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So there’s a crisis in global democracy? Actually, no.

It’s the autocrats, not the democrats, who are in trouble.


 Joe Biden is trying to rally the world in a do-or-die fight to save democracy

“Will we allow the backward slide of rights and democracy to continue unchecked?” he asked more than 100 global leaders at his Summit for Democracy last year.

“Or will we together, together have a vision … and courage to once more lead the march of human progress and human freedom forward?”

There’s to be a second such summit in 2023.

Problems in the United States are well-known and, mostly, long-standing. But is there – beyond the tub-thumping rhetoric – any really strong evidence that democracy globally is in some sort of existential crisis?

One popular source is the annual Democracy Index, compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit. In 2016, the year Trump was elected, it famously reclassified the US from “full democracy” status into “flawed democracy”.

But Belgium, France, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain and India are also deemed not to be full democracies. Looking at this index alone, you’d tend to feel seriously pessimistic about the way the world is going. According to these calculations, only 6.4% of the world’s population is living in fully democratic conditions (and that doesn’t include the US or any of those other “substandard” countries.

According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, declines are particularly evident in the bastions of the democratic tradition – Europe and the US.

 

A broader view, though, reveals that much less is happening. Across the major geographic regions, there’s not much change at all. And the world average in 2021 is pretty close to where it was in 2006, when the survey began.

If things have declined somewhat in Europe, they’re improving elsewhere – often in places we seldom consider. Many of these don’t have high scores – Taiwan and South Korea are obvious exceptions – but some of these nations are heading convincingly in a direction any democrat would applaud.

And Europe really isn’t all that bad, despite the gloom. And if you’re concerned about Australia and New Zealand, we’re pretty close to the top of the list.

But this commonly accepted index has flaws of its own. It sets a remarkably high bar. Are France, Belgium and Spain really not fully democratic?

To find out what’s really going on, we need to step back. We need to look at the patterns of history. And they tell a very different story.

One well-regarded system has taken a historical approach, dividing all independent nations into those with a viable electoral process and those without. Under this system, the United States was the world’s only democracy until 1848 when France (briefly) and Switzerland joined the list.

There was a brief democratic flowering after the First World War, swept away with the rise of fascism in the late 1920s. After 1945, electoral democracies grew and, by 1992, had become the dominant form of government. They continued to increase until an apparent plateau was reached by about 2010. No substantial downturn is visible in these figures.

But what sort of democracy are we talking about? Another system, the Regimes of the World, uses these definitions:

This system, based on work by political scientists Anna L├╝hrmann, Marcus Tannenberg and Staffan Lindberg, divides nations into four categories – liberal democracies (such as Australia), electoral democracies, electoral autocracies and closed autocracies.

  • In closed autocracies, citizens do not have the right to choose either the chief executive of the government or the legislature through multi-party elections.

  • In electoral autocracies, citizens have the right to choose the chief executive and the legislature through multi-party elections; but they lack some freedoms, such as the freedoms of association or expression, that make the elections meaningful, free, and fair.

  • In electoral democracies, citizens have the right to participate in meaningful, free and fair, and multi-party elections.

  • In liberal democracies, citizens have further individual and minority rights, are equal before the law, and the actions of the executive are constrained by the legislature and the courts.

When we look at the number of countries with some sort of democracy – liberal or just electoral – the picture seems less optimistic. According to this system, liberal values have been in retreat since about 2010, though electoral systems capable of delivering changes of government with peaceful transitions mostly remain. Liberalism – the rule of law, human rights – is very far from dead.

The shift by some countries from the “liberal” to the “electoral” categories dates only from about 2010, when the Arab Spring and the Syrian civil war displaced millions of people. Many headed to Europe.

Syrian refugees on the long march to Europe
By 2017, according to UN figures, 6.9 million Syrians – 27% of the country’s population – were living abroad. They were joined by refugees fleeing conflict and famine in Somalia (2 million), Eritrea (608,000), Sudan (2 million), South Sudan (1.75 million) and the Central African Republic (725,000).

