Global forecaster on “another bad year for democracy”: Is the world near a dire tipping point?
Global democracy is sick. In the United States, Donald Trump’s supporters in the Republican Party continue to steamroll the Democrats and other pro-democracy forces. To say that the latter have for the most part been hapless, uncoordinated and paralyzed by denial is not overstating the case.
Political scientists and other experts have warned that in the wake of the Trump presidency and the coup attempt of January 2021, the country is now an “anocracy,” hovering in limbo between naked authoritarianism and a slowly failing democracy.
As I have repeatedly warned this is an existential struggle: If the Republicans and the larger white right achieve their goals the United States will become a living nightmare for anyone who is not a rich white “Christian” heterosexual male, or otherwise deemed to be a “real American” and one of the MAGA-elect Trump cultists.
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Writing at the Financial Times, columnist Martin Wolf describes this moment of peril and impending disaster:
“An American ‘Caesarism’ has now become flesh.” I wrote this in March 2016, even before Donald Trump had become the Republican nominee for the presidency. Today, the transformation of the democratic republic into an autocracy has advanced. By 2024, it might be irreversible. If this does indeed happen, it will change almost everything in the world….
Thus, health permitting, Trump will be the next Republican candidate. He will be backed by a party that is now his tool. Most important, in the words of David Frum, erstwhile speechwriter for George W Bush, “what the United States did not have before 2020 was a large national movement willing to justify mob violence to claim political power. Now it does.” It does so because its members believe their opponents are not “real” Americans. A liberal democracy cannot long endure if a major party believes defeat is illegitimate and must be rendered impossible.
Political scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon echoed these concerns in a widely read essay last December in the Globe and Mail, warning that American democracy could collapse by 2015, “causing extreme domestic political instability, including widespread civil violence, and that by 2030, “if not sooner, the country could be governed by a right-wing dictatorship”:
We mustn’t dismiss these possibilities just because they seem ludicrous or too horrible to imagine. In 2014, the suggestion that Donald Trump would become president would also have struck nearly everyone as absurd. But today we live in a world where the absurd regularly becomes real and the horrible commonplace.
Leading American academics are now actively addressing the prospect of a fatal weakening of U.S. democracy…. Once Republicans control Congress, Democrats will lose control of the national political agenda, giving Mr. Trump a clear shot at recapturing the presidency in 2024. And once in office, he will have only two objectives: vindication and vengeance.
In the shadow of such darkness we must not surrender to despair. That is how the global right and the fascist movement wins. Instead, those who believe in true social democracy and the liberal democratic project must stare unflinchingly into the darkness, exile the hope-peddlers and naïve optimists who believe that compromise with such evil is possible, critically assess the reality of the crisis, and then organize and rally to victory.
Two months ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin, a hero and champion of the global right, unleashed a devastating war of aggression against Ukraine. The Ukrainians have resisted valiantly, and Russia’s military has been embarrassed. What many experts foresaw as a quick campaign of conquest appears that it will now be a long slog of grinding death and destruction. The United States and its NATO allies have rallied to the aid of Ukraine; for the moment, at least, Western democracy seems (superficially) renewed through conflict with its former Cold War enemy.
French President Emmanuel Macron recently defeated Marine Le Pen and the far-right National Rally Party in that country’s recent elections. However important that victory appears during this moment of democratic crisis, one should still be cautious for what it ultimately means about the power of the global right and its power in France and other Western European democracies. In her newsletter Lucid, historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat unpacks the larger significance of Le Pen’s near-miss, which could have led to “the first female-led far-right government in Europe”:
In the conclusion to my 2020 book on the subject, I singled Le Pen out in suggesting that such a shift is inevitable. “That male model of authoritarian power… may give way in the future as female-led authoritarian states emerge. … Yet a female-led rightist state would pose no threat to authoritarianism’s appeal as a legitimating force of misogyny, kleptocracy, and, in many countries, White racial domination.” …
For some voters, her “softer” feminine image likely goes a long way in making her seem acceptable. Her tasteful and understated clothing blunts the brute force of her racist proposals, such as her idea of eliminating birthright citizenship to more easily target French Muslims for discrimination. …
In fact, as the global right doubles down on its attention to families — claiming it is a priority to protect children and schools from pedophilic homosexuals, satanist Soros puppets, childless left-wing radicals, and more — being a mother, who can mobilize other mothers, will become an advantage in politics. …
In the coming years, shifts in far-right tactics intended to normalize extremism and the aging of the current strongman cohort will likely produce a new wave of illiberal female leaders.
