The Backsliding of Democracy: A Time for Dread or for Improvement?

The enlightenment era of the 1600s gave rise to ideas such as liberty, equality, and individual rights. In the wake of the scientific revolution, reasoning and logic began to replace dogmatic thinking. Undoubtedly, these ideas have contributed to more just, equal, healthy, and prosperous societies over centuries. Many people worldwide can attest that democracy is closer to enacting these ideas than any other form of governance. Witnessing the successes of democracy in Europe and North America, many societies ruled by dictatorships and colonialism sought to establish democracies consistent with ethnic and individual liberties. However, in recent years the objective to spread democracy worldwide and strengthen it in western countries has come to a halt. With the rise of autocratic leaders and the relapse of conflicts in fragile countries, democracy is in decline, and its ideals are under attack.

Why is this happening?

There are many explanations for these developments and various motives that are context-specific, but we will briefly look into a few dynamics through a global lens that has given rise to more autocratic regimes lately.

1. Rise in economic inequality 

Democracy and capitalism are commonly understood to be complementary. The free market economy is at the heart of democratic liberal thought. Owning property and growing one’s capital is a fundamental right in democratic systems. This right has helped people in industrialized countries improve their citizens’ quality of life and economic well-being. In the United States, for instance, the market economy was the main driver for social upliftment after WWII until the 1960s and early 1970s. However, the market economy was not merely responsible for social upliftment. Several government policies known as the New Deal policies seeking to stimulate economic growth helped Americans move up to the social middle class. However, these policies were controversial in a capitalist country like the US, and many republicans believed they made people dependent on welfare. The “survival of the fittest” and “pulling yourself by the bootstraps” persuasion of capitalist politicians has created an overwhelming disparity in income inequality. It has pushed Americans into the two far ends of the spectrum where a small percentage of Americans became uber-rich while exploiting the working class and causing the middle class to shrink. According to a Pew Research study conducted in 2021, young people today struggle more financially than their parents and grandparents. To move up in society, they are obligated to take on student debt as the tuition fee rises exponentially, and they are less likely to afford to buy a home and start a family. These challenges leave young generations anxious about their current lives and their future.

Moreover, racial inequalities have exacerbated economic inequality and pushed people of color into poverty. Consequently, over the years, people have lost trust in the government as they see it as a vehicle for the rich, and trust between people has eroded. Naturally, this distrust has created the conditions to allow demagogues to appeal to the desires and prejudices of vulnerable people and cause tremendous instability. Fear is a catalyst for de-democratization. Democracy in the US is essential for democracy worldwide. The US emerged as the dominant power after WWII spearheading a democratic world order. It set out agreements and treaties about how global governance should work and has inspired many other countries. Currently, the US is playing the opposite role, inspiring autocrats who see democracy as a threat.

2. Globalization agenda

The globalization era that began in the 1990s aimed at assisting development efforts. It is evident that many people have been lifted out of poverty, and more equality has been achieved worldwide due to development programs such as humanitarian assistance, economic relief, and other government democratization efforts. Though, it is also evident that the capitalist economic model adopted in poorer and fragile countries has led to massive corruption and abuse of public resources. United States-style free-market economies have created a divide between rich and poor worldwide, just like at home. Worldwide, few people have become nauseatingly rich while exploiting the working class, hence, creating immense discontent in many countries, particularly among youth who are more prone to turn to criminal activities when unemployment is low and poverty levels high. Furthermore, the democratization agenda, although well intended has backfired in many instances. Societies that rose against dictatorial regimes had to quickly adapt to western standards of democracy, which were often incompatible with their values. Agendas such as gender equality and LGBTQI rights are often viewed as imposing by local communities and transitional governments. Because of these developments coupled with real geopolitical interestspeople usually associate democracy with the US international military intervention. The Iraq war has made liberal westerners very hostile towards democracy promotion. Economic inequalities and value system differences have handed authoritarian regimes a propaganda tool, and conflicts have increased. It has resulted in violations of human rights and a staggering number of displaced people internally and across borders.

3. Demographic changes and isolationism

The globalization and democratization agenda promotes open societies where ideas such as equal opportunity, non-discrimination, and human rights are central. These ideas support change. Thus, they tend to be in direct conflict with more conservative values that seek to preserve traditional values. In the last two decades, the European Union, a project that promised openness and inclusion, started to display enlargement fatigue. The refugee crisis magnified  this fatigue. According to the International Rescue Committee, “more people have been forced to flee their homes by conflict and crisis than at any time since WWII.” Poland, Hungary, and other newer EU members have turned their backs on the core European principles of democracy and regard for human rights. Increasingly they are trending towards authoritarianism. Brexit dramatized disunity within the EU. These dynamics, coupled with historic nationalist sentiments, have triggered far-right nationalist movements within the EU, redefining European values. Recent surveys indicate a rise in Islamophobia, which may reshape EU policies towards immigration and enlargement. A 2016 report on the State of Islamophobia in Europe reveals that “Islamophobia has become the main challenge to the social peace and coexistence of different cultures, religions, and ethnicities in Europe. “190 Chatham House’s Europe Programme surveyed respondents in Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Spain, and the UK. The report shows that the majorities in all but two of the ten states agreed that all further migration from mainly Muslim countries must be stopped- ranging from 71 percent in Poland, 65 percent in Austria, 53 percent in Germany, and 51 percent in Italy to 41 percent in Spain, and 47 percent in the United Kingdom. In no country did the percentage of those surveyed who disagreed surpass 32%. Furthermore, conservatives in the Middle East, Asia, Europe, North America, or elsewhere tend to reject many values promoted by democratic, open societies. Efforts to advance empowerment and inclusion of women and LGBTQI people typically face tremendous resistance in most countries by varying degrees.

4. Internet and social media 

Technology and the internet have revolutionized the world, led to some groundbreaking innovations, and helped humanity connect in unimaginable ways. Nevertheless, technology and the internet have also been a source of hatred and division among people. We are all witness to the increase of hate speech used on social media, and there are well-documented cases when Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks have served as platforms to mobilize groups to commit acts of terrorism. Events like the Januray 6th attack on the US capitol, the genocidal campaign against Rohingya in Myanmar, or ISIS recruitment of youth through social networks are a few examples of how the use of social media platforms has led to intolerance which is the basic principle of democracy. Propaganda and false information have amplified through social media, making it harder to participate in democracy.

Way Forward

Climate changes, increasing pandemics, extractive capitalism, violent political polarization, and counterrevolutions are currently putting us all at risk. A crisis, however, can also serve as a catalyst for meaningful system changes. New rules and regulations are needed that are in line with evolving multiple demands. Democracy is not an easy task. As a philosophy, it requires people and governments to open up to new ideas and practices. It requires people of different colors, gender, ethnicity, religion, and sexual orientations to collaborate. It requires acceptance and openness. Now more than ever, we can see how interconnected countries are. So, isolationism is not the answer to these problems. There is a need for coordinated international responses to these international challenges. In order to address these issues, we need the kind of problem-solving attitude that characterizes democracies. We must support the already robust and growing civil societies, feminist movements, student movements, and worker’s unions. Across borders, we need to collaborate and learn from best practices. There are solutions to our crises, and our role is to identify, actualize, support, and empower them. The need for meaningful action now cannot be overstated.