Stop Projecting America’s Democratic Decline onto the World

Washington’s institutions are faring far worse than those of its peers.

Thomas Carothers and Benjamin Press | 23 October 2022
No image

For a long time, American political observers saw the United States as a global democratic exemplar. In recent years, however, they have confronted the reality that their country has become yet another case of democratic trouble in a world already rife with it. Many see parallels between the United States’ struggles and those of other countries, from the Philippines and India to Hungary and Brazil, which faces a high-stakes presidential runoff election this month that has drawn comparisons to the 2020 U.S. race between then-candidates Donald Trump and Joe Biden.

But in crafting these analogies, observers are clinging to U.S. hubris—albeit in a new form. They are projecting the United States’ democratic woes onto the world, assuming that what has been happening elsewhere is a variation of what is happening at home. While the adage that “misery loves company” is understandable as an emotional response, it is not a helpful approach to analyzing global politics. Overestimating the similarities between U.S. political dynamics and those of other troubled democracies distorts our understanding of democratic backsliding—and makes it more difficult to fight.

To start, American observers agonizing about the United States’ democratic woes tend to see democratic decline wherever they look. This view does not align with global realities. Certain negative trends—like citizen alienation from mainstream parties and the intensification of exclusionary, majoritarian politics—are affecting democracies almost everywhere. But actual backsliding—serious normative and institutional erosion than risks undercutting the whole democratic system—is not.

In a new study we authored on democratic backsliding, we evaluated data from three major democracy indexes to identify which countries have undergone serious democratic erosion in the past 15 years. We found that backsliding has occurred in over two dozen countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East as well as in the former Eastern Bloc and Soviet Union. With the notable exception of the United States, however, backsliding has not affected any long-established peer democracies, such as those in Canada; Northern, Western, and Southern Europe; East Asia; and Oceania.

Many of these countries have experienced troubling illiberal tremors in recent years, including the rise of anti-systemic political figures and parties on the far right. But their overall democratic systems remain intact. None show the signs of potential systemic failure that haunt the current U.S. landscape: rampant election denialism, an insurrection incited by a sitting president, and extreme political polarization laced with rising political violence.

For example, while the United Kingdom has gone through a politically turbulent time during the Brexit referendum and its aftermath, the country’s core institutions and processes of democratic life remain in place. Some observers feared that Greek democracy would snap under the pressure of the debt crisis that gripped the country after the eurozone crisis, yet it survived. In 2013, South Korea elected a president—Park Geun-hye—who turned out to be corrupt and brought on a crisis of public confidence in the presidency, but the political system in Seoul self-corrected, and democracy continued.

Another potentially troubling sign is that far-right parties have gained ground across Northern, Western, and Southern Europe in recent years. In just the past two months, they surged in Sweden’s elections and triumphed in Italy’s. Yet while these parties push for significant restrictions on migration, the abridgement of LGBTQ rights, and other anti-progressive measures, they do not represent a clear and present danger to the overall survival of democracy in these countries. Even if they wanted to assault democratic institutions—and there is little indication they do—it is impossible to see how either the Sweden Democrats or the Brothers of Italy could marshal the clout needed to sway reluctant coalition partners and overcome durable norms, entrenched bureaucracies, and external pressure to institute authoritarian projects. Hard as this may be for depressed American observers to accept, the story in the United States’ peer democracies of the past two decades—while not cheerful—is more about democratic resilience in the face of economic and sociocultural pressures than democratic regression.

A second unhelpful assumption is that the political dynamics corroding U.S. democracy are also fueling democratic decline everywhere else. This has generated an overemphasis on populism and democracy’s perceived failure to deliver as major drivers of the global democratic recession.

Trump’s populist political style—which claims to pit a virtuous people against a corrupt elite—has significant rhetorical similarities with some anti-democratic leaders elsewhere, such as former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. But observers’ obsessive focus on populism has overshadowed the fact that many cases of democratic backsliding are driven by leaders who do not fit the populist mold.

Nigeria’s democratic decay, for example, is a result of many factors but not populism; a less populist figure than taciturn President Muhammadu Buhari would be hard to find. The man who has led Nicaragua’s authoritarian turn, President Daniel Ortega, has been a mainstay of Nicaraguan politics for more than 30 years. While Ortega may occasionally invoke populist rhetoric, he is—at his core—a machine politics autocrat parlaying various alliances of convenience with elites in service of his dictatorial aspirations. Tunisia’s democratic reversal over the past year and a half—which came in the form of a presidential self-coup and was solidified via a hastily organized constitutional referendum—has been led by an uncharismatic, quasi-legalistic technocrat, President Kais Saied. And Benin’s democratic reversal has been driven by one of the richest men in the country and arguably the most prominent member of its elite: President Patrice Talon.

