Is Democracy Itself in Danger?

Saying that democracy is in trouble weeks after Donald Trump was elected president may seem like posting a sign recommending flu vaccine in the morgue. However, there are reasons beyond Trump to be concerned about the health of modern democracies.

"Yascha Mounk ... a lecturer in government at Harvard, has spent the past few years challenging one of the bedrock assumptions of Western politics: that once a country becomes a liberal democracy, it will stay that way.

"His research suggests something quite different: that liberal democracies around the world may be at serious risk of decline."

A lot of the assumptions we’ve made about democracy and its place in the world come from relatively few examples over a relatively short period of time, and those examples we do have show that democracy can be remarkably fragile, quickly remolding into authoritarian rule or military dictatorship—sometimes with no obvious crisis driving the change. 

"Their conclusion, to be published in the January issue of the Journal of Democracy, is that democracies are not as secure as people may think. Right now, Mr. Mounk said in an interview, 'the warning signs are flashing red.'"

Americans like to reassure themselves that the traditions, institutions, and laws of the United States ensure a degree of stability that other nations don’t enjoy. But traditions can be ignored. Institutions can be transformed almost overnight. Laws can be rewritten—or simply broken.

"… since 2005, Freedom House’s index has shown a decline in global freedom each year. Is that a statistical anomaly, a result of a few random events in a relatively short period of time? Or does it indicate a meaningful pattern?"

With the Freedom Index declining, Yascha Mounk helped put together another measure to look at democracies around the world and diagnose their health. During the 1980s, Venezuela was by most measures a stable democracy, but the “Mounk-Foa Test” showed that it was already displaying weaknesses that would unravel the government in the next decade. Similar signals of weakness appeared in Poland a decade ago, and the failure of democratic systems there is playing out today. In both cases doubts about democracy were rising along with populist, nationalist sentiment. And in both countries the idea that democratic institutions are inherently better than alternatives slowly eroded away.

The same kind of warning signals are showing up in the United States. Trump isn’t the first “anti-system” candidate to enjoy support. as the whole tea party movement was and is based around an attack on government institutions. But there’s another measure that is even more disturbing.

"… in a previously published paper, the researchers calculated that 43 percent of older Americans believed it was illegitimate for the military to take over if the government were incompetent or failing to do its job, but only 19 percent of millennials agreed. The same generational divide showed up in Europe, where 53 percent of older people thought a military takeover would be illegitimate, while only 36 percent of millennials agreed."

When you get to the point where a majority of the public feel that a military coup is a legitimate response to poor governance, democracy in that country is in dire straits. You live in that country.

"Of course, this is just one paper. And the researchers’ approach, like all data-driven social science, has limitations. It is only as good as the survey data that underlies it, for instance, and it does not take into account other factors that could be important to overall stability, such as economic growth. At least one prominent political scientist argues that Mr. Mounk’s and Mr. Foa’s data is not as worrying as they believe it to be."

That’s good. But … it’s doesn’t mean that the alarm bells should stop ringing.

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