How democratic backsliding happens


Surveying democratic around the world, the clear lesson is: Not every wolf threatening democracy howls and bares its teeth. Many threats are stealthy, according to Aziz Huq and Tom Ginsburg, professors of law at the University of Chicago Law School. To understand democratic backsliding, it’s important to understand the essential components of a democracy, they write for Vox:

  • First, there must be elections, which must be both free and fair. Elections by themselves are not enough: Both Russia and China, after all, have elections that formally reflect the choice of the people, but allow only limited choices.
  • Second, democracy needs liberal rights of speech and association so those with alternative views can challenge government on its policies, hold it accountable, and propose alternatives.
  • Finally, democracy can’t work if the ruling party has the courts and bureaucracy firmly in its pocket. The rule of law — not just the rule of the powerful and influential — is essential.

“Take away one of these attributes, and democracy might wobble. Sap all three, and the meaningful possibility of democratic competition recedes from view,” they contend.

Democracy is a complex, self-organizing system, notes Sandra Navidi, CEO of BeyondGlobal, a consulting firm advising on macroeconomic and strategic positioning, and the author of $uperHubs: How the Financial Elite and their Networks Rule Our World.

“Complex systems don’t fail easily. They are generally adaptive and self-correcting. When they become too skewed, circuit breakers kick in to restore balance. But if circuit breakers are disabled, the system will ultimately self-destruct,” she writes for Project Syndicate.

“Eventually, network dynamics will kick in to recalibrate the US democratic system. Whether they produce gradual and orderly corrections or sudden, uncontrollable chaos remains to be seen,” she adds.

Scholars used to argue that democracy, once attained in a fairly wealthy state, would become a permanent fixture, Huq and Ginsburg add:

As the late Juan Linz put it, democracy would become “the only game in town.” That belief turned out to be merely hopeful, not a reality. As a result, the global trend for democracies — the other categories being partial or complete autocracies — does not look positive, as the following chart shows.


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