into Trump’s pledges to ‘drain the swamp’ and dismantle a corrupt Washington. Gerrymandering has been going on for a long time in America, but after 2010, Republicans took it to new extremes, redrawing electoral maps in their favour and giving them a huge advantage in each set of elections since 2010. When you factor in voter suppression laws designed to disenfranchise poor and minority voters, it’s clear America’s democracy has been increasingly stacked in favour of the now ruling party.
Of course, enter Donald Trump, and this slow-burning situation entered a new explosive phase. He has systematically degraded virtually every basic institution of government and democracy in the USA. Indeed, his endless stream of lies and cries of ‘fake news’ amount to an unprecedented attack on the truth itself. Trump’s baseless claims of large-scale voter fraud and expressed admiration for systems of dictatorship all point in the direction of a potential refusal to concede future electoral defeats. Such a scenario would be an existential crisis for American democracy.
The Republican Party has offered little resistance but plenty of assistance to his attempts to undermine democracy, going so far as to attempt to impeach judges who had the nerve to stop them rigging elections via gerrymandering. They might reject Nazi candidates who win their primaries today, but if they carry on down this long slippery slope, tomorrow that may not be so certain. It was to nobody’s surprise that America was reclassified from a ‘full’ to a ‘flawed’ democracy last year. If Democrats cannot reclaim control of American government in the coming years, the country’s descent into authoritarianism could become unstoppable.
The decline of American democracy is so important and so tragic because, for most of the last century, America was the unquestioned leader of the free and democratic world. Its political, economic and cultural hegemony in many ways marked the hegemony of liberal democracy itself. To be sure, they didn’t always use their hegemony wisely, and often propped up tyrannical regimes. They were a deeply imperfect standard-bearer for democracy, but a standard-bearer nonetheless. This century will see China attempt to assume America’s primal position on the world stage. They will certainly not advocate for democracy as America does (or did). If America stops flying the flag for democracy and liberty, it will be a cold and lonely future for all those around the world who still believe in them.
And where does Britain sit within all this? In spite of everything, our democracy has remained surprisingly resilient. There are certainly reasons to be worried. Political polarisation and attacks on the free press have been increasing. Political violence does happen, albeit incredibly rarely. We are still classed as a ‘full’ democracy, but we live in fluid times, and things could quite easily deteriorate. On the international stage, we are positioned awkwardly between the world’s tyrants and despots and those who uphold democracy; fawning for the attention of the Donald Trump’s America while tearing ourselves away from our European allies, yet simultaneously facing off with Russia. An isolated player in an uncertain position within the complicated web that is the global struggle between democracy and demagoguery.
This global decline of democracy is likely to get worse, perhaps substantially worse, before it gets better – assuming it ever gets better. Democracy is one of humanity’s greatest achievements, and it is in peril in a way it has not been since the Second World War. Saving it requires both the people in power and the people on the streets to stand up and fight for it. Will they? Will you?