That democratic values and democratic institutions are in crisis all around the world is no longer a revelation; casual observation of the current global scene is enough to bear this out. For years, empirical data provided by the Freedom House and the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) in their annual reports have been indicating that democracy is in a downward spiral. According to a Freedom House report, almost 67 percent people in the world now live under political systems which are either “not free” or “partly free”, or in other words undemocratic. One-third of the global population lives in outright authoritarian regimes according to the EIU, and many Asian countries are hybrid regimes—i.e., ostensibly democratic but essentially authoritarian.
Academics with impeccable records on tracking the health of global democracy raised the red flag at the beginning of this decade. With the gradual fading of the euphoria of democracy's victory after the end of the Cold War, many researchers and activists alike warned that the path from authoritarianism does not always end in democracy.
Some called the situation a decline of democracy, others called it a reverse wave. However it was described, with increasing numbers of people around the world being under not-free status in various countries, especially in countries which were previously considered consolidated democracies, plus the growing challenges to democratic norms and values from various sources, a consensus has emerged that democracy is in crisis. A wide range of studies on the causes of and conditions for the plight of democracy have been published in the past decade. In these studies, and in public discourse, we can find answers to the questions as to what the decline looks like and how it happens. But what factors engendered the process remains an issue of contention.
We know what it looks like when democracy is in retreat, worse yet, when it is dead: citizens' fundamental rights are severely curtailed, space for dissent shrinks, institutional protection to opponents of the government disappear, freedom of expressions and assembly become limited at best, media are “bought off or bullied into self-censorship”, legislative bodies become weak and ineffective, the judiciary becomes subordinate to the executive, patriotism of the opposition is questioned and above all, a demagogue ascends to the helm of power with the promise of applying simplistic solutions to all the complex problems by himself/herself. These, in various degrees, become the defining features of a polity and normalised with dubious justifications.
The dire warning of the 1970s and 1980s that it will be red-flag waving communists who will one day march to the capitals and bring an end to democracy didn't come to pass, neither did the fear of the 1990s that the religio-political forces, often described as fundamentalists, will succeed with their swords in executing democracy become a reality. It was not the well-trained military who trampled democracy under their boots, a familiar scene in the 1960s and the 1970s.
Of course, there are a few instances of all of the above happening; in Venezuela democracy did erode under a leftist regime; in Turkey and partly in India, democratic institutions and values have been and are being shredded by parties who advocate religion-informed ideology; in Thailand and Egypt the military has launched an assault against democracy. But, in Europe, US, in various countries of Africa and Asia, it is the right-wing populists, armed with a xenophobic and Islamophobic agenda under the veneer of nationalism and apparently against economic marginalisation, who have become the principal actors of this crusade against democracy, and thus far, successfully.
Populist leaders come in different races, colours and gender. They use various garbs. They are apt in constructing enemies—domestic and foreign. For some the infamous “War on Terror” has provided the justifications, for others economic development is the mantra. They have created a pool of loyalists who are simultaneously proud (of their nation and/or country and/or religion), disgruntled (about their economic and political wellbeing) and angry (against a contrived enemy). They praise the leader's outfit, even after the proverbial child has said, “the Emperor has no clothes”.
Is there a specific moment that we can identify as the pivotal moment, a moment when democracy breathes its last breath? There was not a spectacular moment of the death of democracy anywhere in the world. It was not announced in the media, a proclamation that “we are now abandoning the principles of democracy or winding down democratic institutions” never came. Instead, often that happened through a process essential to democracy—elections. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have aptly described the process: “Democratic backsliding today begins at the ballot box. The electoral road to breakdown is dangerously deceptive. With a classic coup d'état, as in Pinochet's Chile, the death of a democracy is immediate and evident to all. The presidential palace burns. The president is killed, imprisoned or shipped off into exile. The constitution is suspended or scrapped. On the electoral road, none of these things happen. There are no tanks in the streets. Constitutions and other nominally democratic institutions remain in place. People still vote. Elected autocrats maintain a veneer of democracy while eviscerating its substance” (“This is How Democracies Die”, The Guardian, January 21, 2018). What we see thereafter is, “despots masquerading as democrats” and their loyalists continue to insist that democracy has been saved and is flourishing.
While this is the epochal moment of the death of a democracy, there are precursors, in politics and in society. In the social arena, the progressive attenuation of empathy and tolerance, atomisation of individuals, decline of virtuous social capital, apathy towards politics, and continuous reproduction of differences are some of the precursors. In politics, “the denigration of expertise and the celebration of ignorance; scorn for consensus-builders and pragmatic compromise; the polarisation of politics towards venom-spitting extremes” are the signposts of democracy's decline (Andrew Rawnsley, “How Democracy Ends review—is people politics doomed?” The Guardian, May 20, 2018). A combination of these social and political microbes creates the malaise that kills democracy.
While there is very little disagreement about the state we are in, how did we arrive here is the question for which we are yet to find an answer. The most common response is that democratic institutions have failed to deliver, and therefore, democracy as a normative value is now under attack. Indeed, in the past decades both economic and political inequality have grown within countries where democracy has been practiced, and at the global level. There are reasons to be indignant towards the system. Thanks to economic globalisation, new global elites have amassed wealth and power, while a poorer class has been left behind. Politically, the institutions which promised to be inclusive and represent the will of the many have given power to a few and have become beholden to money, special interests and influence. However, whether this provides a convincing explanation to this phenomenon which is global in its scope but also has distinct particularity depending on countries is a matter of debate. This we don't know yet.
Ali Riaz is a distinguished professor of political science at the Illinois State University, USA.