Is democracy in crisis or in rebirth?
These days, you might be confused.
On the one hand, the chorus of people declaring that democracy is in crisis is strong and growing, indicating the decrease in the number of democracies in the world.
On the other hand, there is growing talk of a revival of the liberal world order, underscoring a new sense of purpose among democracies to defeat Russia’s brutal attempt to subjugate Ukraine.
Who is right?
The problem with some members of the crisis chorus is that they’ve been crying wolf for too long. Political scientists have been talking about a crisis of democracy for decades. But now they are right. According to the research institute VDEM, 70% of the world’s population lives in autocracies. In 2011, the figure was 49%.
The problem has two levels. First, countries that once democratized are now moving in the other direction – think Turkey, Myanmar, Hungary or Tunisia.
The other is that in autocracies mass mobilization rarely succeeds in changing political institutions. Think Belarus, Iran or Algeria.
Moving away from democracy seems to be easier than going towards democracy. Many authoritarian governments appear to be deeply entrenched, while many democracies have proven vulnerable to authoritarian threats.
And yet, there is also something in the theory of democratic renewal.
To begin with, people in many democracies have realized that their system is vulnerable. Talk to Americans since the storming of Congress on January 6, 2021, and you’ll find a sense of urgency and purpose that didn’t exist before.
It is also possible that some extremist parties have made themselves ineligible by being — too extreme. While it is deeply concerning that 30% of Americans still support Donald Trump, he is unlikely to win another presidential election with that level of support.
In many European democracies, extremist parties account for 20-30% of the vote, and while they may not be shrinking, they are no longer natural growth projects. Last weekend showed the mixed picture that has become the reality of democracy.
Austria vs Czech Republic
In the Czech Republic, Democrat Petr Pavel won the presidential election by an impressive margin. But in neighboring Austria, the extremist FPÖ recovered from its scandal in Ibiza with 24% of the vote in a major regional election.
This is the short and medium term perspective: a permanent struggle for the respect of democratic rules, accompanied by setbacks and advances.
Of course, major events can alter such a perspective. If Russia failed in its war against Ukraine, the global autocracy would lose major support, at least for a while.
Encouragingly, long-term trends can favor democracy. The attitude of many people around the world is becoming more open and liberal on issues such as gender equality, freedom of expression and reproductive freedoms.
So what does it take to make the attitude trend work for democracy?
First, it is important to know how we talk about democracy. If we just lament a “crisis of democracy” as is the fashion on the speaking circuit, we are part of the problem, creating a sense of inevitable decline. Democracies are attacked from within and without by people. And we can act to defend and support democracy. The current trend of democratic regression is not inevitable. It can be reversed.
Second, as I have explained in previous articles, we need to be clearer about the scope of democracy. It is a system that accommodates many political opinions. We cannot avoid debate and disagreement by denouncing any other opinion as extremist.
But we have to do it when politicians threaten the rules of democracy, as Trump, Orbán or Erdoğan do. The political right, in particular, risks forgetting the basic rules of democracy – legitimate conservatism too often flirts with the extreme right.
Third, much more needs to be done to win the battle for public opinion. Many attacks on democracy take place in the construction of ideologies, mental frameworks and narratives. Democracy advocates are often ill-prepared. They rely on laws, technical procedures and expertise, forgetting the adage of Abraham Lincoln: “With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed.
Fourth, democracy support needs to be more suited to the two scenarios of supporting movements towards democracy or defending it against attack. We do not yet know very well how to best defend.
What is clear is that democracy support must be nimble. It must be able to respond to sudden threats as well as sudden openings (as Ken Godrey of the European Partnership for Democracy has explained in detail here).
Fifthly, in Europe we must engage in the global debate on democracy. The rest of the world is not only the “beneficiary” of European support for democracy. There are many democracies with agency, voice and interests of their own, such as India, Indonesia, Brazil or South Africa to name a few of the larger ones. We have to talk to them.
The current situation of democracy is serious, but not hopeless.
In the 1940s, a lone group of democracies defeated a seemingly invincible constellation of dictatorships. For most of us in the EU the situation is now more comfortable. But we must be focused and determined to support democracy, lest things get worse.