What ails democracy? Prominent scholars and policy thought leaders have lamented the threats to democracy in numerous books, saying the world today recalls the shadows that fell over Europe in the 1930s. Anne Applebaum, Timothy Snyder, and Madeleine Albright, among others, have warned of the rise of nationalist, xenophobic, and authoritarian leaders.
Yet for many, it remains a puzzle as to why. Even as economies recover from COVID-19 and stock markets boom, authoritarian populism remains a threat to freedom. The answer is not complicated, but it requires recognizing that different people are being drawn to authoritarian leaders for different reasons and that it will take an equally diverse coalition of those devoted to democracy to save it.
It is remarkable how widely the virus of nationalist authoritarianism has spread. The symptoms are clear: growing support for national leaders who lash out at enemies, treat political opponents as threats, denigrate foreigners and immigrants, promise to restore a nostalgic or aspirational ideal of national greatness, and treat elections, the media and the law not as legitimate checks on their actions but as tools to be weaponized to preserve their own power.
The list of such leaders is long and growing, and they can be found in the advanced democracies of the West as well as developing countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Some are household names like Donald Trump (USA), Vladimir Putin (Russia), and Xi Jinping (China), while others are more obscure like Viktor Orban (Hungary), Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (Egypt), Jair Bolsonaro (Brazil). They have sought to retain power by attacking and repressing their opposition and undermining limits on their authority. Where these leaders have lost close elections, such as Trump in the U.S., or Binyamin Netanyahu in Israel, or Keiko Fujimori in Peru, their response is to maintain that the elections were fraudulent and that they “really” had won, attacking the integrity of democracy itself. These leaders also span different political ideologies – many identify as conservatives, while a few are progressives. What they all have in common is a reluctance to give up power, a disregard for legal niceties, and a political vision rooted in polarization and the pursuit of enemies rather than compromise and pluralism.
What has made such leaders attractive, in so many places, in recent years? The answer is best given by Shakespeare: “The fault … is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”
In other words, it is the actions of liberal elites – well-intended but grievously misguided – that have spawned the populist wave. In a variety of ways, ruling elites promoting globalization and diversity have deprived many groups in their own societies of opportunity, hope, and security. Here are some of the worst mistakes and miscalculations from liberal elites that have spurred the global wave of populism:
Wars In the Middle East
Their first error is their overzealous, poorly thought-out military aggression, specifically believing that the military occupation of Afghanistan and then Iraq would bring peace and democracy to the Middle East. Instead, it produced endless wars and a blowback of global Islamist radicalism and terrorism against the West.
The Nature of the Internet
Since the founding of the Internet and social media, a misguided belief has emerged that an unfettered Internet inherently supports democracy and opportunity. Instead, it produces extraordinary concentrations of wealth and social power, creates a digital divide amplifying the wage gap between the digitally skilled and unskilled, creates hacking and cybersecurity as new threats, and puts social discourse at the mercy of algorithms that amplify hatred, lies, and misinformation in the service of more profitable clicks.
Foreign policy towards China focused on economically integrating China globally, believing that letting China flood the world with cheap manufactures would peacefully integrate China into a liberal world order, and foster its alignment with the West without hurting Western workers. Instead, it produced an increasingly nationalist and authoritarian China seeking to displace Western influence while driving down wages for Western labor.
Capitalism and ‘Trickle-Down’ Economics
While rightly believing that capitalism is the best road to producing wealth, this belief was carried to extremes: Governments prioritized rescuing banks and not homeowners after economic downturns, undermined unions, and left the minimum wage unchanged for almost a decade at a time. Tax codes were altered to favor capital gains and business profits over wages, believing this would be good for society as a whole. But these conditions produced the worst inequality within nations in almost a century.
The Meritocracy Trap
Believing that merit is virtuous, leaders increasingly made elite educational credentials the route to success. But they also let a good education become far more expensive and inaccessible, creating a rigid, wealth-based system of access to elite positions that excluded half of society and led to a decline in social mobility in many Western societies.
Singling Out Minorities for Aid
A belief emerged that while historically disadvantaged minorities deserve government assistance to overcome economic hardship and lack of opportunity, those groups suffering from global competition or technological change needed to learn new skills, move to new areas or otherwise manage on their own. The result was a wave of deaths of despair and disabilities among older White males due to alcoholism and drug overdoses in former industrial, smaller metro, and rural communities.
Denigrating the Culturally Different
When facing anger or criticism from conservative rural, business and religious groups, liberal elites would denigrate these groups as being culturally extreme, systematically racist, or simply irrational or ignorant. Instead, they should have admitted their mistakes and sought ways to give dignity and support to everyone in their societies.
