Democracy remains under siege — and the United States is part of the problem. Those are the depressing findings of a new report from the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA), which tracks the progress and decline of democracy around the world.

The number of authoritarian regimes continues to increase, International IDEA reports, as does the “brazen” aggressiveness of those regimes. Meanwhile, democratic nations have in some cases adopted “time-honoured authoritarian tactics, often with popular support.” These include attacks on the legitimacy of elections, public disinformation campaigns, threats to the media and politicization of the judiciary.

The pandemic has not helped. In fact, it has “emboldened several governments to double down on popular expression, and push for more direct control,” the report finds. The reports cites Hungary, which “passed several ordinances limiting citizens’ rights and giving more power to Viktor Orbán’s government — under the pretext of bringing the pandemic under control.”

The retreat of democracy is hard to miss. Afghanistan and Myanmar sunk further into nondemocratic rule. To make matters worse, “the United States, the bastion of global democracy, fell victim to authoritarian tendencies itself, and was knocked down a significant number of steps on the democratic scale.” Now, the United States is lumped in with other countries whose democratic institutions are in decline:

The Global State of Democracy 2021 shows that more countries than ever are suffering from ‘democratic erosion’ (decline in democratic quality), including in established democracies. The number of countries undergoing ‘democratic backsliding’ (a more severe and deliberate kind of democratic erosion) has never been as high as in the last decade, and includes regional geopolitical and economic powers such as Brazil, India and the United States.
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The report warns that “democratic backsliding is often gradual, taking an average of nine years from the onset of backsliding until it ends in either a democratic breakdown or a return to democratic health.”

Regarding the United States, four years of attacks on democratic institutions led to a violent scene reminiscent of coup attempts in developing countries. “A historic turning point came in 2020–2021 when former President Donald Trump questioned the legitimacy of the 2020 election results in the United States,” the report notes. “Baseless allegations of electoral fraud and related disinformation undermined fundamental trust in the electoral process, which culminated in the storming of the US Capitol building in January 2021.” The report compares Trump’s effort to delegitimize the election to the anti-democratic coup in Myanmar.

Michael Abramowitz — who heads Freedom House, another organization that rates democratic trends — tells me: “This report is clearly on target. ... On a comparative basis, the authoritarian powers are far worse from a freedom perspective than the United States. But the United States has a tremendous responsibility as the oldest and most influential democracy in the world.” He warns, “It is challenging to maintain a thriving democracy, but it is also easy for authoritarians to point to backsliding in the U.S. and say, ‘See? Democracy doesn’t work! You need a strongman like me!’”

The United States has historically served as a guiding light, especially for dissidents under the thumb of authoritarian regimes and civil societies struggling to assert democratic principles. When we falter, their oppressors get the last laugh. “Grass-roots democracy movements look to us for inspiration, and autocrats take failures of U.S. democracy as license to commit even worse abuses,” Abramowitz observes.

The report comes on the eve of the international democracy summit that President Biden is preparing to host. It also comes at a time the Senate faces a choice between preserving the filibuster, designed to elevate the minority, and the preservation of free and reliable elections. The summit therefore provides Biden with the opportunity to lead the world and make democratic commitments.

Biden, for example, can demand the Senate move forward on voting reform and both chambers pass the Protecting Our Democracy Act, which contains numerous executive branch reforms. He can move to depoliticize the judiciary with term limits for Supreme Court justices, which would lower the partisan heat attendant to open seats. He can enhance the power of inspectors general at the Justice Department and other federal departments and agencies. And Biden can support federal shield laws to protect the media while putting pressure on social media platforms to crack down on disinformation.

As International IDEA puts it: “To counteract the current challenges and create the conditions for a more sustainable, inclusive and accountable recovery, democracies must reassert their strengths and show the world how and why democratic governance is the best option. ... This is a time for democratic actors and institutions to be bold and push the frontiers of the democratic project.”

That must start with the United States — and with Biden’s pledge to end the era of democratic backsliding.