Related to U.S. observers’ overemphasis on populism is the commonly heard notion that democracy is under strain because it is failing to deliver socioeconomic goods for its citizens. In this view, democratic politics often proves unable to tackle severe inequality or poor growth and thereby causes citizens to lose faith in democracy and embrace undemocratic alternatives. This is, at best, a very partial explanation of the global anti-democratic trend; it’s not even clear that it is a good explanation of the United States’ democratic troubles. A lively debate exists among American political experts about the core drivers of support for the anti-democratic U.S. right, with one side insistent that sociocultural issues—such as immigration, racial identity, and LGBTQ rights—are more widely powerful as a driver than bread-and-butter economic issues.

But the thesis certainly doesn’t hold up abroad. In many cases, economic growth was stable and, in some cases, increasing in the runup to backsliding. Poland had a remarkable run of economic success before the Law and Justice party came to power in 2015, having built one of Europe’s most diversified economies and weathering the Great Recession with relative ease. Tanzania showed similarly high growth rates in the years before its backsliding under former President John Magufuli, who was elected in 2015. So too did the Philippines, which posted especially strong growth in the decade before Duterte’s 2016 election. The year prior, more than 80 percent of Filipinos stated that they were satisfied with how democracy was performing.

Similar realities exist if one shifts the lens from growth to inequality. In Brazil, for example, inequality fell substantially during the decade before Bolsonaro’s election in 2018—including under the presidency of his now-election rival Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Inequality declined in Serbia before its backsliding under President Aleksandar Vucic began in 2014, just as it did in Hungary prior to Fidesz’s 2010 surge. Hungary, Poland, and Serbia were all in the bottom quarter of global inequality rankings prior to backsliding.

A third misperception is that powerful authoritarian countries, especially Russia and China, are driving the global democratic recession. For many U.S. policymakers and experts, the struggle for democracy globally is inextricably linked with the larger geopolitical battle between the United States and adversaries like Russia and China. Biden’s framing of a global contest between democracy and autocracy has found wide resonance in U.S. circles, especially as Russia escalates its war in Ukraine and China ratchets up tensions with Taiwan. The widespread publicity of Russian interference in the 2016 and 2020 U.S. presidential elections only exacerbated these concerns about autocratic powers’ anti-democratic efforts.

Russia’s and China’s growing transnational assertiveness are unquestionably hurting democracy’s global fortunes. Beijing and Moscow have spread disinformation in dozens of countries; helped autocrats crack down on pro-democratic movements in places like Belarus, Myanmar, and Venezuela; and chipped away at global norms for democracy and human rights in multilateral forums. Yet as a sweeping causal explanation of global democratic backsliding, the Russia-China factor falls short.

Take India. The country’s democratic decay has been driven by Modi and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has advanced a Hindu nationalist vision that has curtailed minority rights and sociopolitical equality. But despite bordering China and having deep ties with Russia, India’s democratic deterioration is a domestic story, stemming from the BJP’s success in reframing politics around a supposed struggle between the country’s Hindu majority and Muslim minority. The same is true of Turkey. The country’s democratic slide is rooted in domestic tensions over its unique brand of top-down secularism that remained latent for decades before a determined, undemocratic leader set about exploiting them.

Domestic factors are also central to other backsliding cases, such as Benin, Brazil, El Salvador, Poland, and Tunisia. Some illiberal leaders cultivate friendships with Russia, China, or other autocratic powers to gain economic support and diplomatic ties that help make up for declining support from Western democracies. Yet even when such friendships are very important to illiberal leaders, they are not determinants of the success of the anti-democratic leaders in question. Hungary’s Orban, for example, has pursued close ties with Russia—but his autocratic push is rooted far more in his shrewd ability to leverage domestic sociopolitical divides than Russian or Chinese support.

While some of the United States’ democratic struggles resonate with those of other countries, harping on perceived commonalities is counterproductive. Overstating the scope of democratic backsliding worldwide underestimates what an outlier the United States is relative to its peers. Only by embracing the diverse and context-specific roots of backsliding in different national contexts will U.S. actors accurately grasp the realities of global democratic backsliding and craft effective strategies to help blunt or even reverse it.

Thomas Carothers is a senior fellow and co-director of the Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 

Benjamin Press is a research assistant in the Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 

This article was originally published on Foreign Policy.   
Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.