Democracy Is Fighting for Its Life

Around the world, political freedom isn’t just slipping away—it’s getting dragged down by fervent enemies.

Frames of Chinese President Xi Jinping, US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin are display in a photo shop in Beijing on April 17, 2017.
Frames of Chinese President Xi Jinping, US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin are display in a photo shop in Beijing on April 17, 2017. FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

It is common today to speak of a crisis of democracy, but such language underrates the challenge at hand. American democracy faces not one, but three distinct and connected crises. There is an ongoing assault on democratic norms and values, which has led to the coarsening of the U.S. social fabric and the erosion of unspoken, but vitally important, norms that provide the guardrails of self-government. There is a sense of displacement, dislocation, and despair among large numbers of Americans who feel that the democratic system has grown increasingly unresponsive to their needs and that government is less willing to advocate for their interests. Finally, there is an onslaught by authoritarian powers in Beijing and Moscow, which are using new forms of technology to reach into democratic societies, exacerbate internal tensions, and carve out illiberal spheres of influences.

Failing to see that these crises are connected diminishes Americans’ ability to understand the full scope of the challenge. Alternatively, concentrating on only the part of the challenge most affecting their own interests gives them at best a partial understanding of what is occurring and hampers our ability to address these connected challenges. To begin to tackle these challenges requires first a sufficiently broad, and accurate, diagnosis of what exactly is afflicting, and what is attacking, democracy.

Larry Diamond’s new book, Ill Winds: Saving Democracy from Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency, attempts to do just that. Diamond, perhaps the world’s leading authority on democracy, is ideally suited for such a task. Equally adept—and prominent—in academia, the think tank world, and policy circles, Diamond is a professor at Stanford University, the author or editor of dozens of books on democracy, and the founder of the Journal of Democracy. He has written about democracy in the developing world, the impact of social media on democracy, and, most recently, co-chaired an authoritative study on the role of Beijing’s expanding influence operations inside the United States. Diamond’s entire career has been centered on studying, advocating for, and improving democracy. In the field of democracy studies, Diamond has long been a leading authority, and what he has to say matters.

Ill Winds: Saving Democracy From Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency, Larry Diamond, Penguin Press, 368 pp., $28, June 2019

“Late in a lifetime spent studying and promoting democracy,” Diamond writes, “I would like to be able to say that things are heading in the right direction. They are not.” This blunt appraisal is partially a result of his concern over the increasingly autocratic impulses emanating from the Trump White House. But as harmful as he thinks President Donald Trump has been to America’s democracy, it is a broader set of concerns driving this work.

The rising danger to democracy as a global phenomenon takes center stage in Diamond’s new book. “In every region of the world,” he writes, “autocrats are seizing the initiative, democrats are on the defensive, and the space for competitive politics and free expression is shrinking.” Mature democracies are becoming increasingly polarized, intolerant, and dysfunctional. Emerging democratic states are drowning in corruption, struggling for legitimacy, and fighting against growing external threats. Authoritarian leaders are simultaneously becoming more repressive at home, more aggressive abroad, and more convinced that they are sailing with the wind at their back.

For many, this new, darker reality will be met with equal amounts of shock, disappointment, and denial. After all, it wasn’t supposed to be this way. In the direct wake of the Cold War, common wisdom held that the democratic capitalist model had definitively triumphed over its illiberal competitor. In the years following, that optimism seemed particularly well founded as the number of democracies grew from 46 in 1974 to 76 in 1990 to 120 by 2000, increasing the percentage of the world’s independent states from 30 to 63 percent. In 1991, the political scientist Samuel Huntington wrote that “successive waves of democratization have washed over the shore of dictatorship. Buoyed by a rising tide of economic progress, each wave advanced further—and receded less—than its predecessor.” Even though many of these newly emerging democracies were quite illiberal in practice, Diamond had argued that that the global advance in democracy was paralleled by a “steady and significant expansion in levels of freedom” as measured by political rights and civil liberties.

As a result of these trends, and with the hope of integrating formerly closed societies into an expanding global order, the United States and its allies pursued a policy of integration. In a 1993 speech to the United Nations, U.S. President Bill Clinton announced that the United States’ “overriding purpose must be to expand and strengthen the world’s community of market-based democracies. During the Cold War we sought to contain a threat to the survival of free institutions. Now we seek to enlarge the circle of nations that live under those free institutions.” Clinton’s first national security advisor, Anthony Lake, expanded on this idea, claiming that the central idea animating U.S. foreign policy would now be the “strategy of enlargement—enlargement of the world’s free community of market democracies.” This idea was rooted in the logic that as the number of free states expanded, the likelihood of war would diminish, prosperity would spread, and the international order would strengthen. The accelerating growth of support for free trade, free speech, and free government in the years that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall seemed to confirm that Clinton’s bet had paid off.

But then, around 2006, this enlargement seemed to stall—and then reverse. Freedom House, a nongovernmental organization that tracks democracy and political freedom around the world, noted in its 2018 annual report that since 2006, 113 countries saw a net decline in freedom, and for 12 consecutive years, global freedom declined. The Economic Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index similarly recorded the “worst decline in global democracy in years.” Diamond pointed out this disturbing trend more than a decade ago, writing in 2008 that “the democratic wave has been slowed by a powerful authoritarian undertow, and the world has slipped into a democratic recession.”

Today, this is the new norm. Hungary, Turkey, and Venezuela continue their slide into authoritarian rule; democratic norms have eroded in the Philippines and Poland; Myanmar, which had slowly began opening its system, executed an ethnic cleansing and jailed journalists covering it; right-wing populists gained traction throughout Western Europe; and, perhaps most distressing from a long-term perspective, young people seem to be losing faith in democracy.

