Three Keys to Stemming the World’s Downward Democratic Spiral

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Thursday, April 20th, 2017

By Jeremy D. Rosner

Liberal democracy is facing severe challenges worldwide. The signs are well known: the success of Donald Trump’s nationalist/populist campaign; the Brexit vote; the emergence of illiberal governments in other EU states such as Hungary and Poland; President Erdogan’s power grab in Turkey; the surging assertiveness of authoritarian regimes in Russia and China; the popularity of leaders, from the Philippines to Kenya, who flout human rights norms; and more. 

All these raise the question of whether the world’s “third wave” of liberal democratic expansion, which began in the 1970s, has now reversed into a downward democratic spiral, and whether we are witnessing a mounting rejection of the ideas that made it possible for liberal democracies to thrive, including economic globalization, norms of protection for those fleeing oppression, an internationalist stance by the US and of its community of allies, and a widespread preference for systems of popular rule with strong protections for procedural and minority rights.

Many respected experts seem to have decided liberal democracy’s best days are over. The US National Intelligence Council’s influential quadrennial Global Trends report, published in January, struck a decidedly gloomy tone for the liberal democratic order. It suggested the next decades will feature “an inward-looking West and erosion of norms for conflict prevention and human rights,” slow economic growth, rising tensions among countries, and increased “populism…on the right and left, threatening liberalism.”

Similarly, the American geo-strategist Robert Kagan has suggested we are in “the twilight of the liberal world order.” In a recent Foreign Policy article, he argues that, akin to the West’s disastrous retreat into isolationism in the 1920s, the world may have already missed its chance to defend the ideas that made it possible for liberal democracy to thrive in the post-WWII era, such as democratic norms, respect for borders, economic integration, and human rights:

The weakness at the core of the democratic world and the shedding by the United States of global responsibilities have already encouraged a more aggressive revisionism by the dissatisfied powers [principally China and Russia]. That, in turn, has further sapped the democratic world’s confidence and willingness to resist. History suggests that this is a downward spiral from which it will be difficult to recover, absent a rather dramatic shift of course by the United States.

There are plenty of recent data points to suggest the world’s liberal democratic order is struggling, and much reason to worry about the Trump administration’s retreat from America’s traditional global advocacy for democracy, human rights, open trade, and strong alliances. It is very possible that the liberal democratic fabric, particularly in the West, will continue to unravel. The upcoming elections in France, Germany, and Sweden will be important indicators.

Yet there is reason to question whether liberal democracy is doomed to keep waning. In many cases, the skeptics’ observations, while well rooted in geopolitics, overlook some dynamics of domestic politics that could alter the picture. Indeed, there are at least three major reasons, linked to internal political dynamics, which suggest how progressive leaders and states can still pull the world out of the downward democratic spiral we observe today.

1. With better campaigns, closely divided electorates could send a different message. While there is no mistaking the populist/nationalist trend in key recent elections, many of those victories were quite narrow. Kagan, in an earlier article, argues that, “With the election of Donald Trump, a majority of Americans have signaled their unwillingness to continue upholding the world order.” Even leaving aside that Trump failed to win a plurality, much less a majority of the vote, this draws too definitive a conclusion – especially given that American voters mostly made their choice in 2016 based on domestic issues, and also given that the result was so mixed.

After all, Hillary Clinton – a strong internationalist – actually won the popular vote. And if just 40,000 votes in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin had been cast for her rather than Donald Trump, the narrative would now be more about the US bucking – or even blocking – the global trend away from the liberal democratic order. Similarly, a shift of just 650,000 votes in Britain toward “remain” – out of more than 33 million votes cast – would have left people concluding that the EU was simply on notice, rather than on life support. 

In both the US and UK, better campaigns could well have reversed the results. In too many democracies, the established progressive parties have become complacent and insular. Many are run by long-time staff who keep their jobs whether their leaders win or lose, which gives them little incentive to listen hard to their electorates or risk new strategies. Those who fail to explore new approaches for communicating with voters are not likely to fare well.

But the closely divided nature of the electorates in many countries means that even marginally better campaigns can create very different results. Indeed, just this year, there have been some notable changes, such as the weak vote for hatemonger Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, and a minor but notable Swiss referendum in favor of liberalized migration. The scattering of encouraging results does not mean the illiberal danger is past – only that it is not too late for smart progressive leaders and parties to raise their game and shift the apparent trend.