Historically, Europe had accepted large numbers of immigrants and, generally, integrated them without social values being seriously disrupted. But with millions of newcomers, from very different societies and with values that could be antipathetic to western liberal norms, the relatively comfortable accommodation of the past came under threat.

In countries like the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, France and elsewhere, right-wing and neo-fascist groups proliferated; but it was mostly centrist and socially progressive politicians who instituted immigration controls. These were seldom as rigorous as Australia’s policies on boat people, but they were enough to prevent these long-term liberal democracies from ticking the right number of boxes to remain in a somewhat arbitrary “liberal democracy” category of these academic evaluation systems.

They didn’t stop being democracies and, in most practical senses, certainly did not stop being liberal. But they were downgraded to “electoral” nevertheless.

But the number of countries is not the only consideration. What about the proportion of the global population living under one system or another? Here, the result is much more optimistic. Looking back as far as 1900, the big loser category has been – and still is – closed autocracy. There is no evident appetite among the world’s people for rigid, authoritarian regimes (like China or Saudi Arabia), or for electoral autocracy (Russia, Iran, Turkey).

On a population basis, there has been only a slight (and probably reversible) retreat among liberal regimes and a major expansion of those which have serious and reasonably fair elections.

Almost exactly half the people of the world now live under democratic government. If anyone’s facing a crisis, it’s the autocrats.

WHAT CAUSES DEMOCRACY?

As the west learnt from George W Bush’s ill-conceived wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, democracy cannot be imposed from outside or by military force. The population must want it and fight for it.

There are many academic theories about which conditions are likely to produce democratic government in a particular country. None of these theories quite fit the facts but most have some valuable insights.

The most widely quoted is the modernisation theory – that the products of economic development – industrialisation, rising standard of living, education – result almost inevitably in democratic government. There are too many exceptions for this to be taken as a rule of political development. What about China? Russia? Most of the Middle-East?

But when we look at the world map, it’s evident that liberal democracies (in light blue) – and to some extent electoral democracies (in pale yellow) – have some elements in common.

Wealth is one, though there are some exceptions – Botswana, for instance. But there are too many wealthy or reasonably wealthy countries (Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Turkey, Serbia) which are quite undemocratic for this to be regarded as the only criterion. Nevertheless, it is a pretty good indication, though much depends on how that wealth is distributed. If it is concentrated among a governing elite with the rest of the country in poverty, those in charge are likely to work quite hard to keep the masses out of power.

Education is also clearly important: but what sort of education? If it’s the kind that provides accurate knowledge of the world and teaches young people to think for themselves, the connections with both liberalism and democracy are clear.

But autocracies (China) and theocracies (Iran) create education systems that are fundamentally different. Studying religious texts without being able to question, or uncritically imbibing Xi Jinping Thought, is intended to entrench a ruling elite.

It may be less effective at equipping rising generations with the capacity to manage a complex economy or to deal with the competing claims inherent in a modern nation-state.

There are also signs that these education systems aren’t entrenching the elites very effectively at all. Young people all over the world, against the odds, are choosing to think for themselves.

AUTOCRATS, NOT DEMOCRATS, ARE THE ONES IN TROUBLE

It’s not news that democracy is under attack. It usually is. It’s more relevant to know how hard people in democracies are prepared to fight for it; and how the assailants are faring.

The evidence shows two things: that the defenders of democracy are as resolute as ever, and that the autocrats are having a very hard time indeed.

In the recent US mid-term elections, democracy was accurately said to be on the ballot. Despite a pervasive pre-poll pessimism, democracy won.

THE LAST OF TRUMP?

Trumpist election deniers did very badly indeed. “When election deniers ran for offices that have significant oversight over elections themselves, voters rejected them,” wrote Kaleigh Rogers, an analyst with the non-partisan website FiveThirtyEight.

“In particular, secretaries of state serve as the chief election official in most states, and overseeing elections is a big part of their job. Voters recognize this and, when state-level candidates were adamant election deniers, they not only lost, they typically did worse than other state-level candidates.

“There are still a lot of reasons to be concerned,” Rogers wrote, “about the state of democracy in America – 2021 brought a massive wave of new voter restrictions, a disturbingly high share of Americans think political violence is justified, and pending court cases could severely limit efforts to curtail gerrymandering or restrictive election laws. But over and over again this fall, voters in this country made it clear that, given the choice, they’re still picking democracy.”

Much of the chatter about democracy’s alleged retreat is fixated on America. America is not the world and, anyway, it’s turning out to be not as dire as many people thought. And in Brazil, the odious Bolsanaro followed the same path.

The United States may be the world’s most self-obsessed nation. Problems specific to America are assumed to be problems everywhere. A new study by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington-based think-tank, showed this to be misleading.

“American observers agonizing about the United States’ democratic woes tend to see democratic decline wherever they look,” the researchers wrote in Foreign Affairs.

“This view does not align with global realities. Certain negative trends – like citizen alienation from mainstream parties and the intensification of exclusionary, majoritarian politics – are affecting democracies almost everywhere. But actual backsliding – serious normative and institutional erosion that risks undercutting the whole democratic system – is not.”

The big winners in the US mid-terms were Joe Biden and democracy itself. The big loser was Donald Trump. He and his Big Lie cost the Republican Party the Senate, reduced the expected red wave in the House to a ripple – if five seats change hands, the Democrats would form the majority. And Trump has given the Democrats a decent chance of winning both houses and the presidency in 2024.

PUTIN’S GREAT BIG STUFF-UP

Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping are the poster boys for brutal, repressive authoritarianism.

Putin and his proxies annexed Crimea and took over parts of Ukraine’s east in 2014, starting a smouldering war that has gone on every since. But his real problems began when he started a full-scale invasion in February.

Putin’s stated war aims were to return Ukraine to the Russian empire, arrest prime minister Volodomir Zelenskiy and top officials, and force NATO to draw back from the former Soviet holdings in eastern Europe.

How’s that going, then, Vlad? In less than a year he has strengthened NATO, giving it a purpose it has not had since the end of the Cold War. The western alliance has not retreated but expanded, with two border states – Sweden and Finland – joining up. He has trashed Russia’s reputation as a military power.

Russia is losing its war
According to estimates from a Ukrainian website, over 90,000 Russian troops have been killed and 270,000 wounded. Russia has lost 43% of all its armoured vehicles, 88% of its tanks, 44% of its artillery, 20% of its aircraft and 27% of its helicopters.

Even half those numbers would be catastrophic for any armed force.

Protests have broken out throughout Russia against the botched and brutal military call-up. Untrained young men are being thrown into the front line as cannon fodder against determined and generally well-equipped Ukrainian defenders. It is all but impossible to see how Putin could win this war. Defeat, even extended stalemate, could be disastrous for him.

Who looks more politically secure now? Putin or Zelenskiy?

XI JINPING AND HIS GREAT STUMBLE FORWARD

Events in China are confirming a long-understood truth about centrally-planned, authoritarian economies: they can be effective in the early stages of development but fall apart later on. Modern economies are just too complicated to be run that way.

Deng Xiaoping understood that. Mao did not and his authoritarian hubris created the Great Leap Forward in 1959 that killed between 15 million and 55 million people in what was probably the worst famine in human history.

Xi has reversed Deng’s reforms at the worst time. After the Global Financial Crisis and the initial Covid-19 outbreaks, vast amounts of government stimulus was poured into an economy ill-equipped to absorb so much liquidity. Cheap borrowing created a bubble in the property sector and, rather than trying to deflate it in a sustainable way, a ham-fisted crackdown sent major building companies – including Evergrande, China’s second biggest developer, broke. In 2020, Evergrande held nominal assets of CNY 2.3 trillion (A$48 billion).

Thousands of pre-sold residential apartments by Evergrande and others were unfinished or not even started, though the buyers were expected to continue mortgage repayments. There was a widespread payment strike involving over 300 groups throughout China. Finally, the government tried to wind back the damage it had done.

Because property comprises about 30% of Chinese GDP, the broader economy suffered too.

 Protests throughout China ... 'Xi step down!'
All the time, Xi’s Covid-zero policy of continual, brutally-enforced lockdowns crippled the economy, with near-daily riots outside factories that make most of the world supply of Apple iPhones. Ongoing demonstrations throughout the country, unseen since the Tianamen Square massacre of 1989, protest against not only about the lockdowns but about censorship. There have been widespread, though not yet universal, calls for Xi to step down.

The crackdown in Hong Kong did not destroy that population’s desire for democracy: they are, for now, quiet. But that is all.

Xi has been damaged by the Hong Kong adventure. That unnecessary and brutal crackdown has now made peaceful reunification with Taiwan impossible. President Biden has made it clear that the US would go to war to prevent an invasion of the island democracy. If that happened, it would most probably mean defeat and the end of Xi.

Xi Jinping’s confirmation at this year’s Communist Party Congress as the country’s unchallenged supreme leader was interpreted, at the time, as a triumph. But, like Putin, he is increasingly isolated from any opinion but his own.

“Under the Xi system,” wrote the Brooking’s Institution’s Richard Bush, “power is highly concentrated, the flow of information to the top is tightly constricted, and the risks of anyone challenging Xi’s view of reality based on objective information are high.

“The likely consequence is that Xi & Co. will become even more prone to ‘group think’ than they already are; they will misperceive the reasons that the regime is facing difficulties and never blame its own policies; and miscalculate how China should respond.”

That is the same recipe that is losing Putin’s war in Ukraine.

THE FUTURE OF DEMOCRACY

Democracies are not immune from bad government and leaders who are venal, stupid and corrupt. But if any country in possession of a viable electoral system was to experience a leader like Xi or Putin, the next election would toss them out.

We can look around the world at such leaders: Khamenei in Iran, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Lukashenko in Belarus, Ghaddafi in Libya, Saddam in Iraq, Kadyrov in Chechnya, Ceausescu in Romania, Hoxha in Albania, Kim in North Korea – and so on. All are guilty of massive overreach. An all these leaders, eventually, fall. Those in democracies are thrown out of power but survive. Those in totalitarian states usually die.

In the end, governments cannot survive forever without the consent of the governed. It may take many decades to get rid of a hated dictator – but the rule generally holds.

Western triumphalism at the end of the Cold War was clearly premature. Francis Fukuyama, the American political scientist, has been long excoriated for his book which used a phrase from the early 19th century German philosopher Georg Hegel: The End of History. The phrase had been used by Marxists to celebrate communism; Fukuyama thought they were wrong.

 Fukuyama ... vindicated?
“When I wrote an article in 1989 and a book in 1992 with this phrase in the title,” he wrote recently in The Atlantic, “I noted that the Marxist version was clearly wrong and that there didn’t seem to be a higher alternative to liberal democracy.

“We’ve seen frightening reversals to the progress of liberal democracy over the past 15 years, but setbacks do not mean that the underlying narrative is wrong. None of the proffered alternatives look like they’re doing any better.

“Over the years, we have seen huge setbacks to the progress of liberal and democratic institutions, with the rise of fascism and communism in the 1930s, or the military coups and oil crises of the 1960s and ’70s. And yet, liberal democracy has endured and come back repeatedly, because the alternatives are so bad. People across varied cultures do not like living under dictatorship, and they value their individual freedom. No authoritarian government presents a society that is, in the long term, more attractive than liberal democracy.”

He just might be right.




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