Evaluating democracy’s global standing: The prospect of a freer world

“Democracy in Decline” is a compilation of scholarly essays assessing world affairs and empirical records that arguably represent the deterioration of democracy, largely in response to Freedom House’s annual surveys over the past decade that indicate such trend. Most of the writing in the volume initially appeared in the twenty-fifth anniversary issue of the Journal of Democracy, but was compiled into a book in recognition of the wide interest that the converging theme, democracy’s health, would generate. Although three out of the six essays in “Democracy in Decline” conclude that democratic recession has been underway since the turn of the century, and only one categorically refutes the premise, the book does not leave us feeling doomed. The undying appeal of democratic ideals to “people who do not yet enjoy [their] benefits” is a glimmer of hope in the dark landscape of authoritarian resurgence and democratic retreat. Yet many of the authors point us to the real source of cautious hopes for reversing the worrisome political trend: Western powers’ role as defenders of democracy, preventing nascent and vulnerable democratic governments from submitting to authoritarian influences.

It comes as no surprise that democracy has been shown “to break down in countries that have adopted it for the first time” or to fail “to be solidified in places until it has been tried several times.” Unless initial mobilization against tyranny is accompanied by domestic effort and international assistance, authoritarian fall will not inevitably lead to democratization. Successful transition into democracy, marked by solidification of democratic practices, rests heavily on countries’ ability to build modern states as well as the behavior of advanced Western democracies. Francis Fukuyama and Robert Kagan stress internal and external factors, respectively, that determine the political fate of fledgling democratic states. Democracy, once adopted, does not automatically stick; the merits of the ideology itself cannot guarantee that it will prevail in a world climate that is increasingly unfavorable to its expansion.

Tens of thousands of people marched in the Polish capital Warsaw, protesting against the Law and Justice Party. (By Sankoff64 (own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

Tens of thousands of people marched in the Polish capital Warsaw, protesting against the Law and Justice Party. (By Sankoff64 (own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

Fukuyama attributes the stunted growth of new democracies like Ukraine, Brazil, Colombia, and India to their failure to develop effective modern states that can deliver basic public goods, including education, infrastructure, and citizen security. While he makes the obvious argument that legitimate democratic governments should be capable of governance, he rightfully points out that providing high-quality services is even more of a priority than erecting democratic institutions. Fukuyama hints that prominent world powers can offer human and material resources for fledgling democracies’ state-building efforts. Ironically, the main challenges against improving democratic aid, such as the loss of democratic momentum and Western actors’ lack of credibility, are the very proofs of democracy’s rollback.

On the other hand, Kagan contends that the behavior of advanced democracies dictate the long-term consequences of democratic uprisings. Kagan’s excerpt, “Weight of Geopolitics,” sheds insight on the impact of shifting hierarchies between great reigning powers on domestic politics of weaker nations. His claims are well supported by impressive historical references, such as the fact that the “third wave” of democratization from the 1970s to the 90s coincided with increasing competence of the European Community and US presidents’ military interventions to oust autocratic leaders in the Dominican Republic, Grenada, and Panama. Based on the environment in which they arise, new democracies survive or die.

Sign of anti-communist resistance, democracy, pro-human rights activism. (By Nguyen1310 (own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Sign of anti-communist resistance, democracy, pro-human rights activism. (By Nguyen1310 (own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Larry Diamond’s essay is best deemed as a combination of Fukuyama and Kagan’s theories on the source of democratic weakness and instability. He identifies both bad governance, overseen by self-serving and nepotic leaders who undermine democratic systems, and the decreasing confidence and efficiency of established democracies as causes of democracy’s retreat. Diamond, too, urges Western governments to ramp up their efforts to “reform and consolidate” illiberal and unstable democracies. Although the book does not necessarily invite readers to compare and contrast its authors’ ideas, Fukuyama, Kagan, and Diamond’s views constitute a general consensus not only on the breakdown of democracy but also on rich democratic countries’ duty to ensure that newfound democracies—“fragile flower[s]”—can flourish to their full potential.

