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Biden Says Democracy Is Winning. It’s Not That Simple.

Biden at a Podium
Thought Leader: Niall Ferguson
July 16, 2023
Source: Bloomberg
Written by: Niall Ferguson

Is democracy on a roll? You would think so if you listened to President Joe Biden’s speech at last week’s North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit in Vilnius, Lithuania. It was vintage Biden, the rhetoric alternately soaring and stumbling. He started with “the transformational power of freedom” in Lithuania and its Baltic neighbors as they broke free of Soviet rule, lighting up “the flame of liberty.” The enlargement of NATO and the advance of democracy are one and the same, he argued, because the alliance is “bound by democratic values.”

The war in Ukraine, the president declared, is a war between a coalition of democracies and a Russian autocracy that poses a threat “to democratic values we hold dear, to freedom itself.” In the same way, the Quad partnership between Australia, India, Japan and the US is “bringing major democracies of the region together to cooperate, keeping the Indo-Pacific free.” Biden depicted the world in Manichean terms, divided starkly between the democracies, united in “the defense of freedom,” and their benighted foes, who would prefer “a world defined by coercion and exploitation, where might makes right.”

Fine words. But what if democracy, far from being ascendant, is really in retreat? For the past few years, my Hoover Institution colleague Larry Diamond has been warning of a “democratic recession.” As he put it in a recent Foreign Affairs essay: “In countries as diverse as Bangladesh, Hungary, and Turkey, elections have long ceased to be democratic. Autocrats in Algeria, Belarus, Ethiopia, Sudan, Turkey, and Zimbabwe have clung to power despite mounting public demands for democratization. In Africa, seven democracies have slid back into autocracy since 2015, including Benin and Burkina Faso … the world is mired in a deep, diffuse, and protracted democratic recession.”

Each year, the nonprofit Freedom House publishes its Freedom in the World report. The latest edition states that “global freedom declined for the 17th consecutive year” in 2022. These and similar assessments remind me of Fareed Zakaria’s warning back in 1997 that the future — “from Peru to the Palestinian Authority, from Sierra Leone to Slovakia, from Pakistan to the Philippines” — would belong to “illiberal democracy.”

So which is it? We all know Winston Churchill’s witticism that “democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” He uttered those words in the House of Commons in 1947, the year after his famous “Iron Curtain” speech in Fulton, Missouri. But Churchill drew no distinction in either speech between liberal and illiberal democracies.

In that regard, the specter at the feast in Vilnius last week was the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who nearly — but not quite — agreed to lift his veto on Sweden’s NATO accession. Two months ago, Erdogan was reelected, winning 52.1% of the vote in the second round of his country’s presidential contest. But here’s what Freedom House has to say about Turkish democracy:

In Turkey, a failed 2016 coup attempt has cast a long shadow over political rights and civil liberties. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan … used the incident to justify the removal of key democratic checks and balances and the elimination of political rivals. … Ahead of the [presidential] vote, the government adopted a new law to control the selection of judges who will review challenges to election results, and approved a “disinformation” law that could further stifle opposition campaigns and independent media.

Freedom in the World classifies Turkey as “Not Free,” awarding it just 16 out of a possible 40 for political rights and 16 out of 60 for civil liberties, for a total freedom score of 32 out of 100. By way of comparison, Sweden gets full marks on both counts. Lithuania is at 89/100. Ukraine is at 50.

As everyone knows, democracy was invented in ancient Athens in the 5th century BC. But only in the past century has it been widely and durably adopted as a form of government. Why was democracy previously so short-lived? Because classical and Renaissance political philosophy taught that democracy was inherently unstable. The rule of the people was an ephemeral staging post between aristocracy or monarchy and tyranny.

This was a great concern of America’s founding fathers, which was why they were so careful to separate and limit powers in the Constitution. Even in the 19th century, the French political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville regarded the US as exceptional. His conclusion was that democracy could never work in France. Too many of his compatriots preferred equality to liberty. That was why they ended up with a Napoleon twice.

Today, about half of all countries are democracies. According to the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Project, which is headquartered at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, 90 of the 178 countries for which data were available in 2022 recently held truly free and fair multiparty elections. The oldest democracies in the world — all over a century old — are Switzerland (174 years), followed by Australia, New Zealand, Iceland, Finland, the UK, the US, Canada and Sweden. In other words, long-lived democracy is an Anglophone and Nordic phenomenon. (Switzerland should be disqualified for not allowing women to vote until 1971.) Only 24 democracies are more than 60 years old. Twenty are less than 19 years old. Moreover, of the 90 democracies, only 32 qualify as liberal democracies, meaning that they not only allow all adults to vote but also protect civil and political liberties through such institutions as independent courts and a free press.

