Is populism the biggest menace to democracy?


Even those who recognize the sheer diversity of the threats facing democracy struggle to prioritize them, notes Dominique Moisi, Senior Counselor at the Institut Montaigne in Paris.

“If, say, Islamist terrorism is the principal threat, then it might make sense for the West to align itself with Russia in the fight against it. But what if right-wing populism, which the Kremlin actively supports, is the biggest menace? In that case, aligning with Russia could prove destructive for Western liberal democracy,” he writes for Project Syndicate:

The battle against Islamist terrorism is important, but it should not overshadow – much less undermine – the imperative to protect our democracies from the threat of right-wing populism. …ISIS may be born of a culture of humiliation and driven by a spirit of revenge, as was Nazism, but it does not possess anything like the industrial and military resources of Germany in the 1930s

Power resides in the values of freedom and democracy, according to veteran State Department official Daniel Fried (right).

“The West’s great institutions, NATO and the EU, grew to embrace 100 million liberated Europeans,” he told NPR.

“I learned never to underestimate the possibility of change,” he said. “Nothing can be taken for granted, and this great achievement is now under assault by Russia, but what we did in my time is no less honorable. It is for the present generation to defend and, when the time comes again, extend freedom in Europe.”

Is global democracy in crisis?

Stanford University’s Larry Diamond and Francis Fukuyama discuss whether global democracy is in crisis, while Frances Burwell and Holger Stark discuss the rise of Right-leaning populism in Europe and the United States.

Several indicators of democratic slippage have become accurate predictors of what is now a virtually global pattern of democratic regression, according to Professor Naomi Chazan, former Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, and Dean of the School of Government and Society at the Academic College of Tel-Aviv-Yaffo:

  • The first indicator relates to voice (representation) and accountability (freedom of expression, association and press), citing research from the Israel Democracy Index 2016….
  • These findings are a prelude to a second indicator of democratic deconsolidation: disenchantment with democracy. …
  • A third early predictor of democratic backsliding focuses on the penchant for “strong leaders”…
  • Indeed, the fourth indicator of democratic resilience revolves around attitudes to democratic performance.
  • The fifth indicator of democratic fragility relates precisely to the issue of democratic trust. RTWT

Conditions giving rise to populist candidates and parties are probably not going to disappear in the near future, academic research suggests:

Problematic trends include slow growth and rising economic inequalities and joblessness; rising frustrations with immigration and refugee crises; and citizen perceptions that traditional political establishments are crooked and corrupt. In combination, such trends may very well continue fuel support for populist leaders worldwide, putting elected strongmen in position to shift democracies in authoritarian directions.

“Pushing back against this threat to democracy will be difficult to accomplish precisely because of the subtle means through which today’s populists implement strongman rule,” researchers suggest. “Because they incrementally dismantle democratic institutions and norms, no single dramatic change triggers widespread mobilization of opposition. All too often, populist leaders can frame vocal critics as destabilizing provocateurs, fragmenting resistance and rendering it ineffective.” RTWT

The aspiring tyrants of today have not forgotten the lesson of the Nazis’ exploitation of the notorious Reichstag fire in 1933, notes Yale University’s Timothy Snyder: that acts of terror—real or fake, provoked or accidental—can provide the occasion to deal a death blow to democracy, he writes for The New York Review of Books:

The most consequential example is Russia……When Vladimir V. Putin was appointed prime minister in August 1999, the former KGB officer had an approval rating of 2 percent. Then, a month later, the bombs began to explode in apartment buildings in Moscow and several other Russian cities, killing hundreds of citizens and causing widespread fear. There were numerous indications that this was a campaign organized by the KGB’s heir, now known as the FSB. Some of its officers were caught red-handed (and then released) by their peers.

*Diamond and Fukuyama are also associated with the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

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