Series of essays on democracy.DEMOCRACY IS UNDER SIEGE AROUND THE WORLD. In the early 21st century, many countries face major challenges of democratic backsliding and even occasional outright regime reversal, with authoritarian forces rising. It’s not just events occurring under President Trump in the United States. Democracy has already been destroyed in Egypt, Venezuela, Thailand, Ukraine, and Russia. It is in the process of being undermined in Poland, Hungary, Turkey, and the Philippines. Long-established democracies are not exempt, as demonstrated by the political instability and deep polarization in the United Kingdom, under pressure from Brexit. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington warned that gains for human freedom are temporary, in a two-steps-forward, one-step-back dynamic. Earlier historical eras experienced periodic waves of regime change around the world, with reversals in democracy in the 1930s and the 1960s. During recent decades, accumulating signs suggest that history is now in danger of repeating itself.

The most comprehensive and rigorous data from the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem), an academic project devoted to measuring democracy, demonstrates that the quality of liberal democracy has eroded worldwide during the past decade, although the map is patchy. Some of the most dramatic net losses have occurred in Turkey, Brazil, Ukraine, Poland, Nicaragua, India, and the United States. Several Anglo-American democracies have seen major erosion in civil liberties and political rights, according to V-Dem estimates, with some of the worst performance in the U.K. under Brexit and the United States under Trump. Around the globe, American retreat and European divisions threaten the rules-based order and global alliances established to defend the values of democratic governance, freedom, rule of law, and human rights.

Pippa Norris.

“Authoritarian resurgence is puzzling intellectually because the dominant theoretical paradigm during the past four decades has focused on explaining the drivers of democratic advance, not retreat.”

Pippa Norris

These challenges have the capacity to undermine America’s core values and interests, both at home and abroad. We are one of the oldest democracies and one of the most successful multicultural societies in the world. Democratic rollback threatens American values: the protection and promotion of human rights and the rule of law; international cooperation to achieve lasting peace; good governance; accountable and responsive public institutions; resilience against disaster; gender equality; freedom, justice, and dignity for all. Backsliding undermines transparent and accountable governance. It weakens legal guardrails preventing the abuse of power. Strongman demagogues have seized office by exploiting the politics of fear, deepening social rifts, and heightening intolerance. Formal protections and unwritten democratic norms respecting civil liberties and minority rights are in danger. The legitimacy of parliaments, elections, and parties is undermined.

Moreover, America’s interests are directly threatened by the potential consequences of these developments. They endanger long-standing global alliances, the rules-based world order, and international cooperation over everything from trade and security to counterterrorism, sustainable development, and climate change. Several major authoritarian states—notably Russia, Saudi Arabia, and China—have become even more repressive at home and emboldened in actively undermining weak states abroad, without effective international sanctions. China’s Belt and Road initiative, which provides an alternative model of development through remarkable economic growth, aids the country’s rise even as China lacks fundamental freedoms. America’s safety, security, and freedom go hand in hand. We cannot blithely assume that freedom and the rule of law happen by themselves or will simply continue, at home or beyond our borders.

Understanding the causes and consequences of this phenomenon is critical for mitigating the risks. The problems evident around the globe are widely agreed upon. The underlying causes are not. Authoritarian resurgence is puzzling intellectually because the dominant theoretical paradigm during the past four decades has focused on explaining the drivers of democratic advance, not retreat.

My new book, Cultural Backlash: Trump, Brexit, and Authoritarian Populism, written with the University of Michigan’s Ron Inglehart, emphasizes that the root causes of democratic backsliding exist across a wide range of post-industrial societies, threatening liberal democratic norms and practices. Democracies are at risk today from the collision of several forces, like a perfect storm: the growing politics of fear, with a backlash against liberal democracy fed by perceived threats to traditional cultural values and social identities; the rise of authoritarian-populist parties, leaders, media, and social movements, fueled by, and reinforcing, these cultural tensions in mass society; the weakness of constitutional safeguards at home, which lack resilience and effective enforcement mechanisms to resist malpractice by strongman leaders; and finally, broad changes in international relations arising from the end of the American century and the decline of Western power, rising nationalist challenges to the rules-based world order, the agencies of global governance and multilateral cooperation, and the growing role of China and a resurgent Russia.

How these factors interact, and what weight each should be given, are a matter of ongoing scholarly debate in the social sciences. Are these global shifts just temporary, like market corrections? The full consequences remain uncertain. Democracies may remain resilient, and there are signs of pushback from the courts, the legacy media, and civil society. Some policy changes can be reversed by new administrations, but the recovery of public trust and the restoration of respect for informal democratic norms is far from certain. It seems easier for nihilists to kick over the sand castle than to rebuild. During the past decade, sufficient signs have accumulated around the world for a zeitgeist of deepening anxiety about the threat to liberal democracy.

Pippa Norris is the Paul F. McGuire Lecturer in Comparative Politics. A comparative political scientist, she focuses on democracy, public opinion and elections, political communications, and gender politics.

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