Losing faith in the democratic ideal?


What accounts for the troubled condition of liberal democracy today? Marc F. Plattner asks in the latest issue of The Journal of Democracy:

Standard explanations cite factors such as slowing economic growth and rising economic inequality, political polarization and gridlock, globalization, and moral and cultural decadence. Yet such explanations cannot account for the speed with which democracy’s decline has surged to the forefront of political discourse around the world. And it can hardly be a coincidence that disaffection with liberal democracy and support for populist parties are growing in both new and longstanding democracies alike. Simultaneously, authoritarian regimes of various stripes are showing a new boldness as the confidence and vigor of the democracies wane.

Liberal democracy will regain its former health only if voters are convinced not only of its intrinsic merits but also of its superiority to all the possible alternatives, adds Plattner, coeditor of the Journal of Democracy and former vice-president for research and studies at the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group:

After the end of the Cold War, little effort was required to make the case for liberal democracy. Following the sudden death of Soviet communism, the international landscape appeared to contain no serious ideological challengers and no plausible competitors for military or economic supremacy. But the so-called unipolar moment proved to be surprisingly fleeting. It is now over. The events of the past two or three years have given the democracies a wake-up call.

It’s not easy to fathom the extent to which authoritarianism has been gaining ground, and liberty slipping, around the globe for the past decade, after years of movement in a more positive direction, The Washington Post’s Fred Hiatt writes, reflecting on a recent Stanford symposium:

Larry Diamond, a Hoover and Stanford University democracy expert, said ….the world is experiencing a “deepening democratic recession” characterized by fewer nations living freely, as measured annually by Freedom House; by increasing power projection from Russia and China; by the breakdown of democracy from Turkey to Thailand to Hungary; and by a “wave of illiberal populism” and a “decay of democratic values and self-confidence in the U.S. and Europe.”….

Kori Schake, a Republican defense expert and Hoover fellow, said at the same seminar that the global anxiety today reminds her of what she was hearing from allies after the 9/11 attacks: People “are a little bit scared that America is becoming a different place than they thought they knew.” ….Many Americans are worried about that, too. When I repeated Schake’s comment to Michael McFaul, a Hoover and Stanford scholar who served as Obama’s ambassador to Russia, he said he is “optimistic about our ability for renewal as a democratic society.”

Democracy is really in trouble when we say, “this cannot be repaired. The tear is too deep,” according to New York University political scientist Adam Przeworski told a recent conference, addressing a conference at Yale hosted by the Bright Line Watch group:

Przeworski stressed the growing number of Americans who would be upset if their child married someone from the opposite political party. Others, in a similar vein, emphasized the decline in social trust and tolerance of opposing views.

There are plenty of good practical reasons that the defense of human rights and democracy should be an integral part of U.S. foreign policy, Democracy Post’s Christian Caryl asserts. Yet it’s easy to understand why many Americans now tend to associate a values-driven approach with arrogant adventurism, he writes for The Washington Post.

Democracy appears to be in retreat globally. Over the past few years, countries with fledgling multiparty electoral systems have incrementally deteriorated, giving way to governments that more closely resemble authoritarian regimes, notes the American Enterprise Institute:

Established democracies such as Turkey also have witnessed sharp declines in the rule of law and adherence to democratic values. More troubling still is how rising revisionist governments — particularly Moscow and Beijing — have undermined democratic processes worldwide, aggravating an overall loss of faith in democracy. In a new study, Pew Research Center examines these trends with data from 38 countries to explore global public opinion of democracy and attitudes toward nondemocratic forms of government (above).

AEI and the Pew Research Center discuss today’s greatest challenges to democracy and what can be done to preserve and strengthen the democratic ideal.


Robert Kagan, Brookings Institution

Stephen Rickard, Open Society Foundation

Vikram Singh, Center for American Progress

Richard Wike, Pew Research Center

Friday, November 3, 2017 | 11:30 am – 12:30 pm RSVP

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