4 July 2018
When countries in Eastern Europe broke from the Soviet bloc thirty years ago, their next step seemed obvious: they began turning into Western-looking liberal democracies.
Back then, this shift seemed inevitable.
“What everybody said they wanted in 1989 was ‘we want to be normal’,” the journalist Anne Appelbaum noted recently. “And ‘normal’ meant Western-style European democracy.”
Today, liberal democracy no longer appears to be the default condition to which all nations aspire. Instead, countries in Eastern Europe and across the world have been experiencing nativist outbreaks and moving towards authoritarianism or illiberalism.
The list of examples is growing: Vladimir Putin’s aggressive rule in Russia, the rise of Donald Trump, the authoritarian tilts of Recep Erdoğan in Turkey and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. Embodying this shift, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán infamously went from denouncing communism and calling for free elections as a young lawyer in the 1980s to becoming a nationalist leader who presents himself as the saviour of Christian Hungary and the proud creator of an “illiberal democracy”.
The global assault on liberal democracy is worrying, and it is worth exploring its causes, but claims that it is dead or failed are premature. Opinion surveys have shown that democracy remains the favoured form of government around the world and that most people oppose rule by a strong leader or the military. In Australia, polling released by the Lowy Institute last month found that 62 per cent of people see democracy as the preferred form of government, a level that has remained remarkably consistent over time. Still, this left 35 per cent who believe non-democratic government can be desirable, and 3 per cent who said they did not know.
Many of the factors leading nations to move away from liberalism are local. Orbán, for instance, has rallied against the European Union but benefited politically from the exodus of large numbers of educated, liberal-minded Hungarians, who have left for better jobs and wages in Western Europe. And there have been movements away from authoritarianism, such as in Malaysia, where the corrupt regime of Najib Razak, whose party had ruled for sixty years, was recently defeated (though the ruling coalition is unlikely to undo the country’s pro-Malay racial discrimination).
In the countries where liberal democracy is clearly in retreat, the situation is partly due to global causes. It is important to attempt to understand these various factors because they may suggest how to combat the illiberal turn and may indicate whether democracies in other countries, such as Australia, are at risk.
First, there have been two significant social developments that have been feeding populism and crackdowns on civil rights everywhere: mass migration and growing inequality. According to the United Nations, there are now 68.5 million people around the world who have been forced to leave their homes, up from 42 million a decade ago. This is a global crisis, but it is also political fodder for advocates of staunchly nationalist responses. Separately, inequality has been rising in most countries since 1980, especially in fast-growing economies. This has enabled populist pleas to the disaffected – and the problem may worsen as advances in artificial intelligence and robotics threaten jobs.
Second, technological changes, including the rise of social media, have made it easier to tamper with elections and spread propaganda. Authoritarian leaders increasingly prefer to allow the public to vote, but seek to unfairly sway the outcome. In a notable instance of such “fake democracy”, Azerbaijan unveiled a new vote-tracking phone app but accidentally published the poll results on the app the day before the vote was held.
Third, liberal democracy has also come under pressure because the United States – the country that has been its strongest champion – has been losing its allure over the last two decades. The war in Iraq, the global financial crisis, the political paralysis in Washington and the election of Trump have taken some of the glow from America’s status as, in Ronald Reagan’s words, “a shining city upon a hill whose beacon light guides freedom-loving people everywhere”.
Meanwhile, China has undergone an economic miracle despite its one-party rule and appears to be disproving the assumption that wealth and a growing middle class will inevitably lead to political liberalisation.
It is not clear whether China will become a political role model for others. Experiments with authoritarianism have often proved disastrous, such as in Zimbabwe and Venezuela. But China’s rise makes it harder for the United States to showcase its democratic values, especially under Trump. In any case, the United States, and all democracies, have always been flawed: they may not hope to become shining beacons, but they could at least aspire to return to a state of normality.