Backsliding democracies across the world

Backsliding democracies across the world

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US President Joe Biden has made “revitalizing democracy the world over” a key goal of his administration, but it has taken almost a year since his inauguration to fulfil the key pledge of holding a summit of democracies that takes place this week.
To be sure, it has been a busy 2021 for the new US president, but it is surprising to many that it has taken so long to hold the event, especially given the increasingly hostile environment across the globe for democratic government that recent studies have highlighted, including by the US think tank Freedom House.
The White House contends that the summit is just a beginning, not an end. It wants this week’s gathering to kick off a “year of action” in 2022 to make democracy “more responsive and resilient.”
There are multiple motivations for Biden’s focus on democratic government in his presidency. For one, it is reported that he has been influenced significantly by the book “How Democracies Die” by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt.
The core concept of this study is that democracies, in recent generations, haven’t generally collapsed at the hands of a military coup or an armed revolution. Rather, they have broken down gradually with public institutions and political norms weakened from within.
That is why Biden said in his address to Congress in April that “proving that democracy is durable and strong” is “the central challenge of the age.” And he is referring here to not only internationally, but also in the US too, given the soul-searching after the January assault on the US Capitol by pro-Trump supporters.
It was then that the former president disputed the legitimacy of the November 2020 election in a way that the Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance asserts undermined fundamental trust in the electoral process. On this basis, the institute made the eye-catching claim last month in its latest annual report that the US, for the first time, belongs to a list of regressive or “backsliding” democracies across the world.
So the consequences of that January debacle were not just profound domestically, but also undercut US credibility with its democracy-promotion agenda. At the time, US foes across the world, from Venezuela to Iran and Russia, relished the disorder on Capitol Hill.

There is little doubt that the debacle on Capitol Hill was watched with glee by national populists across the world.

Andrew Hammond

There is little doubt that the debacle was watched with glee by national populists across the world, including in Eastern Europe/NATO allies such as Hungary, who are less likely to feel the full force of US-style calls for respect for the rule of law and democratic norms in the future. During his period as US vice president from 2009-17, Biden had an active role in engaging Hungary and other former Eastern bloc countries, speaking against corruption and in favor of the consolidation of democratic institutions with an emphasis on the independence of the judiciary.
However, applying such pressure may no longer be as powerful. This is not just because of last January’s chaotic scenes and the much wider erosion of US democratic traditions during the Trump era, but also because of the advances made by governments in capitals such as Budapest in recent years in bringing about a disequilibrium in the rule of law and post-Cold War democratic norms.
Perceptions in some developing countries in Africa, the Americas and Asia, especially where popular anti-US sentiment is already a significant political force, could also be an impediment to Biden’s agenda. Damagingly, political discourse here still occasionally centers on recent US political disorder and the allegation that US democracy involves an element of chaos and indeed sham.
In this context there will be some Republicans, and possibly centrist Democrats too, who will prefer Biden not to overemphasize democracy-based political rhetoric. They argue, for instance, that ideas such as a summit of democracies, with a sometimes simple, binary distinction between “good” and “bad,” can sit awkwardly in a fast-changing, complex world of ambiguity and uncertainty where there is a frequent need to work with states lacking democratic traditions, including nascent superpower China, on issues such as climate change and arms control.
Critics favor instead an international approach based more on classic, quantifiable national interests, arguing other states, especially developing ones, might be more likely to aspire to emulate the US because of its material prosperity rather than appeals based on the country’s democratic virtues. The argument here is that modernization and liberalism will be an impulse toward future democratic reform and that Biden should instead put emphasis on new economic reform and infrastructure packages in Africa, Asia and the Americas though signature administration initiatives such as the Build Back Better World, which offers hundreds of billions of dollars of investment for low and middle-income countries.

  • Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.
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