If you’re a supporter of Donald Trump — or Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil or Matteo Salvini in Italy — you probably think that democracy has never been in better health.
Recent elections in these countries didn’t just serve to rotate the elite from the conventional parties. Voters went to the polls and elected outsiders who promised to transform their political systems. That demonstrates that the system, that democracy itself, is not rigged in favor of the “deep state” or the Bilderberg global elite — or the plain vanilla leaders of the center left and center right.
Moreover, from the perspective of this populist voter, these outsiders have continued to play by the democratic rules. They are pushing for specific pieces of legislation. They are making all manner of political and judicial appointments. They are trying to nudge the economy one way or another. They are standing up to outside forces who threaten to undermine sovereignty, the bedrock of any democratic system.
Sure, these outsiders might make intemperate statements. They might lie. They might indulge in a bit of demagoguery. But politicians have always sinned in this way. Democracy carries on regardless.
You don’t have to be a supporter of right-wing populists to believe that democracy is in fine fettle. The European Union just held elections to the European Parliament. The turnout was over 50 percent, the highest in two decades.
True, right-wing populists increased their share from one-fifth to one-fourth of the chamber, with Marine Le Pen’s party coming out on top in France, Salvini’s Liga taking first place in Italy, and Nigel Farage’s Brexit party winning in the U.K. But on the other side of the spectrum, the Greens came in second in Germany and expanded their stake of the European parliament from 7 to 9 percent. And for the first time, two pan-European parties ran candidates. The multi-issue progressive Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM 25) received more than 1.4 million votes (but failed to win any seats).
Or maybe you’re an activist fighting for democracy in an authoritarian state. In some countries, you have reason to celebrate. You just succeeded in forcing out the long-serving leader of long-suffering Sudan. You just booted the old, sick, corrupt head of Algeria. You’ve seen some important steps forward in terms of greater political pluralism in Ethiopia, in Malaysia, in Mexico.
You can cherry-pick such examples and perspectives to build a case that the world is continuing to march, albeit two steps forward and one step back, towards a more democratic future.
But you’d be wrong. Democracy faces a global crisis. And this crisis couldn’t be coming at a worse time.
Democracy’s fourth wave
In 1991, political scientist Samuel Huntington published his much-cited book, The Third Wave. After a first wave of democratization in the nineteenth century and a second wave after World War II, Huntington argued, a third wave began to sweep through the world with the overthrow of dictatorship in Portugal in 1974 and leading all the way up to the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the fall of apartheid in South Africa.
It was at this time, too, that Francis Fukuyama and others were talking about the inevitable spread of democracy — hand in hand with the market — to every corner of the globe. Democratic politics appeared to be an indispensable element of modernity. As countries hit a certain economic, social, and technological threshold, a more educated and economically successful population demands greater political participation as a matter of course.
Of course, democracy doesn’t just arrive like a prize when a country achieves a certain level of GDP. Movements of civil society, often assisted by reformers in government, push for free and fair elections, greater government transparency, equal rights for minorities, and so on.
Sometimes, too, outside actors play a role — providing trainings or financing for those movements of civil society. Sometimes democratic nations sanction undemocratic governments for their violations of human rights. Sometimes more aggressive actors, like U.S. neoconservatives in the 2000s, push for military intervention in support of a regime change (ostensibly to democracy), as was the case in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya.
However, the modernization thesis generates too many exceptions to remain credible. Both China and Saudi Arabia function at a high economic level without democracy. Russia and Turkey, both modern countries, have backslid into illiberal states. Of the countries that experienced Arab Spring revolutions in 2011, only Tunisia has managed to maintain a democracy — as civil war overtook Libya, a military coup displaced a democratically elected government in Egypt, Bashar al-Assad beat back various challenges in Syria, and the Gulf States repressed one mass demonstration after another.
More recently, backed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the military in Sudan is using violence to resist the demands of democracy activists to turn over government to civilian hands. In Algeria, the military hasn’t resorted to violence, but it also hasn’t stepped out of the way.
Move back a few steps to get the bigger picture and the retreat of democracy looks like a global rout. Here, for instance, is Nic Cheeseman’s and Jeffrey Smith’s take on Africa in Foreign Affairs:
In Tanzania, President John Magufuli has clamped down on the opposition and censored the media. His Zambian counterpart, President Edgar Lungu, recently arrested the main opposition leader on trumped-up charges of treason and is seeking to extend his stay in power to a third term. This reflects a broader trend. According to Freedom House, a think tank, just 11 percent of the continent is politically “free,” and the average level of democracy, understood as respect for political rights and civil liberties, fell in each of the last 14 years.
Or let’s take a look at Southeast Asia, courtesy of Josh Kurlantzick:
Cambodia’s government transformed from an autocratic regime where there was still some (minimal) space for opposition parties into a fully one-party regime. Thailand’s junta continued to repress the population, attempting to control the run-up to elections still planned in February 2019. The Myanmar government continued to stonewall a real investigation into the alleged crimes against humanity in Rakhine State, despite significant international pressure to allow an investigation. And even in Indonesia, one of the freest states in the region, the Jokowi government has given off worrying signs of increasingly authoritarian tendencies.
