Win McNamee/Getty Images
When Liz Truss took power last week in London, she became Britain’s fourth prime minister in six years. In Israel, voters are about to hold their fifth election in less than four years.
And in the US, many Americans still refuse to accept the results of the 2020 presidential election, prompting President Biden to recently warn that “equality and democracy are under attack.”
All over the world, democracy seems to be suffering from indigestion.
What do the studies tell us?
First, the bad news.
Numerous reports in recent years have documented the decline of democracy around the world and in the United States. Here’s just a small selection:
“The main democracies have turned inward [in 2020]contributing to a decline in global freedom for the 15th year in a row, according to Freedom in the World 2021, according to Freedom House.
The numbers from Our World in Data paint a graphic picture.
“The number of democracies in the world reached an all-time high in 2012 with 97 electoral democracies. After ten years, their number has decreased to 89 countries,” it was reported this month.
What is happening?
Democracies face both internal and external shocks, says Moses Naim, a distinguished fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“It is very difficult for democracies to realize the dreams, expectations and needs of the population,” he said. “And then they have to deal with external shocks that radically change the situation. What we’re seeing, for example, with inflation, or of course climate change, terrorism.”
Naim adds Italy and Brazil, along with Israel, the US and the UK, as countries currently grappling with the situation.
“Very soon there will be elections in Italy, and the candidate who has his origins in the fascist movement will most likely win,” he said. “Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has said he is questioning the system and is unlikely to leave the government if he loses the election.”
Modern game book
In many of these countries, we see big players at the center of the drama.
There is Boris Johnson in the UK, Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, Donald Trump in the US and Bolsonaro in Brazil.
Naim said there is a link between this style of reality show leader and political instability in a democracy.
“They all fell victim to expectations that cannot be met by traditional methods,” he said. “They have become populist in terms of fueling divisions in the country.”
“The attempt to divide and rule becomes a necessary condition for survival in politics. Then the fueling of polarization and wedges, and the strengthening and multiplication of wedges that are fracturing society.”
That view is echoed by Sean Rosenberg, a professor of political science and psychology at the University of California, Irvine, who warns that opportunistic leaders can backfire because liberal Democratic politics are complicated.
“Populist alternatives offer a much simpler vision,” he told Salon. “All that populism requires is a simple story of cause and effect. All that needs to be done is to act: authoritarian rule is the solution.’
What needs to be changed
In a widely covered speech in Philadelphia earlier this month, Biden warned that democracy was under attack and took particular aim at Donald Trump and election deniers.
“Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic,” Biden said.
“But while the threat to American democracy is real, I want to make it as clear as possible: we are not powerless in the face of these threats. We do not stand by in this ongoing attack on democracy.”
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Naim agrees with the last point. And if people really want to protect democracy, they have to take responsibility, he said.
“Citizens need to start thinking that democracy is not cheap in terms of real time, commitment and participation,” he said. “Voting every four years may not be enough. They need to strengthen their ability to detect charlatans, lies and populist behavior. Citizens should be more citizens and just less residents of the country.”
A radio interview with Moses Naim was produced by Michael Levitt and edited by Justin Kenin.