The primary global geopolitical conflict of our time is not between capitalism and communism but rather between democracy and autocracy, and for the past two decades the autocrats have been winning. Democracy has been on the decline globally during the 21st century, especially in the largest democracies of the world.
Anne Applebaum, one the world’s most respected experts on the global threat of autocracy, attributes this decline to the success of global autocratic networks that have systematically worked to weaken democratic structures around the world for their own maintenance and expansion of political and economic power. Applebaum writes:
Nowadays, autocracies are run not by one bad guy, but by networks composed of kleptocratic financial structures, security services [military, police, paramilitary groups, surveillance personnel], and professional propagandists. The members of these networks are connected not only within a given country, but among many countries. The corrupt, state-controlled companies in one dictatorship do business with their counterparts in another, with the profits going to the leader and his inner circle. Oligarchs from multiple countries all use the same accountants and lawyers to hide their money in Europe and America. The police forces in one country can arm, equip, and train the police forces in another; China notoriously sells surveillance technology all around the world. Propagandists share resources and tactics – the Russian troll farms that promote Putin’s propaganda can also be used to promote the propaganda of Belarus or Venezuela. They also pound home the same messages about the weakness of democracy and the evil of America. Chinese sources are right now echoing fake Russian stories about nonexistent Ukrainian chemical weapons. Their goal is to launch false narratives and confuse audiences in the United States and other free societies. They do so in order to make us believe that there is nothing we can do in response.
The success of this global autocratic network leads us to the question, “What can be done in response to this worldwide autocratic challenge to democracy?” First, we must recognize what it is that makes our democracies so vulnerable to decline.
In both the national and global context, it is critically important to recognize that religious and racially based nationalism is an enemy of democracy. The world’s two largest democracies are in deep peril. The flames of religious nationalism fanned by former President Donald Trump and current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi are deep threats to a flourishing democracy in the United States and India. In 2016, the United States lost its status as a full democracy according to the Democracy Index and became classified as a flawed democracy. The Index currently ranks the U.S. as the 26th most democratic country in the world, and India is ranked 46th.
This peril for democracy is also affecting other counties as well. Turkey and Hungary under the rule of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Viktor Mihály Orbán respectively are two examples of countries that were not long ago touted as democracy success stories that have become democracies in name only over the last decade. Brazil has seen its democracy weakened significantly as well under the autocratic personality and practices of Jair Bolsonaro. Currently Japan is the only full democracy among the seven most populous democracies according to the Democracy Index.
It is critical that we recognize the economic factors that are a threat to a vibrant democracy. A large wealth gap between the rich and the poor weakens democracy. It is not an accident that Russia’s attempts at democracy weakened and ultimately failed as its kleptocratic oligarchy flourished. Increasing wealth inequality in the United States has weakened the confidence of citizens in the government to create a fair economic playing field, and this can lead to people becoming more easily manipulated by populist autocratic leaders who claim they alone can fix it.
It is also critical that we become more fully aware of the work being done by autocratic networks to undermine democracy around the world. It is in the interest of autocrats to weaken democracy everywhere, not only in their home countries, and democracies must be vigilant in responding to these attacks. Sometimes the attacks against democracy are violent as in Hong Kong, sometimes they are brutally violent and deadly as in what Russia is doing in Ukraine, and sometimes they are more subtle as in the attempts to influence global opinion against democracy and to sow discord among people living in democracies.
We have seen that propaganda is the tool by which autocrats control the minds and actions of their populace and by which they attempt to weaken democracy globally. When propaganda does not work; prisons, poison, violence, and even war are also options.
To address the assault on global democracy, the democracies of the world must be as committed to supporting each other as autocracies are. This requires us to learn from each other and to be cognizant of what strengthens our democratic institutions. Here in the United States, instead of making bold claims that our country is the best in the world [something we are demonstrably not], we ought to humbly learn from countries whose democracies are proving to be more robust than our own.
According to the Democracy Index the 10 strongest democracies in the world are:
- New Zealand
- Australia – tie
- Switzerland – tie
- United States
The strongest democracies of the world are mostly social democracies, and they share the following the characteristics:
The most healthy democracies in the world cultivate equality of opportunity for their citizens.
The strongest democracies in the world have progressive tax systems rather than regressive tax systems that exacerbate wealth inequality.
The seven strongest democracies in the world have criminal justice systems that focus on restorative justice more than retributive justice, and none of them practices capital punishment.
According to the World Press Freedom Index, the strongest democracies in the world have the most robust laws and systems protecting the freedom of the press.
According to Transparency International, the strongest democracies in the world have strict limitations in relation to the role of money in politics, and they regulate and create restrictions on corporate influence on political processes.
The world’s strongest democracies have systems that prevent gerrymandering that leads to the unjust weakening of political power of persons and the possibility of permanent minority rule. Many of them have proportional systems of representation rather than winner take all elections.
The world’s strongest democracies have systems that prevent the suppression of their people’s right and access to vote.
According to the World Health Organization, the strongest democracies of the world have the most equitable access to quality healthcare.
According to the World Economic Forum and the Council on Foreign Relations, the strongest democracies of the world are the least sexist in relation to the distribution of economic and political power and they have smallest gender gaps in relation to pay.
According to Global Citizens for Human Rights as reported by the World Population Review, the strongest democracies in the world have the best systems of public education.
According to the Corruption Perception Index published by transparency.org, the strongest democracies in the world are the least corrupt countries in the world.
The strongest democracies of the world are the most committed to ecological sustainability and to addressing the climate crisis with the urgency it requires because they understand that healthy ecosystems and a livable climate are in the best interest of all of their people.
And according to The World Happiness Report, the strongest democracies in the world are consistently the countries with the happiest people.
Here in the United States, if we could let go of the myth of American exceptionalism and humbly seek to improve ourselves, we would quickly see that we have much to learn from democracies that have proven to be more vibrant and robust than our own, and by learning from them we would soon find that we have so much to gain. By becoming a full democracy, we would become happier, healthier, better educated, less corrupt, more equitable, more participatory, more just, and more peaceful.
Perhaps the very best way that the United States can lead in the effort to win the global conflict between democracy and autocracy is to do everything in our power to strengthen our own democracy and become a model for how democracy contributes to sustainable human and ecological flourishing. Perhaps the best way to defeat the autocratic networks of the world is to show the world how well democracy works by doing all in our power to regain our status as a full democracy rather than remaining a flawed democracy.