“I thought I’d start with some props,” explained moderator Jeffrey Isaac, in opening the first panel of the third annual conference on America’s Role in the World at the Indiana University School of Global and International Studies March 28.
Isaac, professor in IU’s political science department, longtime editor of the American Political Science Association’s flagship journal, and author of Democracy in Dark Times (1998), held up a recently published edition of The New Republic, emblazoned with the headline “Can Democracy Survive?” Isaac then produced a New York Times article asking “How Stable Are Democracies? ‘Warning Signs Are Flashing Red’.” The moderator, editor and frequent contributor to Public Seminar and Dissent magazines, proceeded to display periodicals echoing the theme of democracy’s dissolution, from The Economist’s examination of “What’s Gone Wrong with Democracy,” to The New Yorker’s essay, “Donald Trump and the Stress Test of Democracy,” and the Boston Review’s inquiry into the “Anxieties of Democracy.”
Among his offerings, Isaac displayed monographs on the subject authored by those participating in the opening session on “Democracy’s Deconsolidation,” a term popularized by panelist Yascha Mounk, Harvard lecturer and author of The People vs. Democracy (2018). Along with that title, Isaac referenced the 2018 report on Freedom in the World, produced by Freedom House, whose president Michael Abramowitz was also on stage. The non-governmental organization founded in 1941 issues an annual report charting the viability of core democratic tenets around the world.
“We’ve been reviewing the state of democracy in the world for about 50 years,” Abramowitz noted. “We are now in a period of about twelve consecutive years of downward scores in our ratings of countries’ political rights and civil liberties. In this year’s report about 70 countries experienced declines in political rights—freedom of the press, freedom of association, freedom of religion—and less than half experienced improvements.” The 2018 Freedom in the World report concluded that only 39 percent of the 195 countries and 14 territories it surveyed can be considered “Free.” The rest of the world, the report concluded, was divided among those states considered “Partly Free” (24 percent) and “Not Free” (37 percent). Abramowitz pointed to Turkey as the country with the “largest single drop,” mentioning similar trends in Poland, Hungary, Venezuela, and the Philippines.
Along with educational levels and ideological perspectives, economic conditions can be predictive of democracy’s ability to gain purchase, suggested Katie Simmons, associate director of research at Pew Research Center, a non-partisan organization that conducts data-driven social science research. Among the countries Pew polled with regard to attitudes about democracy, there was a correlation between standard of living and political viewpoint. “What we do find is a very clear pattern that economics matters,” Simmons concluded. “People who have experienced lower economic growth, or perceive that their country’s economy is not doing well are more dissatisfied with how their democracy is working and are less supportive of a representative democracy.”
Pew’s research demonstrates the most rapidly declining commitment to representative democracy in Latin America, Simmons noted. While the percentage of those who might be identified as “committed representative democrats” in Sweden, for example, has been measured at 52 percent, it drops to around 20 percent in Latin America. In the last four years alone, the number of Brazilians who took a favorable view of democracy dropped from 66 to 28 percent, Simmons shared.
A political analyst based in Buenos Aires, panelist Sergio Berensztein was able to elaborate on the reasons for diminishing support for democracy on the South American continent. Echoing the Pew findings, Berensztein pointed to tangible reasons for the political shift. Most people, he noted, are more concerned with a government’s “capacity to provide public goods” than with its embodiment of abstract democratic ideals. Such practical concerns as “safety, access to justice, education, health care, job creation, the environment, and the infrastructure” loom large in the assessment of a political system’s efficacy. In Latin America, Berensztein continued, public disapprobation and distrust resulting from governments’ failure to deliver the basics is compounded by the ubiquity of corruption. “There are corruption scandals from Mexico south,” he noted grimly.
The retreat from democratic institutions and principles documented by the analysts on the panel sounds an alarm for political scientists who once considered the process of “democratic consolidation,” as Mounk described it, to be a “one-way street.” History had borne out a predictable narrative: “That once a country had held free and fair elections a number of times,” as Mounk recounted, “once it was reasonably affluent, it seemed to be safe.” The research Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa shared in their July 2016 article in The Journal of Democracy, “The Danger of Deconsolidation: The Democratic Disconnect,” revealed a disjuncture between a widespread expression of faith in democracy and the ascent of populism. “The majority still say that they like democracy,” Mounk asserted. “But that was the case in Venezuela before they elected Hugo Chavez, and that is the case today in Russia.”
The danger that lurks in that lack of deep consensus for democracy, Mounk suggested, will not present itself in “shiny black boots.” Eschewing the example of the Weimar Republic, “the most famous case of democratic breakdown,” Mounk explained how democracy is eroded when a weary populace is seduced by candidates who promise to reform a system that is not delivering. Once ensconced, those leaders claim exclusive representation of “ordinary people,” characterizing opposing parties, regulatory agencies, other branches of the government, and the press not as a “normal part of democracy” but as traitorous.
“So what’s going on right now is not just that people are deeply disappointed with democratic institutions and having more critical views than they used to,” Mounk concluded. “But it is the most supposedly consolidated and stable democracies in North America and Western Europe being challenged by an increasingly ideologically self-conscious alternative political force – which is represented by populists whether on the far right as, I would argue, in this country, or on the far left, as in Venezuela. And that is why democracy is in danger right now in a way that is unlike any previous point in my life.”
The third annual conference on America's Role in the World continues Thursday, March 29 from 9 am to 3:45 pm, with registration beginning at 8:30 am. Former U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations and Harvard professor Samantha Power gives the keynote address at noon. A complete schedule, and registration information is available here. The conference, being held in the auditorium of the School of Global and International Studies, is free and open to the public.