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We Are the Tide

The Signal
Works in Progress
How fragile is democracy? Fredo Arias-King on post-communist Europe, Latin America, and the resilience of democratic societies.
Alexander Popov
Alexander Popov
(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 IndiaBrazilTurkey, 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?
Arias-King: It depends on context. Is there a universal theory of everything for democracy, whether it goes forward or backward around the world? I sincerely doubt it. The closest thing to anything that’s universal is the classic [Seymour Martin] Lipset hypothesis that when a country under a regime of any kind—dictatorial, authoritarian, feudal—reaches a certain level of income, then there’s a transition to democracy, for reasons yet to be understood very well. Lipset took from Aristotle, who said in ancient Athens that you need a middle class—you need people to feel a certain sense of security, both personal and societal, for them to practice democracy.
Bluhm: You’ve been studying post-communist Europe for 30 years. Why is democracy breaking down in Poland, Hungary, and Slovenia?
Arias-King: I wouldn’t mix a common cold with a Covid pandemic. What we had under communism was an acute lack of democracy. But today’s Hungary and Poland, I would compare them to a very light common cold, because you know it’s going to end.
In Poland, they’ve done things I don’t approve of, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call them authoritarian regimes. A lot of the critics of both Orban and [Jaroslaw] Kaczynski [Poland’s deputy prime minister and the leader of its most powerful political party] in the organs of the European Union in Brussels have often applied a double standard when it comes to what they consider veering from democracy when it’s right-wing versus left-wing. When Syriza was in power in Greece, when an openly communist president was elected in Cyprus, the reprimands from the EU never came. All they preached was patience and understanding.
Jeremy Bishop
Jeremy Bishop
More from Fredo Arias-King at The Signal:
We should be very cautious in assigning the term authoritarian. You can say they’re attempting authoritarianism, they’re corrupt, or whatever. But we have to be careful with a label because if we’re not, that label will become diluted, and then we will have fewer weapons when a true authoritarian emerges.”
Sometimes it does feel that you have a choice: It’s either democracy or the market. And so those forces trying to modernize Latin America have to neutralize the ideological, romanticized left that puts up posters of Fidel Castro all over Mexico City or Buenos Aires; and those mercantilist, cynical, feudal conservatives, they want monopolies, and to exploit the poor, and to destroy nature for their own short-term benefit.”
The rapid pace of globalization has presented a real challenge. One of the many negative effects of globalization is that it challenges the basic beliefs and the sense of belonging of a lot of the people who feel left behind. Even if they’re buying a chicken in their local supermarket at a fraction of the work hours needed to buy the same chicken in Cuba or Venezuela, they’re not thinking in those terms. They’re thinking, Somebody up there is taking from me. Somebody up there isn’t giving me my fair share, because my wages feel the same. Even if you prove to them that 10 years ago, they would have needed to work twice as long as they would need to work to buy the same chicken today, they don’t care. It’s all about feelings, and what feels right is right in politics, unfortunately—especially in today’s politics, with social media.”
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