2. “The Trump Factor” and the rise of “antibodies.” Just as illnesses trigger antibodies, the ills plaguing liberal democracy may be starting to trigger popular and institutional checks and balances. Progressives who were apathetic enough to permit Hillary Clinton’s defeat last November are now full of passion, protesting by the millions, shouting down Republican members of Congress at town meetings, and contributing massively to liberal advocacy groups.

This energy helped fuel the defeat of Trump’s central promise to repeal Obamacare. Trump’s attacks on federal judges may have played a role in the federal judiciary repeatedly blocking his Muslim-hostile travel bans. His attacks on the media have helped spur some of the best US investigative reporting since Watergate. And just in the past weeks, Trump has been forced by his own advisers and the stubbornness of reality to reverse previously held positions, including his campaign pledge to “rip up” NAFTA, his earlier charge that NATO is “obsolete,” and the green light his team initially gave Bashar al-Assad to remain in power.

Of course, not all political immune systems have the same vigor. In Russia, Hungary, Poland, Turkey, Venezuela, and many other states, illiberal rulers have succeeded in eviscerating some combination of their countries’ legislatures, judiciaries, media, and civil societies. In the Philippines, President Duterte’s strong approval ratings have cowed the legislature, courts, and even parts of the media from criticizing the thousands of extrajudicial killings he has blessed.

Yet even when liberal institutions have been all but gutted, there can still be push-back; witness the strong (if unsuccessful) campaign against the Turkish referendum to concentrate power under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, or the recent protests in Hungary against the government’s assault on Central European University. A great deal comes down to the creativity of those who seek to defend democracy. As nationalists rise, democratic leaders will have new opportunities to tap the resentment of progressive voters and activists – and if more of them succeed, the trends for democracy could be somewhat better than they now appear.

3. It is one thing to “throw the bums out”; it is much harder to outperform them. “Isms” are relatively easy to start; they are not so easy to sustain. When electorates are angry – especially after an economic slump like the one the world entered in 2008 – the ground becomes fertile for all manner of charismatic leaders, left and right, to claim they have found a better way.

But an electoral rejection of the old model doesn’t ensure success of the new one. Across Latin America, for example, a series of left-leaning populist leaders and parties now face protests and violence from dissatisfied publics. Hugo Chavez touted his “Bolivarian Revolution” in Venezuela, for example, but once oil prices collapsed, so did his economic theories.

As many have noted, the reaction against liberal democracy is largely a backlash against the very openness that fuels its vitality – particularly against liberal conceptions of trade, migration, racial and gender equality, and sexual orientation. But no system has yet emerged that closes borders or restricts individual liberties without sacrificing competing goals, like economic growth, technological innovation, social peace, and political accountability. One opportunity for progressive parties and leaders will be to focus voters on the inability of nationalist/populist leaders, once elected, to deliver real improvements in living conditions, transparency, and justice.

None of this is cause for complacency. Liberal democracy really is under siege – in many cases, deservedly so. Mainstream progressive parties in the US and many other countries have offered only thin gruel policies in the face of widespread hunger for greater equality of income, wealth, and opportunity. Publics nearly everywhere are furious about rampant corruption – and their glimpses behind the golden curtain, as with the Panama Papers, confirm their worst suspicions. Progressive leaders have often failed to take seriously the dislocations working class voters feel due to accelerating flows of goods, ideas, and people (a problem in both the Brexit and Clinton campaigns). Many Western leaders – including both Presidents Obama and Trump – have done too little to challenge Russia’s and China’s ambitions to upend the liberal democratic order.

But liberal democracy has overcome such challenges in the past, and has resilience that is easy to underestimate. As the Economist noted a few years ago: 

Democracy has been on the back foot before. In the 1920s and 1930s communism and fascism looked like the coming things: when Spain temporarily restored its parliamentary government in 1931, Benito Mussolini likened it to returning to oil lamps in the age of electricity. In the mid-1970s Willy Brandt, a former German chancellor, pronounced that “western Europe has only 20 or 30 more years of democracy left in it; after that it will slide, engineless and rudderless, under the surrounding sea of dictatorship.” 

Those pronouncements of democracy’s weakness proved to be overstated. If progressive leaders and parties are able to rise to the challenge of populist nationalism, experiment with new strategies, run more creative campaigns, and mount stronger defenses of the virtues of liberal democracy, today’s gloomy assessments could prove to be overstated as well.

Dr. Rosner is a partner at Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, in Washington, DC, where he manages the firm’s international campaign and corporate work. During the 1990s, he served as Special Assistant to President Clinton on the staff of the National Security Council, and as Senior Adviser to President Clinton and Secretary of State Albright on the enlargement of NATO.