More than a decade ago, scholars began pointing to a troubling global trend: a “democratic recession.” Dozens of countries were drifting away from democracy toward authoritarianism.
The list of backsliders has spanned the globe from India and South Africa to Hungary, Poland, Mexico — even, in recent years, the United States.
Freedom House, a nonprofit organization that rates countries on electoral practices, civil liberties and other measures, has reported 16 consecutive years of the world becoming less democratic.
Meanwhile, China’s authoritarian regime has been touting its one-party system as more efficient and dynamic than the tired old democracies.
But look again. The autocrats are having a bad year.
In China, Xi Jinping’s draconian policy of “zero-COVID” has slowed economic growth and spurred angry protests.
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Russia’s Vladimir Putin has launched a disastrous war against Ukraine, prompting almost a million young Russians to flee their country to avoid conscription.
In Iran, protests by young women against laws requiring headscarves have mushroomed into a broader rebellion demanding an end to the authoritarian Islamic regime.
Meanwhile, at least some of the world’s democracies appear to have found a second wind. Extreme right-wing parties have lost in France and Germany, although they won in Italy and Sweden. Brazil’s autocratic President Jair Bolsonaro lost his job in a well-conducted national election; he challenged the result in court and lost again. And U.S. voters delivered an unexpectedly clear message in last month’s midterm elections, rejecting candidates who embraced the election denialism of former President Donald Trump.
So is the democratic recession ending?
Unfortunately, no. The scholar who originated the phrase, Larry Diamond of Stanford, says it’s too early to break out the champagne.
“I don’t see the current protests in Iran, China or Russia leading to a democratic breakthrough,” he told me. “I think it is very much a jump ball globally right now — and I see a lot of warning signs that people aren’t paying attention to.”
Michael Abramowitz, president of Freedom House, agreed.
“Democracy has not come roaring back,” he said. “I think we’re going to turn the corner at some point, but it hasn’t happened yet.”
It’s useful to distinguish between two issues here. One is the crisis of the authoritarian regimes; the other is the health of the world’s democracies.
In China, Russia and Iran, Diamond said, we’re seeing a process of “authoritarian regime decay.”
“The regimes have been performing badly in meeting people’s expectations,” he said. “As a result, each is facing a legitimacy crisis — a sharp decline in the belief that the regime has the right to govern.”
That doesn’t mean those governments are likely to fall: All have decades of experience at repressing dissidents, now reinforced by increasingly sophisticated surveillance technology.
In recent weeks, all three regimes have attempted to placate unhappy citizens. China has ended “zero-COVID.” Putin has told Russians there will be no more military call-ups soon. And a top Iranian official said the country’s widely hated morality police was being disbanded, although it wasn’t clear whether the announcement had any real effect.
But none of them look like attractive models for others to follow.
Meanwhile, democracy is still struggling.
“Mexico and India are in the grip of authoritarian demagogues,” Diamond wrote. “Nigeria faces the prospect of partial state collapse. South Africa, on which the hopes of democracy in Africa so heavily depend, is not doing well.”
That’s why, to scholars of democracy, some of the best news of the year came from our own midterm election.
“That was a test of whether anti-democratic candidates — anti-democratic with a small ‘d’; I’m not being partisan — would be put in a position to run future elections,” Abramowitz said.
“They lost pretty decisively, and that’s significant,” he added. “It suggested that civil society in the United States has revitalized itself.”
In an Associated Press survey, 44% of U.S. voters polled named the future of democracy as one of their top concerns on Election Day, outranked only by inflation and the economy.
A post-election survey by Bright Line Watch, a nonpartisan research group, found a similar number who said that “protecting democracy” would be the most important issue when they choose a presidential candidate in 2024.
“We’re not out of the woods yet by any means,” Abramowitz said. “But I’m a little more hopeful than a year ago.”
So we can take some satisfaction in the misfortunes of the world’s worst dictators. And we can take heart at the evidence, however tentative, that democracy can still be a self-correcting system.
But these battles are a long way from over. Making democracy work is a struggle that remains to be won.