The history of democracy globally is strewn with examples of extremists and demagogues manipulating prejudice, insecurity, and fear in a bid for power, argues Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and at the Freeman Spogli Institute at Stanford University.
Democracies fail when people lose faith in them and elites abandon their norms for pure political advantage. In The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes, the late Yale political scientist Juan Linz stressed two factors in the failure of democracy, he writes for The Atlantic:
- One is the growth of “disloyal opposition”—politicians, parties, and movements that deny the legitimacy of the democratic system (and its outcomes), that are willing to use force and fraud to achieve their aims, and that are willing to curtail the constitutional rights of their political adversaries, often by depicting them as “instruments of outside secret and conspiratorial groups.”
- But at least as great a danger, Linz warned, was “semiloyal behavior” by parties and politicians willing “to encourage, tolerate, cover up, treat leniently, excuse or justify the actions of other participants that go beyond the limits of peaceful, legitimate … politics in a democracy.”
Political polarization and gridlock, added to an inward turn in the public mood, make it even more important for Western governments to address their citizens’ legitimate concerns about the impact of globalization, according to Javier Solana and Strobe Talbott. For globalization to be politically sustainable, it must be more economically equitable, they write for The New York Times:
Restoring social progress on this scale will succeed only if it has buy-in from all segments of society. But the innovation and direction must come from the top. In enlisting their constituents’ support for a renewed commitment to Atlanticism, this generation of Western leaders faces the greatest and most consequential test in 70 years.
“Western governments in London, Paris, Brussels, and most of all Washington, have directly and indirectly aided and abetted the decline of democracy around the globe,” he tells VICE News, adding that “there are a couple of things that we can claim as the smoking gun”:
- The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were falsely packaged as efforts to democratize countries and ended up giving authoritarian regimes political cover to claim that any democracy promotion activity the West undertakes is secretly about regime change.
- The other aspect is that Western governments don’t really have the stomach for democracy promotion any longer. Diplomats look at the Arab Spring or the democratization effort in Ukraine, see the destabilization and conflict that has resulted, and they start to feel that the dictatorial devil they know is better than the democratic devil they don’t.
The current threat to liberal democracy comes less from a coherent, alternative ideology, than what Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab called, half a century ago in their now once-again vital book The Politics of Unreason, procedural extremism, says Diamond, a co-editor of the National Endowment for Democracy’s Journal of Democracy:
This is the antithesis of pluralism: intolerance of difference and dissent, and unwillingness to be bound by “the limits of the normative procedures which define the democratic political process.” This kind of extremism treats “cleavage and ambivalence as illegitimate” and seeks to close down “the market place of ideas.” It is what we witness when aspiring strongmen like Vladimir Putin in Russia, the late Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, or—we should now deeply worry—Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines win elections and then begin to intimidate and suffocate pluralism in the media, intellectual life, civil society, and even the business community, on the way toward one-party or one-man rule.