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Is the Decline of Democracy Inevitable?

What does the future hold for liberal democracies around the world in the next decade?
James Bohland, democracy news, is democracy in decline, US Capitol insurrection, January 6 uprising, US democracy news, politics news, global rise of far right, Chile election results, how to strengthen democracies

Capitol, Washington, DC, 1/6/2021 © lev radin

January 31, 2022 11:15 EDT

Perhaps the most critical immediate question facing the world in 2022 is whether the decline and eventual destruction of democracy are inevitable in the next decade. Thousands of words have been directed to this question over recent years, intensifying after the ascendency of Donald Trump to the presidency in the United States, the propagation of “the big lie” after his defeat in the 2020 election, and the subsequent insurrection at the Capitol on January 6, 2021.

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In the same period, Great Britain moved to the right under Prime Minister Boris Johnson while autocratic regimes in Poland, Hungary, Turkey, the Philippines and Brazil tightened their grip on governance structures.

What does the future hold for liberal democracies around the world in the next decade? Are current trends an aberration, or is Marc Plattner prophetic in noting in “Democracy in Decline?” that authoritarianism seems to have the “wind at its back even if it has not yet spread to many more countries”?

Inevitable Decline Scenario

Current trends produce compelling evidence that seems to suggest that the decline of democracies is an inevitability. In the United States, daily columns appear pronouncing that democracy is in peril and under siege, and asking whether another civil war is possible. The January 6 assault on the Capitol continues to be a flashpoint in what was already a very volatile political environment. Voting restrictions targeted at likely Democratic voters have been instituted in many pro-Republican states. Given the prominence of America as a symbol of liberal democracy, countries around the world are now thinking the unthinkable about the future of democratic governance.

Last year’s Freedom House report, “Freedom in the World for 2021,” carries the subheading “Democracy under Siege.” It suggests that the aggregate decline in freedom has exceeded gains for the past 15 years. While much of the deterioration in 2020 was associated with regimes in Africa and the Middle East, European nations — Poland, Hungary and Turkey — recorded reductions in freedom. Moreover, the United States has seen a 10-year decline in freedom equivalent to that experienced in 25 other nations.

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Meanwhile, as the left-wing populist party headed by Nicolas Maduro has captured the headlines because of his dismantling of democratic institutions in Venezuela, right-wing populist movements are increasing across Latin America — Brazil, Bolivia and Peru are examples. More recently, following Jair Bolsonaro’s playbook in Brazil, the leader of the right-wing populist Christian Social Front in Chile, José Antonio Kast, forced a run-off in a recent election after voicing a desire to return to the autocratic regime of Augusto Pinochet.  

Kast eventually lost in a landslide, which bodes well for the stability of democracy in Chile for the near future, but still raises the disconcerting issue of the popularity of authoritarianism among a sizeable minority of Chile’s polity. 

Predisposition to Authoritarianism

All of these recent events would seem to posit an argument that many citizens are susceptible to an authoritarian appeal. However, forecasting trends from recent events is always hazardous. Yet there is a more ominous source for predicting inevitability than the recent accounts and actions of political leaders and pundits. The writings of a number of social psychologists, historians and political scientists are extremely relevant to the question at hand.

Karen Skinner argues in her book “The Authoritarian Dynamic” that autocratic tendencies are baked into the psychic of citizens of liberal democracies. Fear of change and diversity is easily transformed into a call by a politician for a return to the status quo of the past, like “Make American Great Again.” Long before the ascent of Trump, Skinner estimated that as many as one-third of the population in liberal democracies have a predisposition to authoritarianism.

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Given that democracies encourage diversity, alternative interpretations of history and open dialogue on difficult issues, these strengths may exceed people’s capacity to tolerate difficult issues. A growing lack of tolerance toward immigrants, people of color or bureaucrats provides a platform for opportunistic leaders to activate that “authoritarian dynamic.”

Roger Griffin offers a similar argument when he attributes modernity as a force for fascism. With the unfolding of modernity, populist interpretations of an idealized national past arise in response to the anxiety that citizens feel about a future where the only certainty is that it will be different than the past. Leaders with autocratic ambitions use “restorative nostalgia” — Svetlana Boym’s concept introduced in her book “The Future of Nostalgia” to describe a hereafter that replicates the past — to rally citizens to a populist political movement, a revolt against democratic institutions and their advocates, “the bureaucratic elites.”

The arguments offered by Skinner, Griffin and others provide an important understanding of how the internal vulnerabilities of liberal democracies can nurture their own demise. However, despite the presence of an authoritarian dynamic within liberal democracies, a political leadership factor is part of the calculus for predicting the future of democracies. The past decade has witnessed the emergence of Plutarchian leaders who have learned to navigate the pathway that enables populist sentiments to be integrated with autocratic predispositions.

While their hold on the masses is important, what is required to secure power is their ability to bewitch a small key group of capable and principled people in leadership roles and convince them to submit to the autocratic impulses of a prophetic leader as a means of achieving limited policy goals.  

A cadre of Von Papenites — those who have no autocratic predisposition but are willing to align with anti-democratic politics as a means of achieving specific policy goals or to ensure their own power base in the governance structure — is required. The important and notorious role that Franz von Papen had in enabling the rise of fascism in Germany in the 1930s must not be duplicated if democracy is to be resilient in countries experiencing populist movements. The dangerous combination of a charismatic populist leader and a sizable component of politicians willing to compromise their political ideals for transitory political goals would make the downward spiral of democracy inevitable.

Yet in the United States, a contingent of politicians did defy the urges of the Trump administration to decertify the election results and preserve democratic rule. In Chile, citizens and political leaders rejected the call to return to the autocratic governance model of Pinochet’s dictatorship. In Europe, despite the political uncertainties created by the pandemic, right-wing populist movements have not established themselves as viable alternatives to current regimes. 

Democracy will be resilient and survive the current wave of right-wing authoritarianism if leaders and institutions demonstrate their ability to solve critical social and economic problems, reverse the erosion of trust between themselves and the public, and put the safeguarding of democracy at the forefront of their political agenda.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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