Freedom House, a nonpartisan watchdog organization dedicated to the expansion of freedom and documenting the progress of democracy, recorded the 14th straight year of decline in global freedom. Individuals in 64 countries experienced deterioration in their political rights and civil liberties, while those in just 37 experienced improvements.
After World War II, American dominance was grounded in the narrative that democracy was morally superior to communism and other ideologies. The US made a policy of protecting and promoting democracy in developing nations, despite its questionable record with promoting human rights. Between 1988 and 2005, countries labeled Not Free in Freedom in the World dropped from 37 to 23 percent, while countries labeled Free grew from 36 to 46 percent. This surge of progress has more recently begun to recede. Between 2005 and 2018, Not Free countries rose to 26 percent, while Free countries declined to 44 percent. With the erosion of certain institutions in the US, democratic norms around the world are under threat.
Free and fair elections, political pluralism, minority rights, freedom of expression and belief, safeguards against corruption, fair rule of law, and personal autonomy: These are values that define a liberal democracy.
Are the threats to democracy an anomaly, or part of a larger trend? Given many current world leaders’ increasing accumulation and consolidation of executive power, repression of dissent particularly in the form of media censorship, and appeals to populist and nationalist sentiments, the pattern is ominously consistent: Democracy is on the defensive.
Consolidation of Executive Power
An autocrat is a ruler who governs with absolute power. The separation of powers—the executive, judicial, and legislative—in a democracy acts as a crucial safeguard against unbridled and unchallenged power in an executive leader.
The elected leaders of the world’s two largest democracies—the United States and India—have routinely shown disdain for the democratic principle of the separation of powers, and have expanded the executive at the expense of others.
“I have an Article II, where I have the right to do whatever I want as president,” President Trump said while addressing a Teen Student Action Summit. The US Congress seems to have lost power over President Trump, as he chose to ignore a Senate-approved aid package to Ukraine. This set a dangerous precedent, suggesting that a president can ignore Congressional decisions without consequence. Additionally, Trump has neglected to submit nominees to White House positions to the Senate for consideration, and has instead opted for indefinite temporary appointees in key posts.
Another troubling fact is that expanded executive privileges tend to persist. Franklin Roosevelt seized new power during WWII and under the New Deal, when he infamously tried to pack the Supreme Court to continue advancing his policies, and when that failed the judges were more agreeable. Presidents Bush and Obama pushed the limits in terms of national security interests, increasing interrogation techniques, surveillance, and extrajudicial measures.
However, Trump’s unprecedented expansion of executive powers prioritizes his own self-preservation, as evidenced by his rejection of subpoenas and intimation that he might try to pardon himself. His presidency has shown that democratic norms can be flimsy even in the most stable of world democracies.
Across the globe, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also been strengthening his executive branch by stripping the autonomy of the Indian Supreme Court and questioning their authority. A federal body now oversees appointments, when the Court had previously decided internally. He has also revoked the autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir, the only Muslim- majority state, violently cracked down on protests, and jeopardized citizenship for Muslims across the country.
Additionally, as the Covid-19 pandemic brings ordinary life to a staggering halt, world leaders are increasingly consolidating authority over their citizens and governments. In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has authorized his country’s security agency to track citizens using cellular data software developed for intelligence purposes. By tracking movements, the government can imprison people who defy orders for up to six months. In the UK, a new bill rushed through Parliament gives the government the power to suspend public gatherings (including protests), close travel ports, and detain and isolate people indefinitely. While these measures claim to be temporary, walking back executive powers is historically difficult. These advancements are troubling for the state of democracy.
Repression of Dissent
“Let the people know the facts, and the country will be safe,” said Abraham Lincoln about a self-governing society. The role of an independent media in democracy is to inform the public and create a democratic culture that allows an open exchange of debate and criticism. They serve as oversight of government officials and allow for political deliberation. As democracy rests on the notion that people have the right to elect representatives, it cannot exist without a freedom of expression and an informed public.
Attacks on dissidents have also risen amongst populist leaders in democratic countries that have previously had an independent press. In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has financially disenfranchised independent media, as their newspapers cannot survive without state advertising. A new media legislation passed in the Fidesz-dominated parliament requires media outlets to register with the state and make sure that their output is “balanced” and relevant to Hungarian citizens. All news production and state media have been consolidated into the Media Services and Support Trust Fund (MTVA), overseen by the Media Council, appointed by the Fidesz- dominated parliament. Even more troubling is the fact that the EU, despite identifying Orban’s actions as a “threat to media pluralism,” have declined moving forward with investigation in fear of setting a precedent for investigations into member countries’ domestic affairs.
Global attacks on independent media deemed “fake news” by Trump have spread rampantly as well. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has accused the media of lying about Amazon fires and has withheld government advertising funds for outlets publishing “fake news.” Austria’s new right-wing government has put pressure on public broadcasters to support their party. In Turkey, criminal cases for “insulting the president” led to 6,000 prosecutions and continued purges of state institutions include arrests of academics and civil society members.
Appeals to Populist and Nationalist Sentiments
Antiliberal, far-right populist movements that appeal to nationalist and nativist sentiments have been most successful in the political sphere. Nativism tends to define citizenship and nationality by racial, ethnic, or religious terms rather than law, and can lead to human rights abuses and discrimination against minorities.
These appeals have resulted in punitive approaches to immigration, with the United States almost eliminating the right to seek asylum, separating families, and detaining migrants in inhumane facilities and conditions. The far-right Spanish nationalist party Vox advocates restrictions on immigration and Islam, and Australia’s migration law has resulted in confinement of seaborne migrants on the island of Nauru.
In India, Modi has pursued a hardline Hindu religious policy that has significantly changed the secular nation. The annulment of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, the only Muslim-majority territory, the enforcement of enrollment in a citizen’s registry requiring proof of citizenship, and the establishment of the Citizenship Amendment Law, leaving Muslims open to persecution, are gravely threatening the secular nature of the political system.
Can democracy be saved?
Populists are resilient, and they tend to stay in power longer (on average, twice as long as their non-populist counterparts). If the United States can throw a populist out of office at the end of his first term, it would be a rare occurrence among democracies, and be a huge step in re-establishing the US as a force for democracy. Should Trump be voted out of office, a Democratic administration in the United States will lend its hand to liberalism against nativism and restrain the excess of authoritarian leaders. The path forward wouldn’t be easy, as newer democracies aren’t as resilient to rapid political swings. Citizens of populist countries are continuously engaging in protest, as they need to do, in order to continue demanding the protection of democratic values at home and abroad.
Image: Flickr (justgrimes)