Aftershocks in the Free World



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Why is democracy eroding more among America’s allies than in other countries? Moises Naím on how massive social change is affecting the way citizens feel, and the nature of politics, around the world.
Tbel Abuseridze
Tbel Abuseridze
(Originally published 2021 | 11.23)
Democracy is in retreat. It’s been one of the most persistent themes of the era—through a Donald Trump presidency defined by contempt for U.S. institutions; populist autocrats winning elections in Europe, Asia, and Latin America; military coups in Egypt, Myanmar, and Sudan; and an illiberal China’s apparently unstoppable rise. Now a research institute based in Sweden that measures democracy globally, V-Dem, has reached a striking conclusion: On average, democratic indicators dropped in the United States and allied countries at nearly twice the rate of non-allied countries during the past 10 years. Very few allies experienced any increases in democracy, which the institute calculates based on hundreds of indicators, including election fairness and judicial independence. In other words, most global democratic regression isn’t the result of China, Russia, or other authoritarians undermining countries that are struggling with transitions to democracy; it’s the result of weakening institutions in countries that are established democracies—such as Hungary, Turkey, the Philippines, and Israel. The study defines U.S. allies as the 41 cosuntries that Washington has mutual-defense agreements with. Of course, though the United States is the world’s oldest uninterrupted democracy, it has long kept defense pacts with dictators, and it hasn’t always demanded democratic behavior from its partners. Still, why the correlation between alliance with the U.S. and democratic decline?
Moisés Naím—formerly Venezuela’s minister of trade and industry, the director of Venezuela’s Central Bank, and an executive director of the World Bank—is a distinguished fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. In his view, the United States isn’t causing breakdowns for democratic allies; the U.S. usually has little to do with the vitality of democracy outside its borders. The global problem of democratic decline ultimately traces back to a series of profound economic and social shocks that most parts of the world have gone through during the past 20 years—and as Naím sees it, the social and political consequences of these shocks have been greater in liberal than in illiberal countries.
Michael Bluhm: Do you see any connection between the U.S. and democratic breakdowns among its allies?
Moisés Naím: If you live in a democracy, you live in a society that went through the 2008-2009 financial crisis, which has a long set of consequences. The political repercussions of the Great Recession are quite important, but they were not sufficiently noticed, and they created favorable conditions for demagogues and populists.
We were saved from another Great Depression, but the recession did have significant effects: growing inequality, unemployment, declining incomes, declining budgets for social policies. The mantra of 2008-2009 was fiscal austerity—cutting budgets and curbing social programs.
Around the world, we got a new lexicon, a new kind of politics that was not very democratic. It had a strong authoritarian propensity; it clashed with checks and balances, and limits to the power of the presidency. We saw it in Brazil, the Philippines, and Hungary.
While all that was unfolding, we got hit by the pandemic. How can a democracy survive all those knocks without more skepticism, more frustration with the government—and with the idea of democracy itself? In democratic societies, protests are more visible; the instruments that the state has to control critics, more limited.
It’s very important to note that even autocracies suffered the consequences of these situations. In Russia, Putin has tools, resources, and institutional settings that give him more power; he can be more repressive than a democracy. And he has been.
The world, and democracies in general, have experienced significant external shocks.
Bluhm: You mention the rise of populists in democratic countries. The Signal recently published an interview with James A. Robinson, the co-author of Why Nations Fail, who said that political scientists don’t have a good explanation for the appeal of populism—for why populists have succeeded in countries as different as Brazil, the Philippines, and Hungary. What do you see as driving the surge in populism and populists?
Naím: A common mistake is to treat populism as an ideology. Populism is a strategy to obtain and retain power. It’s used by the left and the right. It’s used by politicians in wealthy countries and in the global South.
Populism is just the old strategy of divide and conquer. It divides society into the noble folk—people abused by predators—and predatory elites. That story has gained a lot of followers and explains a lot of what happened.
Populism has been complemented by polarization. The globalization of polarization is a trend. Polarization is like cholesterol—there is good cholesterol and bad cholesterol. There is good polarization and bad polarization. Good polarization signifies a democracy: You have different groups that clash in ideology, interests, identity, and so on. That is democracy. That’s healthy, that’s desirable.
But another kind of polarization is paralyzing. That polarization doesn’t treat others as compatriots but as enemies who do not have the legitimacy to hold power. That toxic polarization has been amplified by the style and the likes of Donald Trump. Around the world, these leaders polarize by identifying wedge issues [controversial political issues politicians can use to divide and attract voters] or bringing new wedge issues and creating more divisions within society, as part of the strategy of acquiring power and retaining it.
Daniel Olah
Daniel Olah
More from Moises Naím at The Signal:
Democracy is driven by many forces, one of which, and not the most important one, is the United States—its behavior, its significance as a model, or its intervention. There’s no doubt that it plays a role, but you have to be very careful not to assume that the main force shaping the prospects for democracy is what the U.S. does or doesn’t do.”
The backsliding is a consequence of a set of behaviors, decisions, and policies adopted by politicians. One of the most interesting surprises is how nations with different geographies, histories, cultures, and economics end up having extraordinarily similar politics and policies. If you compare the things [former Prime Minister] Sebastian Kurz in Austria says and does to President Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil or President Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, you will be impressed by how similar they are. Some have opposite ideologies—some are right-of-center, some are left, but their narrative is similar. There’s this significant pattern across countries that have very little in common other than a leader who was brought to power, and is retaining power, by using the same set of populist tools.”
I often use a quote by Jose Ortega y Gasset, a political theorist in Spain in the 1930s. He wrote, We don’t know what is happening to us, and this is precisely what is happening to us. That’s uncertainty. Everyone knows that we’re going through tectonic changes driven by politics, the pandemic, great-power rivalries, and technology. We know that a lot of things are happening that are large-scale and uncontainable, and will affect me, my family, my company, my country, and my neighborhood. I don’t know how my family and I are going to end up. And this creates a foul mood that’s being exploited by politicians who discovered this demand for protection, for a promise to fortify and defend people from the consequences of these huge changes.”
Where is the conflict in Ukraine headed? Chris Miller on the path dependencies, possible outcomes, and fraught psychology of a still-uncertain struggle.
What are the U.S. and more than a dozen other countries doing with a new type of economic agreement in the Indo-Pacific? Wendy Cutler on Biden’s experimental attempt to pick up where Obama left off.
What happened to the graves of Indigenous children reportedly discovered in Canada in 2021? Terry Glavin on the elaborate confusion obscuring an ongoing mystery and longstanding injustice.
Mladen Borisov
Mladen Borisov
The Signal explores urgent questions in current events around the world—to support it and for full access:
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