Democracy and disarray

Winston Churchill is often quoted as having said that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all others.” China’s leaders disagree, and they doubled down last week on their authoritarian model when they announced that they would amend their nation’s constitution to permit the president to remain in power beyond two terms to promote stability and order. They no doubt were reinforced in that conclusion as they watched the U.S. presidency descend into deepening dysfunction. The totalitarian temptation is not an exclusively Chinese phenomenon, however, and democrats the world over need to redouble efforts in support of democracy.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has proven to be chaotic. As his government began its second year in office, nearly two-thirds of key presidentially appointed positions were still vacant. According to a study by the Brookings Institution, more than one-third of Trump administration staff members left the White House in its first year, a number that exceeds all five of the previous five administrations. Over the past week alone, headlines reported that the president was “unglued,” that “pure madness” reigned, and that the White House was a “black hole.” The mood is increasingly that of a fortress besieged, with remaining staff fighting among themselves in the media, while an independent investigator comes ever closer to the inner sanctum, exposing all sorts of questionable behavior along the way.

Government is divided, policy is inconsistent, and the image of the United States is tarnished with allies, partners and friends confused and concerned. Adversaries not only see opportunities to press their own interests, but they are also discrediting the U.S. model of governance and advancing their own in its place.

Japan knows well the price of disarray. With the exception of the era of Junichiro Koizumi (2001-2006) and the second administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, it cycled through a new government almost every year since 1989: 17 prime ministers, 24 Cabinets and nearly twice that number if reshuffles are counted. This constant churn discredited the nation’s politics, contributing to cynicism and apathy among voters. It alienated Japan’s international partners, who would neglect or forgo relationship-building because they reasoned that their Japanese counterpart would not be long in office. That churn has ended and, not surprisingly, Japan has assumed greater international prominence and status as a result.

Beijing made the case for constitutional revision by insisting on the need for stability and strong leadership. Without making an explicit comparison, chaos in the U.S. underscored that argument. Chinese thinking was also likely influenced by developments in Russia, where an increasingly authoritarian “strongman” has reasserted Moscow’s place on the world stage, both setting an example and setting a bar: While Chinese and Russian leaders share many views about and interests in global politics, there are no illusions in either capital about the potential for conflict between their two countries.

Political development was once believed to be a one-way street: When a society reached a certain level of economic development and political maturity, a political orientation was “locked in.” That is no longer true. After the Cold War ended, the number of democracies worldwide surged, but from 2000 to 2015, democracy broke down in 27 countries. That trend is reinforced by China’s growing global presence. One of its most worrisome exports is a political system and its tools of social control.

An authoritarian impulse will almost always exist among national leaders. Those who aspire to such positions have few doubts about their abilities and typically see checks and balances as means to frustrate their plans. They often conflate self-interest with the national interest. They justify greater power and fewer constraints so that they can act more efficiently and expeditiously.

In this world, India is an important test case. For years, Chinese leaders compared the two countries, noting that their growth rates, which outpaced those of India, justified authoritarianism. They asserted that democracy inhibited India’s performance. In recent years, however, India’s economy has grown faster than China’s, despite having a similar size population. (China’s leaders asserted that their huge population required a strong hand.) India’s economic performance puts the lie to the claim that efficiency and democracy are incompatible.

There is mounting evidence that democracy is losing its appeal. Surveys show increasing numbers of citizens in democratic countries are prepared to sacrifice some rights and liberties for more efficiency and better economic outcomes. The chaos in Washington, juxtaposed against the steady, assertive leadership in China and the self-confidence in Moscow, is doing great damage to the democracy brand. Democrats the world over need to mount a counteroffensive, reminding their citizens and others of the value of liberal political systems.