“We’re at an inflection point,” Biden said Friday in a speech to the Munich Security Conference, “between those who argue that given all the challenges we face, from the fourth industrial revolution to a global pandemic, that autocracy is the best way forward, they argue, and those who understand that democracy is essential, essential to meeting these challenges.”
“Historians are going to examine and write about this moment as an inflection point, as I said,” he continued, speaking from the White House. “And I believe [with] every ounce of my being that democracy will and must prevail. We must demonstrate that democracy can still deliver for our people in this changed world. That, in my view, is our galvanizing mission. Democracy doesn’t happen by accident.”
Such a rebuke of the world’s autocratic leaders would not be abnormal for any U.S. president, with the possible exception of Biden’s immediate predecessor. Donald Trump was not a fervent champion of democracy, as he made clear through years spent publicly embracing leaders such as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and President Vladimir Putin of Russia. But it was his reaction to the country’s most recent democratic election that cemented his views of giving voice to the people: His repeated falsehoods about the results of the presidential contest eventually led to a violent attempt to block the election results Jan. 6 at the U.S. Capitol in Washington.
Trump’s views pushed his party to the right, but the Republican Party was already headed in that direction.
The Varieties of Democracy Institute at the University of Gothenburg measures political parties in different countries on various metrics, including how populist and how illiberal they are — that is, how robustly the parties embrace free and fair elections. If we plot the shifts by party in various countries over time, the result is a bit messy, but looks something like this.
(This chart is heavily influenced by an assessment produced by the Economist in October. The x-axis, left to right, evaluates the question, “To what extent does the party show a lacking commitment to democratic norms prior to elections?” The y-axis, bottom to top, evaluates, “To what extent do representatives of the party use populist rhetoric?”)
If we isolate the United States, we see a wide gulf between the two major parties. The Democratic Party has gotten slightly more populist over the past few decades but has remained consistently liberal (again, meaning in the context of democracy). The Republican Party, on the other hand, has grown significantly more illiberal and populist. The most recent year for which data exist, 2018 (marked with a larger dot), measures the GOP in the vicinity of some of the least liberal and most populist parties in the world.
Compare the Republican Party’s movement with the major parties in the United Kingdom. The Conservative Party there has also shifted toward illiberalism, though more subtly. UKIP, the United Kingdom Independence Party to which Trump ally Nigel Farage once belonged, is more populist than the GOP but slightly less illiberal.
Putin’s United Russia party is more illiberal than the GOP, unsurprisingly given that the country is an autocracy.
The movement seen by the GOP instead mirrors the shift seen in Fidesz, the party led by President Viktor Orban of Hungary. It, too, has become more populist and more illiberal over the past few decades.
A starker shift can be seen in Erdogan's Justice and Development Party, which went from fervently populist to sharply authoritarian following a coup attempt in 2016.
Orban and Erdogan were welcomed guests at the Trump White House, unsurprisingly.
Even traditionally far-right parties such as France’s National Front are rated as less illiberal than the Republican Party.
The distribution of party identities in France serves as an effective reminder of the nature of the challenge in the United States. Yes, France has the hard-right National Front — but it has a number of other parties as well.
If we view the most recent position of each party in each county as a sort of range of world views, we get something that looks roughly like this.
Isolating France, you see that the country’s parties (including some which are no longer actively engaged in national politics) cover a wide area on the chart.
In Greece, the parties cover nearly the entire spectrum.
In Germany, the range is narrower, but most political parties fall within a narrow non-populist, pro-liberal-democracy range.
Then there’s the United States.
Remember, what’s displayed above isn’t really any measure of policy views. Instead, it’s a measure of the extent to which parties respect democratic traditions.
This was Biden’s point: The world was being tempted away from relying on liberal democracy as a tool for allocating power. He was offering his comments to an international body with an obvious focus on countries such as China and Russia. But his message was also, intentionally or not, something of a repudiation of the political party of the man who lived in the White House one month ago.