Is liberal democracy in decline?

“Turkey, for several decades a model of secular democracy, has become a leading example of authoritarianism under the presidency of Recep Tayyip Erdogan”, says the author. [AP]

Right now, liberal democracy is not only in retreat, it is actually under siege. Think tanks like Freedom House have confirmed that we are now in the 16th consecutive year of declining global freedom, assuming of course that democracy is the political system that offers the highest degree of freedom. We have experienced a wave of authoritarianism not only because of the growing number of dictatorial or authoritarian countries and the influence that some of them have gained in international affairs, but also because democracy in the democratic world has experienced a dramatic fall.

Not so long ago, in the 1990s – that golden decade both for democracy and for the Western world – the prospects for democratic expansion were so good that American political scientist Francis Fukuyama went so far as to announce the end of history: a new era in which historical confrontations would cease as all countries would eventually become democratic and reject all other forms of government that would globally be seen as unjust and oppressive. But, as Karl Popper said, facts are stubborn, and the fact is that democracy has been in decline since 2006. In the context of the last global financial crisis, we have seen the consolidation of authoritarian regimes in several parts of the world .

Vladimir Putin has launched a new style of autocratic rule in Russia that could keep him in power for life, assuming of course he manages to stay in power after challenging the Western world with the invasion of Ukraine. Hugo Chavez ended democracy in Venezuela, and under his influence and that of Castro’s Cuba, the Bolivarian Revolution overthrew the principles of liberal democracy in a substantial part of Latin America. The glimmer of hope for democracy in North Africa and the Middle East created by the so-called Arab Spring uprisings in 2010 quickly faded and we have since seen dictators consolidate authoritarian regimes. Meanwhile, Turkey, for several decades a model of secular democracy, has become a leading example of authoritarianism under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The meteoric rise of China and its global role over the past two decades explains this authoritarian wave very well. The most populous totalitarian regime in the world has signed economic agreements with many countries that have contributed to its steady growth, but unlike the European Union or the United States, which have conditioned economic aid on democratization and human rights, China’s aid is politically unconditional. This explains why the number of prosperous authoritarian regimes under China’s economic influence has increased so much. At the same time, China has launched a campaign to discredit democracy and convince world leaders that it is inferior to its own system. He found the perfect platform to do so at the United Nations. At the UN Human Rights Council, which the United States left in 2018, Beijing promoted the view that no political system is superior, that it is up to each state to decide its system. politics and that for this reason the principle of non-interference must prevail in international relations. It is an affront to what the liberal international order has stood for for a century; it allows human rights violations to go unpunished while the formation of autocracies is encouraged.

The decline of democracy can be understood in terms of power politics in the international sphere. As the global influence of the United States and the EU diminishes at the expense of that of China and Russia as well, the prestige of dictatorial regimes will inevitably increase. But it would be misleading to attribute this exclusively to the failure of the foreign policies of the major democracies – democracy is also declining due to the declining prestige of the democratic world itself.

At a time when statesmanship is notoriously absent, the most extravagant promises proliferate in an effort to win elections.

Leadership in the democratic world has reached unprecedented levels. Traditionally, leadership of a country was only within reach of those whose professional and personal lives had been truly exceptional. It is the general trend that explains leadership such as that of Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer. In the same way, being a minister or reaching the highest ranks of a government was once the culmination of excellence in a professional career. Is this really the case now? The barriers to entering politics have never been lower than they are today. While it is difficult to rise to the highest echelons of government, academia or business, it is relatively easy to become a member of the ruling elite through partisan politics, where cronyism trumps meritocracy and where obedience matters more than excellence. or integrity. Public life in liberal democracies has become impoverished because a political career no longer attracts the best talents in society.

Populism is the other explanation for the decline of democracy. It can be defined as the tendency of governments to appeal to popular support regardless of the consequences and is linked to weak and poor leadership. While a statesman plans for the next generation, a politician plans for the next four years. At a time when statesmanship is notoriously absent, the most extravagant promises proliferate with the aim of winning elections, or referendums, always popular among populist leaders, even if these promises are unsustainable or cause irreparable damage. to a long-term country. Populism has not only turned strong democracies into failing states, it is also behind growing attacks on the checks and balances that allow democracy to work, such as judicial independence, freedom of speech, religious freedom and minority rights.

Wokism and cancel culture is another manifestation of the crisis of liberal democracy. It is the result of an extremist interpretation of political correctness according to which there can be only one way of thinking in a democracy, usually on the side of those in power or of a dominant cultural current, and, by therefore, those who express different opinions must be ostracized or eliminated from the public sphere. This trend has been particularly dangerous in the press and academia, which can only thrive if there is freedom of expression. Wokism has sparked radical protests that have culminated in the toppling of statues of historical figures accused of representing sexist or racist beliefs. From David Hume to Thomas Jefferson, several major contributors to the history of liberal democracy have been demonized by this 21st century inquisition, just as living citizens are demonized by an emerging ministry of truth if they do not meekly follow its doctrines. This is contrary to the essence of liberal democracy based on diversity of opinion and freedom of expression.

Post-truth is also responsible for democratic decadence. This is a new phenomenon in which objective facts no longer shape public opinion and are replaced by emotions, personal beliefs or simple lies. Internet technology is largely responsible for this, as it disseminates all kinds of information without prioritizing its importance or evaluating its veracity, as the press traditionally did. Social media allows the spread of lies at an incredible speed as well as all kinds of beliefs and emotions that can affect an electoral process. Information overload is killing the information age, along with the rationalism and factual knowledge associated with it, which was the cornerstone of liberal democracy.

In several countries, liberal democracy loses the liberal aspect of the term and becomes a people’s democracy. In others, it has suffered such a dramatic drop in representation, planning and accountability that it becomes what the Greeks defined as a kakistocracy, the rule of the least able or competent citizens.

Authoritarianism has also created mafia states and because of this we know of ochlocracy, a popular regime in which a ruling elite openly defies legitimate authorities and intimidates its own citizens. On the other hand, it is true that despite all its faults, democracy continues to have great international appeal, and even most authoritarian regimes call themselves democratic because they claim to represent the general interests of the people and that they have developed the most sophisticated methods to gain popular support. In light of the evidence and trends the world is experiencing, one can conclude that the golden days of liberal democracy are over.


Julio Crespo-MacLennan is an international relations expert, professor at IE University and director of the Hispanic Observatory think tank.