The threats of liberal democracy from within

While the United States is spending its energy fighting against itself, the rest of the world is on the move and many trends are negative. To understand why liberal democracy is on the defensive, there is no better place to start than the 30th anniversary edition of the Journal of Democracy, the flagship publication of the National Endowment for Democracy, which includes contributions from many experts. global. Here is some key information:

The most recent wave of global democratization peaked in 2005. Since then, many regimes have become undemocratic, liberal democracies have become less liberal, and electoral democracies have become what experts call “competitive autocracies.”

There are threats from outside liberal democracy. China’s economic boom has convinced autocrats around the world that their countries can prosper without opening the door to civil liberties and political competition. Russia has effectively used social media to weaken public confidence in democratic elections and build support for its own brand of conservative authoritarianism.

But the greatest threats to liberal democracy are internal: the rise of an “illiberal democracy” that erodes protections of individual freedom; ethno-nationalism at war against social diversity; and a loss of confidence among major democracies that makes their leaders less willing to use political and economic power to create a geopolitical climate conducive to democracy.

Why did this happen? As in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, all suspects share the guilt.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the West’s victory spawned triumphalism and pride. Liberal democracy, it was said, was the only game in town, and the economic failure of socialism meant that international markets were the key to the future. A rising tide of growth would ease distributional conflicts within democracies, and the growth of the middle classes in non-democracies would inexorably lead to political liberalization. The United States could use its economic and military dominance to force democratic change in the Middle East and elsewhere. It could focus on the war on terrorism while making the investments necessary to maintain its global preeminence. These assumptions turned out to be wrong.

Then came the global financial crisis, fueled by the greed and recklessness of large financial institutions and the lack of effective government control. This shock, from which many market democracies have not fully recovered, undermined confidence in the democracy plus markets model which had been considered “the only game in town” after the Cold War.

At the same time, the shift from a manufacturing economy to the information age has generated profound social and political changes. Metropolitan areas have become more prosperous and more populated while small towns and rural areas have lost economic and demographic ground. The cultural norms of the burgeoning center clashed with those of the declining periphery. Center-left parties have focused more on the cultural concerns of educated urban professionals and less on the plight of less educated factory workers, miners and farmers, many of whom have switched allegiance to parties that encouraged economic populism and ethnic nationalism.

The European Union’s mismanagement of the 2015 refugee crisis accelerated the gains of the populist-nationalist parties. In 2000, these parties garnered around 8% of the vote across Europe and were represented in seven governments, up from 26% and 15 governments at the start of 2019. Meanwhile, established democracies around the world, including Turkey, l India, the Philippines and Brazil. – has evolved in a populist-ethnonationalist direction, a trend capped by the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump.

Some of these measures represent a legitimate democratic response to long suppressed public concerns. But three aspects of the ethno-nationalist-populist turn are dangerous.

First, populism is by definition anti-elitist, but the main liberal democratic institutions inevitably include many people with a high level of education and specialized knowledge. Thus, populist voters despise institutions in favor of direct relationships with charismatic leaders who, according to history, threaten liberal democracy.

Second, populists believe these leaders should be free to act on their behalf, without being constrained by institutions designed to protect individual freedoms and the rights of minorities. Populists are generally hostile to liberal democratic institutions such as constitutional courts, independent agencies and the press, unless populist leaders can bring them to heel.

Third, ethnonationalists distinguish between the “real” people – defined by ancestry, ethnicity, and religion – and the rest. It contradicts a fundamental tenet of liberal democracy – that our shared civic identity as citizens trumps our differences – without which the United States could never have prospered as a nation of immigrants.

Ethnonationalism can work in countries with almost homogeneous populations, but it means ugly politics everywhere else. If citizens of diverse societies do not unite against it, repression and conflict are inevitable, and liberal democracy will be in jeopardy.

Big picture: As the November presidential election draws near, how the Trump administration handles tensions around the world will only become more important. Image: Philip Fong / Getty Images

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