The book would be way too predictable if it only contained unambiguous acceptances or rejections of the notion that democracy is regressing. Thankfully, some of the authors offer more nuanced viewpoints that discourage hasty judgments about the direction in which democracy is headed. In “Crisis and Transition, Not Decline” Philippe Schmitter claims that democracy is “in the process of transition from one type to another,” presenting an extensive inventory of “innovative practices” that newer democratic states have been experimenting with. Many of the gradually occurring changes represent steps towards a “more liberal” or “post-liberal” democracy; particularly laudable yet underrecognized reform attempts include setting quotas for women among electoral candidates, establishing “guardian institutions” that protect citizens from fraud and exploitation, and implementing a funding mechanism that allows citizens to allocate a fixed percentage of their tax obligations to organizations of their choice. But being novel inventions, they cannot promise positive results, and the bigger problem lies in actually motivating citizens, deputies, special interests, and activists to implement these reforms without the insurance of success.Without studying each country’s trajectory from authoritarian demise to a modern state to long-term democratic performance, the same states could indicate democracy’s decline or be evidence to the contrary.

Schmitter tempers his own optimism for the possibility that current democracy would become reformulated into a better, even freer version. However, his admission of such uncertainty still does not address the obvious question: what is the future of democracy if it gets stuck mid-transition? Transition may not equal decline, or at least it is too early to know, but is a democracy that fails to properly adopt progressive reforms bound to decay? In “Democratic Aid at 25: Time to Choose,” Carother similarly contends that the status of democracy hinges upon a precarious matter, the evolution of democratic aid in the coming years. Kudos for providers who have increased the effectiveness of their assistance for democracy-building, in terms of ridding resistance to democratizing work and making help more country-specific, but such changes might be short-lived and inconsistent. Carother, like Schmitter, concedes that aid organizations are unlikely to recognize and address the shortcomings of their practices. Ironically, the main challenges against improving democratic aid, such as the loss of democratic momentum and Western actors’ lack of credibility, are the very proofs of democracy’s rollback. Carother dismisses the prospect of positive transformations in democratic aid, almost contradicting his main claim that democratic recession is not a real phenomenon. At the least, he insinuates that democracy’s decline will be a reality unless aid providers strive to devise more versatile, risk-taking, and cooperative assistance methods.

Government henchmen protest against media suppression and attacks on artists at Fort Railway Station in Colombo, Sri LankaBy Vikalpa (By Groundviews) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

Government henchmen protest against media suppression and attacks on artists at Fort Railway Station in Colombo, Sri LankaBy Vikalpa (By Groundviews) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps Levitsky and Way’s “The Myth of Democratic Recession” qualifies as the only direct opposition to Fukuyama, Kagan, and Diamond’s agreement on the erosion of democracy. The Levitsky and Way essay declares the theory of waning democracy a hoax, explaining that excessive post-Cold War optimism misconstrued countless authoritarian crises as examples of democratization. Mischaracterizing authoritarian regimes that were never democratic in any meaningful sense made their reconsolidation into more stable authoritarian rule appear as cases of democratic failure. This critique of exaggerated, misleading concerns alludes to the difficulty of measuring democracy’s strength or legitimacy. There is, after all, no universal standard to judge the extent to which key procedures and institutions have to erode in order for democracy to fail. Whereas Levitsky and Way overlook breakdowns of democracy in the 2000s caused by incremental degradations of democratic rights, Diamond, for example, does not accord enough credit to democracy’s endurance in nations regardless of inhospitable circumstances.

To amateurs in political theory like myself, weighing the merits of various authors’ perspectives poses a challenge, having limited tools to check facts and verify empirical data. The notions of “Freedom scores” and “Mean Democracy scores” appear foreign to begin with, and each generalized assertion about democracy entails lists of countries that may or may not have been accurately grouped together. Without studying each country’s trajectory from authoritarian demise to a modern state to long-term democratic performance, the same states could indicate democracy’s decline or be evidence to the contrary. What does remain clear, however, is that democracy is at best in stasis, and its intrinsic attractiveness alone cannot safeguard it from demise in the face of pervasive authoritarian forces.

About Author

Cindy Jung

Cindy Jung is a staff writer for the HIR. She contributes to the magazine as well as the blog.

1 Comment

  1. Alem

    As a starter, one needs to look into democratization in Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Uganda – all three the darling of the West who have expolited the power of the media [by a narrative of “peace, development and growth”; byretaining and enriching lobbyists [Tony Blair for Rwanda]; and by “fighting terrorism” to silence all and any opposition.