While these authoritarians won’t pose bare-chested, in the tradition of Benito Mussolini and Putin, they will be just as racist, corrupt, and violent as like-minded male leaders, and just as dedicated to using disinformation to create the alternate reality they need to stay in power.
A hopeful commitment to the basic idea that progress and societal improvement are attainable constitute the beating heart of the centuries-old Western democratic project. The fascist tide can be beaten back by leaning into those democratic and pluralistic values and dreams and then making them real for the mass public.
The global democracy crisis is real; the future remains unwritten and what happens next is very much in flux.
What do we know and where do we go from here? In an effort to answer these questions, I recently spoke with Andrew Viteritti, a senior member of the global forecasting team at the Economist Intelligence Unit, about its recent report, “Democracy Index 2021: the China Challenge.”
In this conversation, Viteritti explains the unit’s findings that how global democracy has fallen to its lowest levels since the Economist began tracking it in 2016. He also reports that in many “advanced” or “mature” democracies there is growing cynicism and distrust of government and its ability to solve problems such as price inflation or the COVID pandemic, and that those sentiments are being exploited by illiberal and other anti-democracy forces. Viteritti also discusses the challenge that China’s “state capitalism” model represents for global democracy, and what Donald Trump’s coup attempt of 2021 and related events tell us about extreme partisan political polarization and how it has imperiled the basic functions of government.
Toward the end of this conversation, Viteritti expresses optimism that despite all these challenges to democracy in the U.S. and around the world, democratic institutions have shown themselves to be much stronger than many expected, which should be a source of hope for the future.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
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How are you feeling about democracy and the overall state of the world, as it faces so many political and other crises?
The most recent edition of the Democracy Index shows that we’ve seen another bad year for democracy. The average global score has continued to decline. It is now at an all-time low by our measurements, 5.28 out of a scale of 10. That is a bigger decline than what we saw even in our previous studies, in the 2020 study, which is remarkable when you consider that was the year when the coronavirus pandemic hit. That had many implications for the state of democratic institutions, and also public perceptions towards government.
Our average global score for democracy has continued to decline, and is now at an all-time low. … The decline we saw in 2021 was only matched once before, in 2010, in the shadow of the global financial crisis.
It is important to note that the decline that we saw in 2021 was only matched once before in our history of the study, which started in 2006. That was in 2010, in the shadow of the global financial crisis.
In our new study, many of what we call “full democracies” have also now fallen down to the “flawed democracy” category. We saw the number of authoritarian regimes increase as well. We also saw every region suffer a decline in its average score, except for Eastern Europe. The score there was unchanged. It is a very reasonable response to all this to feel very concerned and very discouraged.
The public mood, both here in the United States and around the world, is that something is very wrong. How do we quantify that?
One of the tools that we use for scoring individual countries is called the World Values Survey. It’s authoritative, it’s global in focus, it’s up to date and it’s standardized. We have results for the 165 countries and two territories that we cover in the Democracy Index. What we are seeing is that there is certainly a souring of public attitudes worldwide toward political institutions, the capacity of governments to respond to pressing concerns about the state of the economy and economic security, political concerns and also social concerns.
This is a trend that we’ve seen become acute in specific regions across the world as well as in specific countries, the United States included. These trends were at play before the coronavirus pandemic happened, but the pandemic accentuated and aggregated these trends, and even made these negative trends appear in countries where we had not seen evidence for such attitudes before. One example would be Canada, where there is a growing skepticism towards the ability of government to respond to these big societal and economic and political issues.
Canada just endured mass protests and disruptions by a so-called Freedom Convoy of truckers supposedly protesting COVID restrictions and protocols. What do we know about such anxieties and anger?
That reflects an increasing skepticism toward government and the capacity of governments to act effectively to solve collective problems. Canada is a very mature and strong democracy. But we still have seen a slippage in that country’s ranking in our study in the functioning of government and measures of the health of political culture.
There has also been a hardening of attitudes. This has manifested itself in various countries. For example, in the United States there is intense polarization. Society has become incredibly divided, to the point where public consensus has virtually collapsed on even basic fundamental issues such as election results and public health practices around the pandemic. That was a trend that we discussed at length in our 2020 report for the Democracy Index and another trend that we explored in our most recent 2021 edition for the United States.
Polarization has become the biggest threat to U.S. democracy, making it very hard for political institutions to function. Looking at the data, there is little to suggest we’re going to see things get better anytime soon.
