Democracy is embattled. That is the message of the latest United Nations Development Program report, released earlier this month. Skepticism about the prospect of a new world order — destined to be more democratic — has given way to a backlash that considers democracy too messy for the job of state building. That view is cynical and wrong. Old problems such as inequality and inefficiency persist, but they will always exist. The compromises that are urged upon us, the sacrifice of individual freedom for peace and security, reflect the narrow interests of those in power, desperate to protect their advantages. They must be rejected.

The end of the Cold War ushered in a new era of democracy around the world. Termination of the superpower standoff held out the promise of a golden age of human rights and individual freedom. The fragmentation of existing states followed as communities asserted their right to self-determination. According to the U.N. report, 81 countries embraced democracy in the last two decades of the 20th century.

Unfortunately, violence often followed as vested interests fought those new voices. Just as troubling, once a new leadership took office, it often became more interested in perpetuating its power than exercising it on behalf of its citizens. As a result, the U.N. Development Report estimates that only 47 of those 81 countries are considered full democracies today. That is part of a global trend. The U.N. notes that 140 countries hold multiparty elections, a historical high-water mark, but only 82 of a total of nearly 200 are considered full democracies.

There are a variety of reasons for the emergence of this new authoritarianism. The report blames continuing levels of inequality — the income of the richest 5 percent of the world is 114 times higher than that of the poorest 5 percent — which allows governments to argue that democracy does not improve the lives of ordinary citizens. As in the 1970s and ’80s, politicians claim that development requires sacrifice, but invariably someone else makes them. In Chile, Malaysia and Russia, to name just a few offenders, governments have argued that peace and economic prosperity must precede democracy.

That is untrue. Democracy provides a check on the accumulation of power and privilege that permits inequalities to exist. Moreover, as the U.N. report argues, “History and academic research provide no evidence that authoritarian regimes are better at promoting economic and social progress.”

Another factor has been the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, which recalibrated the debate over human rights and national security. When the U.S., one of the leaders in the fight for human rights worldwide, decides that it must restrike the balance, other governments will follow suit. The war against terrorism has been a golden opportunity for governments eager to suppress nationalist or ethnic movements; separatists are now easily conflated with terrorists. This temptation must be resisted.

Here, too, more democracy is the solution, not the problem. The institutionalization of political conflict via the ballot box can encourage peaceful development by giving opposition groups hope that they will eventually prevail by vote rather than the bullet. It is the lack of democracy that fuels the anger that breeds terrorism. Moreover, recent research shows that democracies are less prone to civil war than nondemocratic regimes; even new democracies are better equipped to cope with political upheaval. It has long been established that democratic countries almost never go to war with one another.

The U.N. report highlights the role that a free press plays in the fight to safeguard democracy. An independent press can restore public trust in democratic institutions, but the media must also be credible and reliable. Here, too, a balance must be struck between the need for accurate information and the diversity of views that a democracy demands.

Globalization has broken the hold of governments on the supply of information, but private media conglomerates can be just as biased, reflecting both the perspective of their individual owners or the developed world in which they live. At the other extreme is the cacophony of the Internet; it sprouts as many weeds as flowers and is capable of bringing out the worst and the best in human nature. Responsible journalism, imbued with an ethical sense and cognizant of its social responsibilities, is the best solution.

There are no easy answers to the problems that plague democracies. Any solution will be a compromise, subject to further debate and eventual shifts. But that is the nature of the democratic process — the worst possible political system, except for all the others.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.