Or how about this assessment of Latin America from The Washington Post last year (before the Brazilian election):
Brazil is not the only Latin American country with troubled politics. Democracy has collapsed in Nicaragua and Venezuela and is in serious trouble in countries such as Bolivia and Honduras. In El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico, just as in Brazil, criminal organizations rule the poorer parts of many cities, weakening democracy and undermining the rule of law.
Waves, of course, go both ways. And the fourth democratic tide definitely seems to be going in the wrong direction.
The 2019 Freedom House report, entitled “Democracy in Retreat,” chronicles 13 years of decline. The V-Dem Institute in Sweden, in its 2019 report on the state of global democracy, identifies a “third wave of autocratization” affecting 24 countries (including the United States). The Economist Intelligence Unit is somewhat more optimistic, arguing that “the retreat of global democracy ended in 2018.”
But all the threats itemized in the Unit’s actual report are a reminder that this optimism stems from the fact that the terrible state of democracy didn’t get demonstrably worse last year. And, the report concludes, the decline must just have paused last year before continuing on its dismal trajectory.
Democracy’s dial-up dilemma
I’ve written extensively about how Donald Trump has undermined U.S. democracy with his rhetoric, his appointments, his attacks on the press, his executive actions, his self-serving financial decisions, and so on. I’ve connected the attacks on democracy in the United States to trends toward autocracy in East-Central Europe from the 1990s onward. I’ve compared Trump’s politics to the majoritarian aspirations of Narendra Modi in India, Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia, and Vladimir Putin in Russia.
Maybe it’s a positive sign that an outsider won the 2016 elections (putting aside Russian interference for the moment). If Donald Trump can do it, so perhaps can Bernie Sanders or the Green Party. Another politics is indeed possible. But everything else about Trump is profoundly anti-democratic.
Worse, he’s part of a more general trend.
Democracy’s troubles do not simply result from generals seizing power (as in Thailand or Egypt), undemocratic rulers consolidating power (like Xi Jinping in China), or illiberal leaders weakening the institutions of democratic governance (like Victor Orban in Hungary, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, or Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines).
In other words, democracy’s discontents are not solely external to democracy itself. There’s a deeper vein of popular dissatisfaction. According to Pew research from 2018, a majority of people (out of 27 at least formally democratic countries polled) are dissatisfied with democracy. And for good reason. They are disgusted with the corruption of elected leaders. They are unhappy with economic policies that continue to widen the gap between rich and poor. They are fed up with politicians for not responding with sufficient urgency to global problems like climate change or refugees.
Here’s an equally disturbing possibility. Even in the so-called advanced democracies, the political software has become outdated, full of bugs, susceptible to hacking. Put simply, democracy requires a thorough update to deal with the tasks at hand.
So, for instance, democratic institutions have failed to get a handle on the flow of capital, licit and illicit, that forms the circulatory system of the global economy. The corruption outlined in the Panama Papers, the Russian laundromat, and the Odebrecht scandal, among others, reveal just how weak the checks and balances of democracy have been. Watchdog institutions — media, inter-governmental authorities — have been playing catch up as the financial world devises new instruments to “create” wealth and criminals come up with new scams to steal wealth.
The Internet and social media have been hailed as great opportunities for democracy. States can use electronic referenda to encourage greater civic participation. Democracy activists can use Twitter to organize protests at the drop of a hashtag. But the speed of new technologies also establishes certain expectations in the electorate. Citizens expect lightning fast responses from their email, texts, web searches, and streaming services. But government seems stuck in the dial-up age. It takes forever to get legislation passed. The lines at social service centers are long and frustrating.
In some cases, the slowness of government response is more than just irritating.
The last IPCC report suggests that the world has only a dozen years to deal with climate change before it’s too late. All of the patient diplomacy of states leading up to the Paris climate deal, which itself was an insufficient response to the crisis, was then undone by the results of… American democracy.
It’s no surprise, then, that voters have gravitated toward right-wing politicians who promise fast results and easy solutions, however illusory those might be. In other words, these leaders have the opposite appeal of democracy, which is so often slow and messy. Right-wing populists are disruptive technologies that destroy existing structures. That’s why I’ve called populist leaders “disruptors in chief.”
There are no instruction manuals on how to fix hardware and software simultaneously, on how to address climate change at the same time as fixing the political systems that have hitherto failed to tackle the problem. But democracy definitely needs a reboot. Right-wing populists have offered their illiberal fix. Despite the hype, those “solutions” aren’t working, not on climate change, not on refugees, not on trade, not on international disputes with Iran, North Korea, or Venezuela.
So, now it’s time for the rest of us to roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty.