The third counter-wave to democracy and liberalism. What’s next?


If history shows that successive waves of democracy are followed by anti-democratic reaction, the current surge of authoritarian, illiberal or populist politics should suggest that we’re eventually due a democratic renaissance, no?

On the one hand, this approach offers some optimism, as the waves are related and a positive wave is expected to follow every negative wave, notes Elie Podeh of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem This approach is, however, beleaguered by two problems, he writes:

  • First, based on the past, the transition from one wave to another occurs only after a devastating war (World War II) or revolution (the collapse of the Soviet Union). Should democracy’s fourth wave actually take place, it may likely begin only after a major catastrophe of as yet unforeseeable proportions.
  • Second, there is no way to predict the duration of the current wave. In the past, counter-waves never lasted longer than two decades, but we are not even sure if the current anti-democratic wave, if it indeed commenced in the early 2000s, has even reached its peak. In any case, this counter-wave seems to be here to stay for the coming years.

“It would first be wise to recognize the enormity of the threat to liberal values, which until recently were considered universal values,” Podeh adds. “Actions to confront these threats should be taken at the national level, but transnational coalitions are also necessary to defend a joint liberal, democratic vision.”

Democracies are being destroyed in Russia, Hungary, Turkey and Poland, as strongmen such as PutinOrbanErdoğan and Kaczyński dismantle civil liberties, silence critical voices and suppress independent institutions. What makes it worse is that such would-be dictators enjoy popular support for what they are doing, notes Richard J Evans, regius professor of history at the University of Cambridge.

How we defend ourselves against the suppression of fundamental freedoms has once again become a matter of great urgency, he writes in a Guardian review of Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny:

  • Do not obey in advance,” he says. “Most of the power of authoritarianism is freely given.” After Hitler came to power, many if not most Germans voluntarily offered their obedience to his regime. We should heed this warning and refuse to do so ourselves.
  • Snyder’s second lesson is to “defend institutions”, by which he means the courts, the constitution, the press, the trade unions, the parliament and so on. ..
  • Snyder’s third lesson is “beware the one-party state”. As he rightly remarks, this is in a way unnecessary, because most people will realise that the suppression of oppositional political parties is a glaringly obvious step on the way to dictatorship. …
  • Snyder’s fourth lesson is “take responsibility for the face of the world” – in other words, be sceptical about propaganda. This lesson is essentially the same as various others he suggests: “be kind to our language”, “believe in truth”, “investigate”, “listen for dangerous words”….RTWT

We have generally presumed that popular support for democracy remains extremely high in the established Western democracies, writes Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. However, recent analysis by Roberto Foa and Yascha Mounk, published in the Journal of Democracy, shows that support for democracy in the U.S. and Europe has declined over the last 20 years in almost every age group.

Furthermore, he notes that a “playbook has been utilized in the last two decades by a number of ‘strong leaders’ who came to power in competitive elections and then proceeded to dismantle checks on their executive power—and eventually the ability of opposition parties to challenge them on anything like a level playing field.”

But we should not be too quick to see populism as the enemy of liberal democracy, notes Brookings analyst William Galston, a former board member of the National Endowment for Democracy. Populism often rises when an elite consensus excludes large groups of ordinary citizens, he writes for The Wall Street Journal. While there are disturbing signs of democracy’s frailty, a Pew Research Center survey released at the beginning of this month suggests that support for the building blocks of liberal democracy remains strong, he adds:

According to the Pew survey, 89% of Americans regard open and fair national elections as “very important” to maintaining a strong democracy. Eighty-three percent see our system of checks and balances in this light. Support for the importance of the right to nonviolent protest stands at 79%; for protecting individuals with unpopular views, 74%; for press freedom to criticize political leaders, 64%. Only 17% believe that we would deal with our problems more effectively if presidents didn’t have to worry so much about Congress or the courts; 77% said concentrating more power in the president’s hands would be too risky.

The modern liberal revolution got underway half a century ago and took place in every one of the democratic countries around the world, and sometimes in semi-democratic places, notes Paul Berman, the author of A Tale of Two Utopias, Terror and Liberalism, Power and the Idealists, and The Flight of the Intellectuals. But now, at the end of 50 years of modern liberal revolution, fear of an unknown new order propels authoritarian nationalists with a disheartening message to beneficiaries of social progress, Berman writes for the Tablet journal.

“If there is a lesson that stretches across the history and the public opinion data, it is that nothing should be taken for granted,” Stanford’s Diamond writes for Berggruen Insights. “The laziest and most fatal form of intellectual arrogance is to assume that what has been will continue to be, simply because it has a long history.  Legitimacy is nothing more than a set of individual beliefs and values. If we do not work to renew those beliefs and values with each generation, even long-established democracies could be at risk.”

Print Friendly, PDF & Email