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Democracy Is in Decline

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Democracy's Decline

The Second World War was a bleak time for democracy. German dictator Adolf Hitler came close to crushing every democratic nation in Europe. Emperor Hirohito’s Japanese forces conquered much of Asia and threatened Australia and even the United States.

Defeat came in 1945 and the world began to patch itself back together. Democracies were reborn in Europe. Larry Diamond (Atlantic Magazine, October 2016) notes that there was a huge “expansion of democracy globally from the mid-1970s through the early 2000s.

“During this period, the proportion of democracies among the world’s states more than doubled, and democracy became the predominant form of government in the world, with virtually all the rest of Europe, most of Latin America, half of Asia, and more than a third of African states becoming democratic.”

However, he adds that the past decade has seen a retreat from freedom and democracy.

Sometimes the ship of state is a wreck.

Sometimes the ship of state is a wreck.

Growing Authoritarianism

Foreign Affairs magazine says that “Between 2000 and 2015, democracy broke down in 27 countries, among them Kenya, Russia, Thailand, and Turkey.”

Freedom House, a non-profit group that monitors democracy around the world, is seeing the same trend. In its 2020 report, it noted that

“People in 64 countries experienced deterioration in their political rights and civil liberties in 2019, while those in just 37 countries experienced improvements. The difference was smaller in 2018, when 68 countries declined and 50 made gains. Of the world’s 41 established democracies as of 2005, defined as those that had been rated Free for each of the previous 20 years, 25 have since suffered net score declines.”

It’s not just the usual villains―North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and the like―that continue to crack down on dissent. In Turkey, an attempt was made to overthrow President Recep Erdogan in July 2016. The coup failed and President Erdogan declared a state of emergency.

The New York Times reports that “Mr. Erdogan has dismissed tens of thousands of teachers and civil servants, purged the armed forces, detained journalists, and shut more than a dozen media outlets.” Even democratically elected parliamentarians have been arrested. Mr. Erdogan is behaving like a dictator.

The leadership in Turkey is applying the adage of Chinese dictator Mao Zedong that "Political power grows from the barrel of a gun."

The leadership in Turkey is applying the adage of Chinese dictator Mao Zedong that "Political power grows from the barrel of a gun."

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is getting tough on immigrants. ABC News reports that “Mr. Orban has called the mainly Muslim refugees and other migrants entering Europe a ‘poison’ that his nation ‘won’t swallow.’ ”

Orban has stoked up racism and is using fear of outsiders to concentrate power in his hands. Media freedom has been limited, and the independence of the judicial system has been threatened.

A similar decline in democratic values has been observed in Poland, Bangladesh, and Nicaragua, among others.

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Democracy even seems to be losing its appeal in countries associated with freedom and openness.

Waning Democracy in the United States

Many Americans are losing faith in their own democracy, and more than 100 million of them did not vote in the 2016 presidential election. Following Donald Trump's victory, thousands of Americans took to the streets to protest that he was “Not My President.”

A sharp divide has emerged between those who voted for Mr. Trump and those who voted against him. Neither side is willing to admit the other might have some valid points, and this is bad for what is called the “democratic bargain.”

This is explained in the 2005 book Losers’ Consent: Elections and Democratic Legitimacy, whose authors write that this bargain “calls for winners who are willing to ensure that losers are not too unhappy and for losers, in exchange, to extend their consent to the winners’ right to rule.” Neither of those bargains was accepted during Trump’s presidency.

When Trump lost the 2020 election he tried to overturn the result, outside the accepted democratic system.

Promoting Democracy

Americans are not much interested in nurturing democracy elsewhere in the world.

The Pew Research Center carried out a survey in 2013 on America’s role in the world. It found that “Promoting human rights abroad, helping improve living standards in developing countries, and promoting democracy rate as relatively low priorities for . . . the public . . . ” Only 18 percent thought the U.S. should be working to develop democracy as a top foreign policy priority.

Elsewhere, efforts to strengthen democracy are feeble:

  • The European Endowment for Democracy has a budget of just over $11 million;
  • The U.K.’s Westminster Foundation for Democracy can do little with its five million budget; and,
  • Canada doesn’t even bother anymore; the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development was shut down in 2012.

The Populist Playbook

Several leaders in recent years have come to power through what political scientists call populism. Candidates set themselves up as champions of the ordinary people and as opponents of the establishment. They tell voters the problems in their lives are caused by others―so-called experts, elites, immigrants. What’s needed is a strong leader who will shake up the establishment and make society work for the little guy.

Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz are both U.S. intelligence officers. They have written that, once elected, populist leaders usually follow a similar pattern of behaviour (Foreign Affairs, December 2016) . They slowly dismantle the constitutional curbs on their power and they push their opposition to the margins. They put loyalists in key positions and undermine the media.

This transition away from the norms of democracy is gradual and moves into what’s called authoritarianism. More and more the levers of power fall into one person’s hands.

The writers say this kind of government leads to aggressive foreign policies, increased pressure on minorities, and mismanaged foreign aid.

They add “The forces fueling populism aren’t going away anytime soon. If anything, economic underperformance, disillusion with corruption, and dissatisfaction with government performance will continue to fan the flames of populism across the globe.”

Bonus Factoids

  • According to Foreign Policy magazine “Since 2012, governments across the globe have proposed or enacted more than 90 laws restricting freedom of association or assembly.”
  • The most democratic countries according to The Economist in 2019 are: Norway, Iceland, Sweden, New Zealand, Finland, Ireland, Denmark, Canada, Australia, and Switzerland.
  • The United States stands in 25th place out of 167.
  • “To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize.” Voltaire.


  • “It Could Happen Here.” Larry Diamond, Atlantic Magazine, October 19, 2016.
  • “Democracy in Decline.” Larry Diamond, Foreign Affairs, July/August 2016.
  • “Anxious Dictators, Wavering Democracies: Global Freedom under Pressure.” Freedom House, 2016.
  • “Public Sees U.S. Power Declining as Support for Global Engagement Slips.” PewResearchCenter, December 3, 2013.
  • “Turkey’s Post-Coup Crackdown Targets Kurdish Politicians.” Ceylan Yeginsu and Safak Timurnov, New York Times, November 4, 2016.
  • “Viktor Orban: Hungarian Strongman Challenges EU with Anti-migration Measures.” Stefan J. Bos, ABC News, October 16, 2016.
  • “Freedom in the World 2020 Finds Established Democracies Are in Decline.” Freedom House, March 4, 2020.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 Rupert Taylor

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