Why Has Democracy Declined Worldwide in Recent Years?

[This piece appeared as a newspaper op/ed at the end of December 2022.


The organization, Freedom House, says that democracy has been declining steadily on the global scene since 2006. Anyone scanning the world scene can see that a fascist force – in one form or another — has been gaining power in countries around the world.  

We can see versions of this trend in the increasingly authoritarian rulers of nations such as India, Turkey, and (until quite recently) Brazil.

Even where democracy still survives – as in Italy, Israel, and Sweden – fascist forces have lately gained power. (In the United States, some “bullets” have been dodged in a couple of recent elections, but the very survival of American democracy remains seriously threatened by the most fascistic major political party in the nation’s history.)

For many years, after World War II, it seemed, democracy was overall advancing around the world. What accounts for a reversal of that trend?

It’s always deeply intriguing when similar developments occur simultaneously in a whole variety of places that don’t seem connected. There must be some connections, one infers, even if whatever forces are at work are not visible.

Such manifestations of a Zeitgeist (spirit of the times) are intriguing because they intimate that deep forces are operating below the surface. And the fascistic political developments in nations seemingly so separate as Turkey and India and Brazil pose a Zeitgeist mystery that I confess I don’t understand.  

There are, however, a couple of causal factors that seem to offer at least part of the explanation.

The whole world witnesses how great powers on the world stage are faring, and their examples can inspire emulation or rejection accordingly. Especially when these great powers represent alternative paths for human society.

For the past twenty years, Putin’s Russia has been the biggest champion of the Force of Fascism in the world. And the United States has long been – by virtue of its traditions and its superpower status – the world’s major champion of Democracy.

Putin was long rightly seen as “playing a bad hand well.” (That is, up until his colossal blunder in invading Ukraine—a blunder that seems sure to dim the prestige and weaken the force of Fascism.)

With Putin’s twenty years of geopolitical successes, Russian power and status rose from the lows following the defeat of the Soviet Union in the Cold War. In the aftermath of Putin’s dismantling the nascent Russian democracy, and his replacing it with a fascistic dictatorship, Putin’s successes bolstered the Force of Fascism in the world.

His successes included also his direct efforts to undermine democracy in the West, through disinformation, the funding of fascistic forces, and the fanning of division in the free, liberal, and prosperous democratic nations. (And in a truly historic coup, Putin aided in the election of an extraordinary President of the United States who weakened the NATO alliance that is the main check against Putin’s imperial ambitions, and who weakened Ukraine which Putin planned to conquer.)

Putin’s success in raising his nation’s power and stature likely increased the appeal and permissibility of the fascist path.

Meanwhile, the democratic political system in the world’s Champion of Democracy was becoming increasingly dysfunctional and disreputable. 

Ever since its founding, the image of America – in the minds of people around the world – served as a powerful force for Democracy. (There was a reason why, back in the 19th century, France sent that wonderful Statue of Liberty as a gift to this country.) And around the world in the post World-War-II era, the United States has frequently been regarded as the champion of human rights and “leader of the free world.”

But over the past twenty years, the American beacon has dimmed as a pro-Democratic inspiration for the world’s people, because of:

  • An increasing inability of American democracy to deliver the goods for the people and the nation. (The American government’s record of major accomplishments in the 20th century has not been matched in recent decades.)
  • A continual erosion of America’s political norms and constitutional processes. (Political forces working in fascistic directions gained so much power that – according to a growing number of knowledgeable observers –they imperil the very survival of American Democracy.)
  • International conduct — the launching and botching of an invasion of Iraq against the will of the international community and international law — that ripped the fabric of international order that the United States had played such a leading role in building.

And one should not neglect — in this context, of the competition among models of ways for societies and/or their rulers to achieve their goals — the world’s other superpower: China.

China has proved false the old assumption that capitalist dynamism required a liberal democratic political order. While operating in an authoritarian, one-party state, the Chinese regime has achieved astonishing economic expansion, which it has harnessed to become a formidable political-military power as well.

That Chinese achievement, too, has likely shifted the balance of prestige away from the side of Democracy.

A global audience of nations struggling to achieve their own goals watch these great powers and decide with which “actors” they want to identify, which to emulate. And so, in recent years, Fascism has spread, while Democracy has been in retreat.

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