Democracy worldwide: “the warning signs are flashing red”

The New York Times reports on a study on the current state of democratic government in the world. And it’s not looking good.

Yascha Mounk, a lecturer in government at Harvard, and Roberto Stefan Foa, a political scientist at the University of Melbourne, concluded that democracies are not as secure and stable as most of us would like to believe.

Political scientists have a theory called “democratic consolidation,” which holds that once countries develop democratic institutions, a robust civil society and a certain level of wealth, their democracy is secure.

For decades, global events seemed to support that idea. Data from Freedom House, a watchdog organization that measures democracy and freedom around the world, shows that the number of countries classified as “free” rose steadily from the mid-1970s to the early 2000s. Many Latin American countries transitioned from military rule to democracy; after the end of the Cold War, much of Eastern Europe followed suit. And longstanding liberal democracies in North America, Western Europe and Australia seemed more secure than ever.

But since 2005, Freedom House’s index has shown a decline in global freedom each year. Is that a statistical anomaly, a result of a few random events in a relatively short period of time? Or does it indicate a meaningful pattern?
Across numerous countries, including Australia, Britain, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden and the United States, the percentage of people who say it is “essential” to live in a democracy has plummeted, and it is especially low among younger generations.

Support for autocratic alternatives is rising, too. Drawing on data from the European and World Values Surveys, the researchers found that the share of Americans who say that army rule would be a “good” or “very good” thing had risen to 1 in 6 in 2014, compared with 1 in 16 in 1995.

That trend is particularly strong among young people. For instance, in a previously published paper, the researchers calculated that 43 percent of older Americans believed it was illegitimate for the military to take over if the government were incompetent or failing to do its job, but only 19 percent of millennials agreed. The same generational divide showed up in Europe, where 53 percent of older people thought a military takeover would be illegitimate, while only 36 percent of millennials agreed.

We have noted some of the warning signs, particularly in Eastern Europe, where the trend away from liberal democracy seems especially ominous in Hungary (where the prime minister says he favors an “illiberal democracy,” whatever that means) and Poland.

Perhaps the idea that countries like the United States could help promote democracy worldwide was more problematic than some of us hoped. At the very least, however, people and governments in Western democracies should be willing to take the side of people fighting for democratic rights in countries that lack them or are losing them.

I was disappointed that President Obama didn’t put a higher priority on promoting democracy. But early indications are that it’s an even lower priority for Donald Trump– except when he can score political points, as he did on Fidel Castro’s death.

In fact it’s hard to feel totally secure about democracy here in the United States with a future president who proclaims things like, “I alone can fix it.”

As the Russian chess champion and anti-Putin dissident Garry Kasparov tweeted at the time: