Students of democracy note three trends since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The first was the spread of democracy throughout parts of the world formerly ruled by authoritarian governments. The second was a counteroffensive by the redoubts of authoritarianism to insulate themselves from that wave. The third and most recent trend is a concerted effort by remaining autocrats to contain and combat democracy on a global level. Rather than just trying to block the spread of democracy within their own countries, those governments are now actively working to project influence beyond their borders in ways that undermine democratic impulses. One of the most disturbing phenomena of 2016 was the success of that effort. The struggle between democrats and authoritarians will likely be the defining fight of the year to come.
One example of the third wave was the alleged Russian effort to undermine the legitimacy of the electoral process in the United States, a project that stunned many observers. Even without physically impacting the voting process, hackers that some believe to be associated with the government in Moscow shaped the election environment in ways that many respected observers believe affected the outcome. Doubters could look at Russian meddling in Central European elections to see a pattern and find confirmation of Moscow’s intent.
In addition to funding parties sympathetic to Moscow, Russia has also attempted to subvert the election process of other countries by spreading propaganda and hacking databases and institutions to selectively leak information that could influence voters. Elections in Ukraine, Montenegro and Italy have Russian fingerprints on them, and more of the same is expected when Germany, France and the Netherlands go to the polls in 2017.
Central to the Russian effort is undermining institutions of democracy, the media in particular. Creating doubt about facts and “truth” are central to the erosion of democracy. Citizens depend on a media to inform them about issues and candidates and differentiate between fact and fiction in the process. In the U.S. and other Western democracies there is a marked deterioration in trust in the media and in elites, authorities that offer expert opinion on what is and is not fact. Russia is not solely responsible for that gap, but it has worked to widen it and exploited the opportunities it presented.
Polls show a widening gap between elites and the general public when assessing sources of information. According to the Edelman Barometer, an annual global survey of trust, there is in the U.S. a 31 percent gap in trust in institutions between the top 25 percent of income earners and the bottom 25 percent of income earners; in the United Kingdom the gap is “just” 19 points, but it is 22 points in India, 26 points in Brazil and 29 points in France.
Distrust corrodes not only democratic institutions but also the values and norms that bind societies together. This is, in part, responsible for growing partisanship in democratic societies. It also contributes to mounting support for strong leaders and a disregard for democratic principles and institutions.
Substantial sections of publics in the West are fearful of change, worried that they are being disadvantaged by the forces of globalization. Those groups are increasingly populist and nationalist in flavor, and their collective unease animated the Donald Trump candidacy in the U.S., the good fortune of Marine Le Pen in France, and the rise of the Swiss People’s Party, the Austrian Freedom Party, the Swedish Democrats and the Danish People’s Party.
Scholarship shows that parties and politicians who seek to “protect” constituents from social change of the 21st century are often authoritarian in nature. In a world of change, alienated voters are drawn to strong figures who promise to cut through the messy and seemingly ineffectual bureaucracies that are integral to societies dominated by the rule of law. In short, these citizens are losing faith in democracy. Especially troubling are findings that even millennials are less convinced of the value of democracy, worried that it is insufficiently meritocratic and hidebound in a world of social media.
The biggest question for the year to come, then, is how countries will resolve the tension created by the desire to protect societies from change and the forces inexorably eroding the status quo. In Trump, Americans opted for a change maker whose defining purpose — and policy, such as it is — is to “Make America Great Again.” He will be matching wits with President Vladimir Putin, who is determined to restore Russia to its imperial greatness, and President Xi Jinping, who seeks to make real the Chinese Dream. Elsewhere in the world, in Turkey and Egypt and the Philippines and South Korea, to name just four examples, the same struggle is playing out with leaders and publics increasingly fatigued by and frustrated with parliamentary processes.
Democrats the world over must be alert to growing strains in their societies, and those of friends and allies. They must prepare to fight for tolerance, respect for the rule of law and the values that have defined the post-World War II world. Most importantly, they must find and reach out to political rivals who share their values, recognizing that politics is not a zero-sum struggle, to fashion solutions to the social and economic problems that threaten their countries. They must restore hope not only for their supporters, but for those with whom they compete.
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