Was Fareed Zakaria right to warn of the rise of illiberal democracy? Is Larry Diamond right that democracy itself is in recession? Our World in Data provides a user-friendly way of answering those questions, using statistics compiled by the political scientists Anna Lührmann, Marcus Tannenberg and Staffan Lindberg, and published by V-Dem. From a high of 44 in 2007-09, the number of liberal democracies has fallen to 32. “Electoral” (i.e., illiberal) democracies are up from 46 in 2007 to 58. Electoral autocracies, such as Vladimir Putin’s Russia, have declined from 63 in 2013 to 58. And pure autocracies are up from 23 in 2018 to 39.

Freedom on the Wane?

The world has fewer authoritarian states than a century ago, but illiberal democracies are on the rise

Source: Our World in Data

Based on classification criteria by Lührmann et al. (2018) and assessment by V-Dem

Of course, some countries are very large and some are very small. So it is more meaningful to look at shares of the world’s population living under the different regimes. As predicted by Zakaria, the proportion of people in liberal democracies has indeed fallen from a secular high of 17% (1993-2011) to 13% in 2022. However, as not predicted by Zakaria, the share in electoral (i.e., illiberal) democracies is down even further, from 37% in 2017 to 16%. The share in electoral autocracies, meanwhile, is up hugely from 17% in 2001 to 45%, while the share in closed autocracies is up from 23% in 2012 to 26% now.

These data would seem to confirm Diamond’s thesis of a democratic recession, if not a downright depression. But are they to be trusted? As India is now probably the world’s most populous country, it matters rather a lot how it is classified. Lührmann et al. say it has been an electoral autocracy since 2017, with civil and political rights as limited as they were during Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s state of emergency between 1975 and 1977.

Other political scientists disagree. Another data set, created by Carles Boix, Michael K. Miller and Sebastian Rosato, continues to classify India as a democracy. Freedom House downgraded India to “Partly Free” two years ago, but 66/100 is not a terrible score (neighboring Pakistan gets a 37). The Economist Intelligence Unit has only a modest decline in India’s democratic score — from 7.92 out of a possible 10 in 2014 to 7.04 in 2022.

In other words, all these indices of democracy should be taken with something more than a pinch of salt, as most are based at least to some extent on the subjectivity of experts. Whether you think liberal democracy is in crisis depends to a large extent on your opinion of Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India and his Bharatiya Janata Party.

States of Democracy

V-Dem index based on electoral and personal freedoms (1.0=most democratic)

Source: Our World in Data

Until 1947, India was under British rule, though it had elements of devolved government and the rule of law

One of the more striking features of the Biden administration’s national security strategy is its warm embrace of Modi, who was splendidly feted during his recent visit to the US. This entails turning a blind eye to the BJP’s tendency to treat India’s Muslim minority as second-class citizens, and to adopt much the same approach to press freedom as is the norm under illiberal governments in Turkey and Hungary.

Here’s another quirk. One of the more remarkable features of modern world politics is the persistence of monarchy. The US news media enjoys portraying the UK as quaintly eccentric for still having a hereditary king — good grief, Charles III even had a separate coronation in Scotland! — but constitutional and not-so-constitutional monarchies can be found all over the world. Today 43 sovereign nation-states have a monarch, of which the majority are democracies, including the 15 members of the Commonwealth realms who have Charles III as their head of state.

In Europe, Belgium, Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain and Sweden are all monarchies — not forgetting Andorra, Liechtenstein, Monaco and the Vatican. I count 10 monarchies in the Muslim world (Bahrain, Brunei, Jordan, Kuwait, Malaysia, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates), four in Asia (Bhutan, Cambodia, Thailand and Japan), two in Africa (Eswatini and Lesotho) and one in Polynesia (Tonga). The experience of the era since decolonization after World War II strongly suggests that monarchies are more stable than republics. This is especially obvious in the Middle East.

When there is so much variance in the democratic world, is Biden’s vision of a united front of democracies realistic? Listening to the president’s speeches on this subject — not only in Vilnius but also in Kyiv in February — I am struck by how similarly the late Senator John McCain would have spoken had he been elected president. His response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would have been very similar. That may explain why some liberals have their doubts.