Meanwhile, authoritarian regimes are making a comeback. Contrary to the hopes for the post-Cold War world, autocratic states have neither relaxed their grip at home while becoming more reconciled to the liberal international order as they profited from it, nor been relegated to the ash-heap of history as was predicted. Moreover, the technological and economic dimensions of today’s authoritarian resurgence make today’s challenge more formidable than those of the past. Technological advances have given today’s autocrats the ability to monitor their populations at a previously unimaginable level, export surveillance systems to like-minded autocrats abroad, and reach into foreign institutions to disrupt democratic elections. Meanwhile, Beijing’s brand of authoritarian capitalism has proved both more durable and more dynamic than the Soviet model, giving it leverage over its trading partners.

While their geopolitical ambitions and current fortunes diverge, both Moscow and Beijing’s intentions both point in a similar direction. While it is not as clear as the ideological struggle of the Cold War, which saw communist and free states trying to export their model to the rest of the world, the ideological objectives now are narrower in scope but no less pernicious in effect. Focused on strengthening their legitimacy and tightening their grip on power, both regimes have worked to shape the perceptions and actions of domestic and foreign audiences, while undermining rules, institutions, and behavioral norms to serve their own interests.

While there is not a lot that is groundbreaking in Diamond’s new book, it is not intended as such. The book is a broad, sweeping survey, and Diamond summarizes a lifetime’s worth of scholarship on why democracies succeed or fail, chronicles the surge and retreat of global democracy, analyzes the disparate factors behind the decline of American democracy, analyzes Russian President Vladimir Putin’s cynical attempt to undermine the West’s self-confidence, and examines China’s “stealth offensive” to graft the values of the Chinese Communist Party onto global institutions. Diamond also lays out a long list of recommendations for restoring people’s faith in democracy, fighting corruption, aiding fledgling democratic nations, mitigating the dangers of the internet, and reinvigorating American democracy. The work occasionally suffers from having too much to say about too many subjects—there are eight proposals to guide strategy, a 10-step action plan to combat kleptocracy, and seven recommendations to cure American democracy.

But what it loses by its breadth, it gains in its accessibility, utility, and urgency. Diamond succeeds in making a compelling case that the global assault on democracy is the single most important trend driving global events today. If this is true, his assessment that the world is “now immersed in a fierce global contest of ideas, information, and norms” ought to serve as a rallying cry for those who would protect democracy from enervation, degradation, and assault.

Of course, not everyone supports such a rallying cry, and many prominent voices see it as unhelpfully reviving a Cold War mentality. Today’s challenges, they assert, come from a variety of actors, have no universalizing aspirations, and are merely the normal geopolitical ambitions of states. Some reject that ideology plays a determining role and point out that governments of all types can find areas of cooperation when they focus on minimizing differences.

These arguments underscore the danger of seeing every conflict as a struggle between good and evil. Oversimplifying complex causes carries real dangers and constrains policymakers’ choices. During the Cold War, the United States committed serious strategic errors by indulging McCarthyism and seeing Moscow’s hand in every local challenge to U.S. influence.

Ideology cannot explain everything, but ignoring ideology is its own form of blindness. Both Beijing and Moscow believe that they would be more secure in a world where illiberalism has displaced liberalism, and both are seeking to undermine democracies by spreading fake news, constraining public debate, co-opting or bribing leading political figures, and compromising the intellectual freedom of foreign academic institutions. China is exporting its technologically enabled authoritarianism to like-minded regimes and struggling democracies alike, while Beijing’s internal propaganda describes the Western liberal values of constitutional democracy, the universality of human rights, freedom of the press, and judicial independence as existential threats to its hold on power. The struggle today is not the same as it was during the Cold War, but it is clear that in the space between democratic and authoritarian systems, ideology is playing a larger role now that at any time over the past three decades.

Ideological competition has pushed liberal societies into dark corners in the past, but a commitment to liberal democratic ideology can also empower. Unless the United States and its allies make clear that the present challenge involves values as well as power, they may not be able to mobilize the resources and popular support required to compete with their adversaries.

All of this, however, should not be a counsel of despair, but a call to arms. Diamond concludes with a plea for resolve in the face of these challenges and offers a catalogue of practical advice about what supporters of democracy can do. For the United States, he argues for policies to support democracy, such as the elimination of gerrymandering, combating voter suppression efforts, considering the implantation of ranked-choice voting, and reducing the influence of dark money in campaigns. More broadly, he proposes tackling the money laundering and corruption that enable autocratic leaders and their associates, addressing internet governance, and improving higher education. For all of these, Diamond repeatedly makes the point that we possess the resources to meet the challenges democracies face. Left unclear is whether we have the willingness to use the tools at our disposal.

And this is why Diamond’s most important warning is that the biggest problem mature democracies face is complacency. While crisis tends to galvanize action, without its immediacy we tend towards worry, concern, and—too often—inertia. Diamond’s entire book should be read as a clarion call that we have reached a critical moment where the price of inaction will render democratic government not only ineffective, but increasingly defenseless. “When democracy is slowly suffocated,” he writes, “it can be hard to locate the precise moment of asphyxiation.” Waiting to confront rising dangers may be the easiest course but not necessarily the wisest.

Larry Diamond opens his book with a line from U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address. On Jan. 20, 1961, Kennedy declared that, “In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility—I welcome it.” At a moment when the internal and external threats to democracy are rising, the current moment confronts us with two questions: Can we be shaken out of our complacency? And, if we can, are we up to the challenge?

Charles Edel is senior fellow at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and co-author of The Lessons of Tragedy: Statecraft and World Order.