While the U.S. expends its energy fighting with itself, the rest of the world is on the move, and many of the trends are negative. To understand why liberal democracy is on the defensive, there is no better place to start than the 30th-anniversary edition of the Journal of Democracy, the flagship publication of the National Endowment for Democracy, which includes contributions from many of the world’s leading experts. Here are some key insights:
The most recent wave of global democratization peaked in 2005. Since then, many regimes have turned undemocratic, liberal democracies have become less liberal, and electoral democracies have declined into what experts call “competitive autocracies.”
There are external threats to liberal democracy. China’s economic rise has convinced autocrats around the world that their countries can prosper without opening the door to civil liberties and political competition. Russia has effectively used social media to weaken public confidence in democratic elections and boost support for its own brand of conservative authoritarianism.
But the greatest threats to liberal democracy are internal—the rise of an “illiberal democracy” that erodes protections for individual freedom; an ethnonationalism at war with social diversity; and a loss of confidence among leading democracies that makes their leaders less wiling to use political and economic power to create a supportive geopolitical climate for democracy.
Why has this happened? As in Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express,” all the suspects share the guilt.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the West’s victory bred triumphalism and hubris. Liberal democracy, it was said, was the only game in town, and socialism’s economic failure meant that international markets were the key to the future. A rising tide of growth would mute distributional conflicts within democracies, and growing middle classes in nondemocracies would lead inexorably to political liberalization. The U.S. could use its economic and military dominance to force democratic change in the Middle East and elsewhere. It could focus on the war on terror while making the investments needed to sustain its global pre-eminence. These assumptions proved false.
Then came the global financial crisis, fed by the greed and recklessness of major financial institutions and the absence of effective government oversight. This shock, from which many market democracies haven’t fully recovered, undermined confidence in the democracy-plus-markets model that had been regarded as “the only game in town” after the Cold War.
At the same time, the shift from a manufacturing economy to the Information Age generated profound social and political changes. Metropolitan areas became more prosperous and more populous while small towns and rural areas lost economic and demographic ground. The rising center’s cultural norms clashed with those of the declining periphery. Center-left parties focused more on the cultural concerns of urban-based educated professionals and less on the woes of less-educated factory workers, miners and farmers, many of whom shifted their allegiance to parties that promoted economic populism and ethnic nationalism.
The European Union’s mishandling of the 2015 refugee crisis accelerated the gains of populist-nationalist parties. In 2000 these parties commanded about 8% of the vote across Europe and were represented in seven governments, compared with 26% and 15 governments by the beginning of 2019. Meanwhile, established democracies around the world—including Turkey, India, the Philippines and Brazil—moved in a populist-ethnonationalist direction, a trend capped by the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump.
Some of this represents a legitimate democratic response to long-suppressed public concerns. But three aspects of the ethnonationalist-populist turn are dangerous.
First, populism is by definition antielitist, but key liberal democratic institutions inevitably include many people with high levels of education and specialized knowledge. So populist voters scorn institutions in favor of direct relationships with charismatic leaders, who, history suggests, threaten liberal democracy.
Second, populists believe these leaders should be free to act on their behalf, unrestrained by institutions designed to protect individual liberties and minority rights. Populists typically are hostile to liberal democratic institutions such as constitutional courts, independent agencies and the press—unless populist leaders can bring them to heel.
Third, ethnonationalists distinguish between the “real” people—defined by descent, ethnicity and religion—and the rest. This contradicts a core principle of liberal democracy—that our shared civic identity as citizens overrides our differences—without which the U.S. could never have thrived as a nation of immigrants.
Ethnonationalism may work in countries with nearly homogenous populations, but it means an ugly politics everywhere else. If the citizens of diverse societies don’t unite against it, repression and strife are inevitable, and liberal democracy will be in peril.