In a recent essay, the New York Times’s David Leonhardt argued that, “If the U.S. embraced only those countries with purer democratic records, it would not be able to create a very powerful global alliance. The U.S., Canada, Western Europe, Japan and South Korea are not strong enough to dominate the world as they once could.” But Biden’s strategy is precisely not to apply a purity test. He will cut a deal with Erdogan to get Sweden into NATO. And he will cut deals with India to make the Quad something that vaguely resembles NATO for Asia. Add up the gross domestic products of all the countries that have provided aid to Ukraine in the past year and a half. It’s roughly half the global total. That ought to suffice.

The problem for this whole strategy is not India, much less Turkey. The problem is the US itself — the leader of the grand democratic alliance. It is not only Freedom House and the Economist that have recently knocked points off American democracy. According to a recent USA TODAY/Suffolk University poll, 7 out of 10 Americans agree with the statement that US democracy is “imperiled.” The shares of Democrats (74%) and Republicans (75%) are almost identical.

It is a truth universally acknowledged among liberal-leaning elites that, were Donald Trump to be re-elected next year, there would be a real threat to the constitutional order. Trump’s re-election is far from a remote scenario. In a second term, Trump would not only pull the plug on support for Ukraine, which would discover as Afghanistan did in 2021 what Americans really mean by “We’re going to be there as long as [it] takes.” He might also take steps to make American democracy illiberal. He would certainly have an incentive to dismiss all the federal legal cases against him, to ignore the state cases, and to purge the “deep state.” That is certainly the recommendation of the pro-Trump think tank America First.

On the other hand, it would be very difficult for Trump to change the Constitution to give himself a third term. The rule of law is deeply embedded in the US, in part because it remains a country to a remarkable extent run by people with law degrees. And it is very hard to imagine the upper echelons of the US military going along with any kind of Trumpian autogolpe.

Yet the threats to American democracy may run deeper than just one man’s populist appeal. Is there a political economy of democratic self-destruction via excessive debt and inflation? That old idea looks more compelling these days, as the federal debt piles up and inflation, though declining, remains well above the Federal Reserve’s target of 2% on average. Even if inflation keeps falling, the same will not be true of the national debt — not with deficits above 5% of GDP as far as the eye can see — and history has few examples of great powers that thrive when the costs of debt service exceed the costs of defense. High interest payments were one of the major constraints on British rearmament between the wars.

What about the Covid-19 pandemic’s revelation of the bureaucracy’s sclerosis — and its apparent reluctance to learn from its mistakes? Philip Zelikow and his co-authors have just published an excellent but disquieting report on this subject, Lessons From the Covid War. I asked him two weeks ago, “What percentage of the various changes you recommend do you expect to be implemented?” He replied: “Right now I’m pushing to get above zero.”

It is not only the public health bureaucracy that is dysfunctional, as Jennifer Pahlka shows in her Recoding America. Almost every agency of the federal government is incapable of implementing reforms because of outdated regulatory requirements and “better-safe-than-sorry thinking.”

Finally, what about the challenge to American democracy posed by technological change? Two weeks ago, I wrote about the rise of corporations to positions of power unmatched since the 17th and 18th centuries. A central theme of my book The Square and the Tower was that the originally decentralized internet had swiftly and unexpectedly become dominated by a handful of network platform companies: Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, Alphabet, Meta. Does this threaten democracy? Indeed it does.

And the spectacular breakthrough of large language models such as OpenAI’s ChatGPT has implications for next year’s election that could be even bigger than the impact of big data in 2012 and Facebook ads in 2016. If both Democrats and Republicans are not already frantically working on applying artificial intelligence to voter mobilization in the key counties of swing states, I would be astonished. Remember: The people who first work out how to exploit any new technology are, in this order: 1. The nerds 2. The crooks and 3. The campaign operatives.

Democracy is not in recession. The invasion of Ukraine has elicited real democratic unity. The response to the challenge posed by China is weaker, but it is real. The idea of a global descent into illiberal democracy or electoral autocracy is exaggerated by dubious statistics.

But the future of democracy hinges, as it always has, on how far voters in the most important democracy are willing to vote their rights away. And the mechanisms to persuade them to do so have never been more powerful. Democracy is on a roll. The question is whether it is rolling toward a cliff edge. We shall find out in less than 16 months.

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