Polarization now has become the biggest threat to United States democracy, because not only has it generated an intense cleavage in United States society where we have these two camps that do not see eye to eye, but it has translated into the fact that it is now very hard for political institutions and democratic institutions to function. Looking at the data, there is little to suggest that polarization and that hardening of attitudes is going to ease up anytime soon. Reproductive rights are a big fault line right now. And of course, we’re in a period where key elections are approaching, the midterms this year and the presidential election in 2024. Both Republicans and Democrats are going to frame these elections in existential terms. This does not bode well for the state of polarization in the United States, nor does it suggest that we’re going to see things get better anytime soon.
Whatever happened to the “end of history” and the ultimate triumph of liberal democracy?
In this year’s Democracy Index report we focus on what we describe as the “China challenge.” We are in a moment where there is tension and conflict between two very distinct political systems. Is there a “China model” for democracy? What are its features? Is that sustainable? Can it be exported? Does China’s leadership even want their system of government to be exported? Our quick answer to that is no.
We also look at the Western democratic model. Is there a democratic recession in the West, which many have been talking about, and which our studies certainly suggest is true over the years? We examine the causes and symptoms, and then ultimately what can be done to stop it. Ultimately, is the Western model of democracy — with its supposed superiority — sustainable?
There are some reasons to be optimistic when it comes to the state of democracy in the world, including the United States. One, we’ve seen very impressive voter participation in the United States. There was record voter turnout in the November 2020 elections. There was also record voter turnout in the runoff elections in Georgia that took place shortly afterward. And there are many reasons to believe we’re going to see high voter participation and political engagement continue throughout this year, especially in the run-up to the midterms.
It is impossible to not think of the extraordinary events that happened at the beginning of 2021, which was our assessment period for the new study. Of course, we saw Donald Trump refuse to accept the results of an election that was held in a free and fair way. We saw Republican lawmakers also back that effort. We saw a sizable portion of the electorate refuse to accept those results.
It was extraordinary to see that Joe Biden’s inauguration took place very smoothly, and during his first year in office he didn’t face any major disruptions. That points to the strength and durability of U.S. political institutions.
It was pretty extraordinary to then see that Joe Biden’s inauguration took place very smoothly. During Biden’s first year in office, he didn’t really face any major disruptions. To our eyes, that points to the strength and durability of United States political institutions. It is fair to assume that a smooth transition of power for Biden and a lack of disturbances over the first year in office for the new president would not have taken place in a country with weaker democratic institutions.
But at the same time, it is important not to take those institutions for granted. It remains to be seen whether these institutions can withstand similar types of stresses to those they saw at the beginning of 2021 and even during 2020, whether in terms of frequency or in terms of magnitude.
What do we know about the health of global democracy and how it was impacted by the pandemic?
There is a valid question as to whether, once we emerge from the pandemic, we will see any improvement in the democracy scores in our study. That may very well happen, especially since some of the indicators we use include public perceptions of things like whether governments are responding to crises effectively, and also questions about personal freedom.
There is also a risk that the trends that we’ve seen in policymaking by governments during the pandemic could in fact become “sticky” and thus could outlast the pandemic. There is an open-ended question as to whether governments will walk away from these restrictions quickly as the pandemic recedes. It’s not a question that we have an answer to at the moment, because we’re still in the middle of the pandemic.
Where does your optimism come from? I am quite surprised by it.
When we closed out 2020 and started 2021, it was a pretty dark moment for the United States for many reasons. And even just to see that bright spot in terms of the durability of the country’s democratic institutions is very valid, valuable and positive, and certainly a reason to be optimistic.
What about what experts call “democratic backsliding,” or the many examples of how Republicans are seeking to undermine democracy with their new Jim Crow strategy and other attacks? There is great concern about an existential democracy crisis in America, and perhaps even violent insurrection or civil war.
Polarization is one of the biggest issues in the country, and it hasn’t gotten any better over the past year. We’re not at the point of civil war, but we do have to keep an eye on this issue of polarization because there’s nothing to suggest that it’s going to go away immediately.
Where do these global trends bring us? How close are we to democratic collapse?
Our previous report was published at the beginning of 2020. In those two years, we see considerable slippage in terms of democracy at the global level. Certainly, that is alarming. One would assume that if we continue to see that happen next year, it could well be that the decline will continue to gain momentum and become harder to reverse.
What happens once the pandemic eases? There is reason to believe that will relieve some of the pressure that we’ve seen weighing down on the democracy scores of countries across the world. We will have to wait and see where the data takes us next year.
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