(Originally published 2021 | 10.05)
Democracy is in retreat around the world.
This year could well become the 17th consecutive year when the U.S.-based nonprofit Freedom House records an overall decline in its measures of democracy in countries across the globe. In the United States, the world’s oldest continuous democracy, only a handful of Republican Party officials publicly deny former President Donald Trump’s lie that the 2020 U.S. election was fraudulent, and the party has since taken steps to install partisan election officials
in Republican-controlled states and to pass state-level laws that effectively suppress voting. Meanwhile, China is cracking down
on civil liberties in Hong Kong
, interning millions of Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang Province, and supporting the rise of authoritarianism
globally. Even before Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s party falsified
the results of the last national elections. In many nominally democratic countries, too, leaders have eroded democratic institutions and enacted authoritarian laws—as in India
, and Tunisia
. Is democracy losing to authoritarianism?
Fredo Arias-King leads the board of directors of the Casla Institute, a Prague-based nonprofit that shares the lessons of post-communist transformation with reformers in Latin America. Raised in Mexico, he’s written extensively on democratic transitions in Latin America and Europe. Despite its global setbacks, Arias-King is confident in the long-term prospects for democracy. In his view, the democratic backsliding in many countries, such as Poland and Hungary, is only a temporary setback. From a broader perspective, he says, many of these places were totalitarian or authoritarian states not long ago, so their troubles today shouldn’t call into question the longer arc toward greater democratization. As Arias-King sees it, today’s problems are often rooted in economic insecurity or migration caused by rapid globalization, as extremists on the left and right exploit nationalist feelings or other emotions for political gain.
Michael Bluhm: How worried are you by the erosion of democracy globally?
Fredo Arias-King: I have a lot of confidence in democracy. I take a longer view. Alexis de Tocqueville said democracy is like a tide that will recede but come back much stronger. So even when it seems that everything is lost—and in many periods in history, in many geographies, everything has seemed lost—then suddenly, a waves comes and more follow.
In the interwar period of the early 20th century, between World War I and World War II, a hodgepodge of small- and medium-sized nations appeared on the map of Europe after the collapse of the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and German empires. There was only one democracy east of Switzerland: the Czechoslovakia of President Tomas Masaryk. Today, there are 14 or 15 democracies east of Switzerland, according to even those slightly pessimistic reviews by Freedom House. I call that progress.
Whether or not you like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Hungary is still a democracy. Could be “free,” could be “semi-free,” but just very recently—historically, in the blink of an eye—it was absolutely not free. So I see Tocqueville’s perspective as wise: Democracy always comes back stronger. I’m a lot more optimistic than others tend to be.
Bluhm: Are there common factors in the erosion of democracy in different parts of the world? Or a common path for building a successful democracy out of an undemocratic state? Or does it depend on context?