Sheri Berman is a professor of political science at Barnard College, Columbia University, and the author of “Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe: From the Ancien Régime to the Present Day.”
At the end of the 20th century, the collapse of communism led to celebrations of the triumph of liberal democracy. Today those celebrations are gone, replaced by fears, as Robert Kagan recently argued in The Post, that strongmen are striking back. But just as the earlier optimism masked important underlying realities, so, too, does today’s pessimism warp the understanding of what is going on.
Globally, the condition of democracy remains strong. Democracy does face threats, but the “gravest one” comes not, as Kagan asserts, from without — from “resurgent authoritarianism” — but from within, from the failures of Western elites and governments.
Let’s start with arguments about “resurgent authoritarianism.” Empirically, the evidence for this is thin. The number of democracies today remains close to its all-time high: There were 11 in 1900, 20 in 1920, nine in 1940, 32 in 1970, 77 in 2000 and 116 in 2018. Moreover, the undertow following the democratic wave that began in the late 20th century has been weak: It left many more democracies in its wake than previous waves of democratization in 1848, 1918 or 1945. Today’s authoritarian regimes are also less authoritarian than their predecessors, according to a new study by Anna Lührmann and Staffan I. Lindberg in the journal Democratization.
During much of the 20th century, closed, repressive dictatorships were the most common form of authoritarian regime. Today, the dominant form is “electoral autocracies” that allow (flawed) elections, and some space for civil society, courts and so on. (Viktor Orban’s Hungary and Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey fall into this category.)
Assessments of democracy’s current condition also require historical perspective. In Europe, for example, the struggle for democracy began in 1789 with the French Revolution. During the next 150 years, many transitions to democracy occurred in France and other European countries; most failed. It was only after 1945 that liberal democracy became the norm in Western Europe and only during the late 20th century in Southern Europe. In the United States, an entire section of the country — the South — remained illiberal and undemocratic up through the Civil War. It took another hundred years after that before political and legal rights were accessible to all citizens, including African Americans.
The path to liberal democracy has always been long and difficult. That countries with almost no previous experience with liberalism or democracy, such as Russia, Hungary and Poland, have had trouble constructing well-functioning democracies today should sadden but not surprise us.
What should surprise us are the problems facing liberal democracy in the West, where it has long been taken for granted. Yet these problems are not caused primarily by “resurgent authoritarianism.” Kagan argued that authoritarianism represents a grave threat because such regimes “are more powerful today than they have been” in the past; “revolutions in communications technologies” have enabled them to better control their societies and destabilize democracies; and they have a “powerful anti-liberal" ideology to offer.
It is hard to see by what criteria contemporary authoritarian states are more powerful than their predecessors: Is Putin’s Russia really stronger or a greater threat than the Soviet Union? And it is unclear that Putin or other contemporary authoritarians are actively trying to roll democracy back, as Kagan asserted. Instead, they seem primarily interested in securing “friendly” regimes, particularly in their regions, regardless of political persuasion — as the United States was during much of the Cold War and seems to be again today under President Trump.
Similarly, the idea that new communications technologies provide authoritarian regimes with unprecedented control over their own societies lacks historical perspective: Does Xi Jinping’s manipulation of Internet access give him more control over China than Mao was able to achieve with the Red Guards? And as Facebook-inspired uprisings across the globe have made clear, communications technologies can destabilize democracies and dictatorships.
As for authoritarian regimes’ “powerful anti-liberal" ideology, while it is true, as Kagan noted, that 19th-century authoritarians peddled an anti-liberal ideology that called for a return to traditional societies where “natural hierarchies and divine authorities … determined every aspect of people’s existence,” and 20th-century fascists and communists promoted potent worldviews as well, today’s authoritarians have nothing remotely similar to offer. Xi, Putin, Orban and their ilk do not justify their hold on power with promises to create a better world. Their primary justification for power is pragmatic: They promise better performance than the alternative. And that alternative is liberal democracy.
And herein lies the real cause of democracy’s contemporary problems. Liberal democracy is precious and precarious, yet decades of relative stability tempted too many to neglect it. During the late 20th century, anti-liberalism began gaining adherents, as Kagan noted, within parts of the Western left and, even more perniciously and pervasively, the right, weakening democracy and providing troublemakers such as Putin with divisions and allies they could exploit for their own ends. Yet those most culpable in the destabilization of democracy are probably politicians and other elites who seem to have forgotten what’s necessary to make it work.
In the United States over the past decades, politics has become corrupted by gerrymandering, voting restrictions and the influence of big business and the wealthy. Education, health care and other public services have deteriorated. Society has become increasingly riven by economic, racial and geographical divisions. And the U.S. economy has developed to disproportionately benefit the already advantaged. Such trends have weakened U.S. democracy from within.
During the post-World War II decades, successful Western democracies acted as beacons to citizens suffering under authoritarianism across the globe. Today the light from those beacons has dimmed, and contemporary authoritarians have skillfully exploited democracies’ weaknesses to justify their own rule and taken advantage of the fading ability and willingness of the United States in particular to champion democracy worldwide.
Yet despite this, the global condition of democracy remains strong. If we want to secure and even strengthen it, the best strategy the best strategy would be to revitalize it from within rather than focusing on threats from without.