Is it any wonder that people around the world have developed a fierce hatred of those elites, and embraced strong-man leaders who claimed to offer protection and renewed national strength based on the exclusion of outsiders and enemies?
Still, making authoritarianism all about fear is too simple. Religious conservatives are also willing to embrace populist leaders if they will adopt conservative principles. Whether it is attacks on homosexuals in Russia or attacks on abortion rights in the U.S., religious conservatives may downplay attacks on democracy if their core values benefit. The wealthy may feel it’s good to ride along with authoritarians if the latter will lower their taxes and help them accumulate more wealth. Oligarchs and tycoons are often the populists’ best friends and chief supporters.
Who then will support democracy first? It will not be those who have achieved some measure of wealth, but fear being taxed for feckless spending on the undeserving poor. It will not be those who have suffered economically from technological change, global competition, community decay, and periodic recessions without the appropriate degree of government assistance. It will surely not be those who have been left out in the rush for educational credentials and seen their career prospects and family security and futures diminished. Nor will it be the cultural and religious conservatives who have seen themselves and their values mocked by arrogant leaders.
It is hard to support democracy in today’s conditions. It is almost an act of faith to believe that pluralism, equal protection of all by the law, and democratic elections can be a path to widespread prosperity. It is especially tough considering the current levels of inequality, government dysfunction, and social decay in the nations that are supposed to represent democratic ideals.
Today, the United States, for example, is seen by the world as a country where buildings and bridges collapse, mass shootings and murders occur almost daily, inequality is severe, and police brutality is widespread. In the face of these challenges, the U.S. government is bitterly polarized and ineffective, and the economy is geared to make the rich ever richer. Why should its form of government be taken as a model elsewhere?
The answer is while life may be difficult under a discordant democracy in the short run, it is much worse under authoritarian regimes in the long run. History shows that disregard for the rule of law, for human rights, and for the accountability of officials sooner or later leads to those officials making disastrous choices that no one can change. Not that long ago there was mass starvation in Russia in the 1930s, and in China in the 1950s, to serve the ideals of communism. During the COVID-19 pandemic, some of the world’s worst case and death rates occurred in nations where the dangers were downplayed and politicized by populist leaders.
Can the United States course-correct, and can other countries overcome the temptations of authoritarian populism? Possibly.
Where people know and have felt authoritarian rule – such as in Belarus, Myanmar, and elsewhere – they are fighting for democracy. A growing number of democracies, seeing the risks of authoritarian leaders and the damage being done to their societies by hatred and lawlessness, have turned populists out of office, albeit sometimes by narrow margins. Recent populist losers include Trump in the US, Netanyahu in Israel, Sefkovic in Slovakia, and Le Pen in regional elections in France.
In the United States, President Joe Biden’s policy agenda is targeting many of the issues that I addressed above. Biden is pulling the U.S. out of Afghanistan, ending the forever wars; he is supporting investment to provide universal broadband access but also restrict the power of social media companies; he has adopted a robustly skeptical and competitive posture towards China; he has put forward a variety of measures, from child support and higher taxes on the rich to global minimum corporate taxes to address inequality and tilt economic favoritism away from the rich; and he is seeking to provide universal early education and better access to college to support greater opportunities and renew social mobility.
In addition, Biden has put forth an infrastructure program designed to bring jobs and to invigorate communities across the country, without regard to racial or regional divisions; and perhaps most importantly, he has cultivated a brand of decency that seeks compromise and avoids treating political opponents with disrespect or denigration.
The fate of U.S. populism will depend on Biden’s success. If Biden’s ambitious infrastructure plans and measures to combat inequality and increase social mobility are enacted and start to improve Americans’ lives, then the odds of shrinking support for populism will grow. But Biden will have to pull together a broad coalition of Democrats and Independents, and even a sliver of Republicans, to prevail.
There is still plenty of danger for Biden. If his plans are frustrated and come to naught, or if the GOP seizes Congress in 2022, then his odds of building that coalition decline. That is not to mention the growing number of voter suppression bills that are being enacted in Republican-held state legislatures across the country.
Random events may play a role as well. A dreadful summer of fires and storms that raises concerns about addressing climate change may increase Democratic support. A new wave of increasing crime, or another stock-market collapse, may alarm people and drive them to seek the illusory safety of a strong-man leader.
Whatever the outcome, the next eighteen months will be critical to the future of democracy in America and around the world. If America cannot make democracy work for all of its citizens, then other countries will be less likely to believe democracy will work for them. Biden’s success, then, is something that everyone who wants to live under democratic governance should root for. But Biden will have to earn that success by getting the government to provide real and genuinely appreciated benefits for all Americans. Whether the current wave of populism continues to grow or can be swept back hangs in the balance.