There are two ways to lose a democracy.
The first is to be invaded by an authoritarian force. It might be foreign: if China were to seize the successful democracy of Taiwan, for example, or if Vladimir Putin were to realize his threats of making Ukraine part of his imagined Greater Russia. At other times, it comes from within, when factions seize a formerly democratic government – as we’ve seen recently in Myanmar, Sudan and Afghanistan.
The second is for voters to give up – when democratic options, with their flaws and inevitable compromises, lose popularity among a major share of a country’s voters. A charismatic strongman, a single-party movement or a command-economy revolution begins to appear more appealing. We’ve seen this in Brazil, the Philippines, Hungary, Poland and, for four years, the United States.
They’re really two very different threats. The first is an attack on places where democracy exists. The second is a failure of democracy as a brand.
In the past few days, the world’s democracies have made a show of fighting back. The problem is that they appear to be fighting the explosive first threat, while doing comparatively little to reverse the slow drift of the second.
Joe Biden’s virtual Summit for Democracy last week, with 111 attendees, saw the U.S. President urging fellow elected leaders to “seed fertile ground for democracies to bloom around the world” amid dire warnings that democratic freedoms are under threat.
The summit attracted a lot of attention for its fractious guest list. Taiwan’s presence, though it was not attending as a country, drew inevitable protests from Beijing’s leaders, who then persuaded Pakistan to pull out. The event hardly sent a message of solidarity. But participants did end up pledging some funds for new initiatives.
For example, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged to create a “New Canadian centre for global democracy” to help countries build up the institutions they need to have fair elections, rule of law, individual rights, respect for minorities and so on. It echoes the democracy-promoting institutions that Canada had until the 2000s, which were well intentioned but often criticized for being platitudinous and ineffective.
The summit faced further disdain for the fact that leaders such as Mr. Biden and Mr. Trudeau had such a prominent role. The United States is no longer really a stable democracy (as Mr. Biden quite frankly acknowledged), not just because of the Trump interregnum but because of its Republican states’ attack on voting rights. Meanwhile, Mr. Trudeau has governed in a way that’s top-down, non-transparent and prone to scandals of a very non-democratic nature; he’s far from an exemplar.
This in itself is not necessarily a flaw: One of the selling points of democracy is that it works even when it is not particularly well led, as long as its institutions remain intact and those leaders continue to face the test of the electorate.
The bigger problem is that we have not done much to build an attractive showroom for Brand Democracy.
I’ve met too many ordinary citizens of democratic countries this year who’ve told me earnestly that things would be better if they just had a benign dictatorship of some sort. I’ve seen too many state-media articles in China and Iran pointing to the Trumps and the Boris Johnsons and saying, in fairly persuasive terms, “this is what democracy gets you.” I spent 2015 hearing popular U.S. talk-radio hosts tell their listeners that a Putin is just what their country needs; it now looks like a lot of Americans enjoyed having one.
The big dictatorships and their adherents have established a powerful global brand. They often share financiers, media outlets and messages. They have invented popular, if largely imaginary, enemies.
Autocrats and strongmen often claim that democratic institutions are a strictly Western invention, being imposed from abroad – concealing the strong, ancient currents of democracy within Confucianism and other traditions from the Eastern and Southern hemispheres. The Biden approach, by definition, is largely blind to this marketing flaw.
What democracies need is a similar solidarity – including a shared willingness to confront and impose sanctions upon those anti-democratic forces – combined with some real, measurable successes in giving their own citizens a better, fairer life. The big spending programs designed to counter the economic injuries of the pandemic are, oddly enough, probably better marketing than any summit could provide.
One of the few good things that could be said about the Cold War was that it provoked democratic leaders to do things. By, for example, removing racial discrimination from lawbooks and creating welfare states, they sought to offer something that looked better than the autocratic alternative. It was not just the right thing to do, but it was a successful branding exercise – one that ought to be revisited.
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