Reversing democracy’s retreat? Reasons to be hopeful


Democracy is being challenged today as never before since the end of the Cold War, notes Carl Gershman, president of the National Endowment for Democracy. Freedom House has recorded ten consecutive years during which democracy and human rights have declined in more countries than it has advanced. There have been setbacks and backsliding in countries as diverse as Thailand, Venezuela, Hungary, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, and of course in Russia and China as well, he writes for World Affairs:

The effect on democracy of the deteriorating geopolitical context has been worsened by a pervasive moral and political crisis in the West. The crisis is partly the result of an extended period of economic stagnation that was triggered by the global financial crisis of 2008 but is rooted in systemic problems, among them increasing indebtedness and large budget deficits, uncontrolled entitlement spending, and growing inequality. There is also a crisis of political dysfunction, exemplified in the United States by political polarization and declining trust in government, and by the rise here and in Europe of a new populism that exploits grievance, fear, and frustration. These developments have undermined democracy’s standing and credibility internationally and have emboldened the opponents of liberal democracy, who are rushing to fill the vacuums created by Western paralysis and retreat.

The growing projection of hard power by Russia, China, and Iran, and the increased threat of terrorism, have obscured an equally important expansion of authoritarian soft power in the areas of information, communications technology, ideas, and culture where the advanced democracies had been thought to have had a natural advantage, adds Gershman, who poses the question: Is a reversal of current negative trends possible?

He suggests a number of reasons not to despair and perhaps even to be cautiously hopeful:

  • The first is that while the Freedom House annual survey (right) charts a decline in freedom in many countries, it does not show a decline in the number of electoral democracies in the world, which has held roughly steady at 125, the post- third wave peak level. This is one of the reasons that political scientists like Larry Diamond speak of a “democracy recession” today and not a democracy depression or a “third reverse wave.”
  • Second, there have been a number of surprising advances for democracy. These include the successful presidential election in Nigeria last year, which surprised many people who feared that a stolen election, which they expected, would trigger a deadly civil war. Another key election was the upset victory in Argentina last November of the liberal reformer Mauricio Macri…..The defeat the following month in Venezuela of the Chavista party in parliamentary elections was also a major setback for illiberal populism in Latin America. ….
  • A third reason for cautious optimism is that the world’s resurgent autocrats do not sit securely on their thrones. Their repeated warnings about the danger of foreign-instigated “colored revolutions” is actually an implicit admission that what they fear most is the test of a real election that they might lose, knowing that the trigger for a colored revolution would be an attempt to reverse an unacceptable result. ….
  • A fourth reason for cautious optimism is that the world’s poorest people have made unprecedented economic, health, and education advances during the last quarter of a century, a phenomenon documented by the Georgetown University development scholar Steven Radelet in his new bookThe Great Surge: The Ascent of the Developing World. …..
  • The last reason for hope that I want to point to is the energy and resilience of civil society, not just in fragile new democracies and semi-open autocracies but also in backsliding and increasingly repressive authoritarian countries as well:

In Africa they include bloggers in Ethiopia, youth activists and trade unionists in Zimbabwe, investigative journalists in Angola, and human rights defenders and peace activists in Burundi and the Congo, where leaders are dangerously trying to steal or block elections. In Russia, where democratic leaders like Boris Nemtsov  have been murdered, activists continue to work fearlessly to expose elite corruption, defend human rights, and offer independent news and information to counter the regime’s steady drumbeat of nationalist propaganda. In China, despite the harsh political crackdown, a Freedom House study reports that more people are joining rights-defense activities, information is spreading despite censorship, the fear of repression is waning, and the disillusionment with party corruption is growing. 

These examples are just the tip of a massive iceberg of civic activism that exists in all regions of the world and that may at this very moment be preparing the way for new democratic breakthroughs in the future, Gershman concludes.


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