What brings democracy down? - TECH BLOG

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Wednesday, 20 June 2018

What brings democracy down?

It was only 16 years ago that Francis Fukuyama wrote The End of History and the Last Man, a best selling book that celebrated the "victory" of democracy. Things look different in this part of the 21st century. What accounts for the changes?

After decades of triumph, democracy is losing ground
The world has grown far more democratic since the second world war. In 1941 there were only a dozen democracies; by 2000 only eight states had never held a serious election. But since the financial crisis of 2007-08, democracy has regressed.

Most watchdogs concur. The latest survey by Freedom House, an American think-tank, is called “Democracy in Crisis”. In 2017, for the 12th consecutive year, countries that suffered democratic setbacks outnumbered those that registered gains… According to the Democracy Index from The Economist Intelligence Unit, a sister company of The Economist, 89 countries regressed in 2017; only 27 improved…

What these indices measure is not simply democracy (ie, rule by the people), but liberal democracy (ie, with a freely elected government that also respects individual and minority rights, the rule of law and independent institutions)…

This system is now under siege. In many countries, voters are picking leaders who do not respect it, and gradually undermine it, creating what Viktor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister, proudly calls “illiberal democracy”…

The mature democracies of the West are not yet in serious danger. Donald Trump may scorn liberal norms, but America’s checks and balances are strong, and will outlast him. The real threat is to less mature democracies, where institutions are weaker and democratic habits less ingrained…

Meanwhile, China supplies an alternative model. Having grown much less dictatorial after the death of Mao Zedong, it is reconcentrating power in one man, Xi Jinping, whose term limits as president have just been removed. Some would-be autocrats cite China as evidence that authoritarianism promotes economic growth—though what they often mean is that they too want to be presidents for life.

Globally, public support for democracy remains high. A Pew poll of 38 countries found that a median of 78% of people agreed that a system where elected representatives make laws was a good one. But hefty minorities approved of non-democratic alternatives. A worrying 24% thought that military rule would be fine, and 26% liked the idea of “a strong leader” who “can make decisions without interference from parliament or the courts” (see chart 2). In general, autocracy was more popular among the less educated.

To oversimplify, a democracy typically declines like this. First, a crisis occurs and voters back a charismatic leader who promises to save them. Second, this leader finds enemies. His aim, in the words of H.L. Mencken, a 20th-century American wit, “is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” Third, he nobbles independent institutions that might get in his way. Finally, he changes the rules to make it harder for voters to dislodge him. During the first three stages, his country is still a democracy. At some point in the final stage, it ceases to be one. All four stages are worth examining…

Would-be autocrats need a positive agenda, too. Often they pose as defenders of an identity that voters hold dear, such as their nationality, culture or religion. Poland’s ruling party, for example, waxes lyrical about the country’s Catholic way of life, and lavishes subsidies on big families, who are likely to be rural and religious…

To remain in power, autocrats need to nobble independent institutions. They do this gradually and quietly. The first target is often the justice system…

The media must be nobbled, too. First, an autocrat in waiting puts his pals in charge of the public broadcaster and accuses critical outlets of spreading lies. Rather than banning independent media, as despots might have done a generation ago, he slaps spurious fines or tax bills on their owners, forcing them to sell their businesses to loyal tycoons…

Getting the security forces on side is essential. Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s former president, took their loyalty for granted and was thrown out. Other strongmen are less complacent…

With the courts, press and armed forces in his pocket, a strongman can set about neutering every other institution that counts. He can sideline parliament, redraw the electoral map and bar serious opponents from politics…

Much has been said about the failures of liberal democracies. Although they are typically rich and peaceful, many of their citizens are disgruntled. Globalisation and technology have made them fear for their jobs. The culture wars ensure that more or less everyone feels disrespected by someone. The rise of autocracy is in part a reaction to these big historical trends. But it is also because power-hungry leaders have learned how to exploit them. You cannot have autocracy without an autocrat.

Most authoritarian regimes are filthy. Of the countries and territories in the dirtiest third of Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index, not one is rated “free” by Freedom House. Of those in the cleanest 20, only Singapore and Hong Kong fail to qualify as free…

That strongmen make up their own rules is why liberal democracy is worth defending. And in the long run, it seems to deliver better material results. A study by Daron Acemoglu of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that switching from autocracy to democracy adds 20% to income per head over 30 years, though some economists dispute these findings. Guillermo Vuletin of the World Bank argues that autocrats fall when economies slump, and the democrats who succeed them take credit for the inevitable recovery.

What is certain, however, is that freely elected governments bound by the rule of law have less power to abuse citizens. “Little by little they took away our rights,” says a journalist in Diyarbakir, who was recently arrested for five innocuous tweets. “Every day I check the news to see which of my friends has been detained.”

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