It has not exactly been a banner year for liberal democracy. It may not have been as bad as 2016, marked by the dual shocks of Brexit and the victory of Donald Trump, but this offers little solace. Indeed, much of this year has been confirming that these electoral outcomes were as damaging as they initially appeared to be, with both the United Kingdom and the United States seemingly intent on collective self-harm. These significant examples fit within a broader trend of instability and discontent amongst other democracies, most notably manifest in the rise of populist politics and growing success of far right parties.
Established democracies look increasingly weak, unwilling or incapable of dealing with the complex array of economic and social problems they face. Meanwhile, China and Russia are at the fore of a resurgent authoritarianism, with Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin looking strong and smart next to the consistent buffoonery of Trump. Democratic rollback has continued and deepened in key states, most notably Poland and Hungary, with little pushback from the European Union, as well as Turkey.
This growing uncertainty surrounding democracy stands in stark contrast to the optimism and confidence that marked the end of the Cold War, just a quarter of a century ago. At the time, however, there was a tendency to mistake the end of the communist experiment for the validation of democratic rule, and to equate democracy with good government. Yet these were not the same things. The failure of really existing socialism did not in itself demonstrate the virtue of really existing democracy. Likewise, democracy may result in good government, but insofar as it is a reflection — admittedly imperfect — of the people’s will, it is also capable of reaching very bad outcomes, as we have seen more recently.
Freedom House’s most recent survey of freedom in the world marked the 11th consecutive year where the total number of countries suffering declines in political rights and civil liberties outnumbered improvements. Reflecting on this trend, leading democracy scholar Larry Diamond has concluded that “the world has been in a mild but protracted democratic recession since about 2006.” Using data from the World Values Survey, Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk have proposed that citizens in established democracies are increasingly dissatisfied with this form of government. Some fear there are strong echoes of the interwar years, when economic depression helped fuel right wing nationalism, democratic breakdowns and ultimately World War II.
Here turning to history can offer some valuable perspective on democracy’s present standing. The interwar years were marked by democratic rollback and failure. Yet the failure of democracy occurred primarily in newly borne states and recently created democracies. The older democracies of North and West Europe may have failed to confront the growing fascist menace, but they did not themselves succumb to it. Meanwhile, out of the depths of the Great Depression in the U.S. emerged Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal liberalism, which reinforced and strengthened its democracy at a pivotal moment. The interwar years certainly point to how economic problems can erode support for democracy, but it also showed that countries with deeper democratic traditions are better equipped to survive such difficult periods.
To understand what an existential crisis for modern democracy looks like, we should turn to early 1941. At that time Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union controlled most of Europe, Japan was waging a brutal imperial war across Asia, the U.S. still remained on the sidelines of the conflict and only a handful of democracies were left in the world. The future looked fascist and communist, democracy appeared weak, indecisive and unlikely to rise to the challenge. Yet it did. Even if the final outcome had more to do with the force of numbers and the self-destructiveness of the fascists, democracy endured.
To say that things are not as bad as during World War II perhaps offers cold comfort, but it does provide some perspective on democracy’s current woes. Things are less rosy compared to the early 1990s, but democracies can still be found across the world. According to Freedom House, 87 of the 195 countries assessed — 45 percent — were rated free. And even if there is less confidence in democracy, it still lacks the kind of fully fledged ideational challengers it faced in the 20th century.
It is also important to appreciate that most of the major problems that democracies are facing are not unique to them, they are issues all governments are grappling with. In this regard, one major advantage democracies have is that they tend to be more flexible and have greater capacity to adapt than authoritarian regimes. It may be asked if this can continue, whether the clunky old form of liberal democracy can manage the complex challenges posed by the 21st century. Nonetheless, it still offers a workable compromise in which people have a greater degree of freedom and voice than other currently existing alternatives.
When surveying democracy’s present travails, it is worth remembering that democracy invariably disappoints. There is always a gap between the ideal of democracy — “government of the people, by the people, for the people” as U.S. President Abraham Lincoln memorably put it — and what that actually means when put into practice in large, complex societies.
Even in this inevitably incomplete manner, what distinguishes democracy is that it is a thoroughly human form of government. It is consistently frustrating, inconsistent and flawed, just as humans are. So we end up with horrible outcomes like the U.S. Senate pushing through a deeply flawed tax reform bill, one of the most blatant examples of how American democracy has been corrupted.
Yet humans are equally capable of impressing us with their compassion, loyalty and thoughtfulness. This means we also have inspirational moments, such as almost 80 percent of Australians choosing to vote in a postal survey over same-sex marriage, resulting in a decisive victory for those in favor.
Certainly democracy’s star does not shine as brightly today as it did when the Berlin Wall fell. The problems it faces are manifest and deeply complex, but we should be careful about losing faith too easily. Democracy is ultimately a political project that we collectively must believe in and contribute to, and still, despite its many flaws, represents the best method of rule we have devised and enacted.
Christopher Hobson is an associate professor in political science at Waseda University and the author of “The Rise of Democracy: Revolution, War and Transformations in International Politics since 1776.”
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