Since the publication of the Journal of Democracy began in 1990, the political climate has shifted from one of democratic gains and optimism to what Larry Diamond labels a “democratic recession.” Underlying these changes has been a reorientation of the major axis of political polarization, from a left-right divide defined largely in economic terms toward a politics based on identity. In a second major shift, technological development has had unexpected effects—including that of facilitating the rise of identity-based social fragmentation. The environment for democracy has been further transformed by other slow-moving changes, among them the shift toward neoliberal economic policies, the legacy of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and lowered expectations regarding democratic transitions. Sustaining democracy will require rebuilding the legitimate authority of the institutions of liberal democracy, while resisting those powers that aspire to make nondemocratic institutions central.
What has changed in world politics over the thirty years since the Journal of Democracy published its inaugural issue in January 1990, and how has the Journal changed in response?
First, to get the obvious out of the way, we are now living in a political climate very different from the one that existed in 1990. The Journal of Democracy began publication just past the midpoint of what Samuel P. Huntington called the “third wave” of democratization. The Berlin Wall had just been torn down, and communist regimes had begun collapsing across Central and Eastern Europe—the most dramatic advance for democracy during the entire thirty-year period. Today, by contrast, we are living in what Larry Diamond labels a “democratic recession,” with reason to worry that it could turn into a full-scale depression.1 Authoritarian great powers such as Russia and the People’s Republic of China are openly challenging the Western liberal-democratic model, even as populists and nationalists launch attacks on that model from within the West itself. These setbacks have occurred not only in peripheral democracies, but in the very countries that led the democratic revolution, the United States and Britain.
The pages of the Journal have reflected this shift, going from cautious optimism to a focus on the different routes to democratic transition, to skepticism about whether “transition” was an adequate concept to capture what was happening, and then to a far more defensive concern with new and emerging threats to democracy. In recent years, this analysis has gingerly begun to include the threats emanating from within what had been considered “consolidated” democracies, as well as the new forms of “sharp power” that authoritarian regimes are deploying to undermine liberal-democratic norms and regimes around the world.2 [End Page 11]
Underlying these changes has been a reorientation of the major axis of political polarization. In the twentieth century, politics was characterized by an ideological divide between a left and a right defined largely in economic terms, with the former demanding greater socioeconomic equality and a redistributive state, while the latter favored individual freedom and strong economic growth. Today the axis is shifting toward a politics based on identity. As part of this change, both the left and the right are redefining their own objectives.3
The psychological basis of identity politics lies in the feelings of humans that they possess an inner worth or dignity which the society around them is failing to recognize. The underappreciated identity may be unique to an individual, but more often it flows from membership in a group, particularly one that has suffered some form of marginalization or disrespect. Identity is intimately linked to emotions of pride, anger, and resentment based on the kind of recognition that one receives (or does not receive). Although perceived economic injustices may stimulate the demand for recognition, this drive is distinct from the material motives that impel homo economicus, and can often lead to actions that run counter to economic self-interest conventionally understood. Thus, for example, many who voted “Leave” in the Brexit referendum understood that Britain might suffer economically after parting ways with the EU, but judged this a price worth paying to restore British national identity. While today’s nationalists and Islamists mobilize around different issues, they hold in common a feeling that members of their groups have been marginalized, and both demand respect from global society.
This demand for dignity motivates populist voters in Hungary and Poland, who feel that their national identities are under threat from immigration and liberal social values, much as it motivates supporters of Brexit in Britain and of Donald Trump in the United States. But it also characterizes the Hindu-nationalist supporters of Narendra Modi in India, who want to base Indian national identity on Hinduism, or the militant Buddhists in Burma and Sri Lanka who feel that their nations’ religious identities are under threat.
The shift from economics to identity has also led to a reordering of left and right in the developed democracies. While the twentieth-century left, whether communist, socialist, or social-democratic, promoted the interests of the broad working class, today’s left is more likely to champion specific identity groups such as racial minorities, [End Page 12] immigrants, women, people with disabilities, sexual minorities, indigenous peoples, and so forth. An accompanying idea is that since each of these groups was marginalized in specific ways, remedies need to be tailored to each group. Over time, these group identities have often come to be seen as essential characteristics of their members, defining them at the expense of their individual identities. This ideological shift has had political consequences: Rather than focusing on the old working class and its trade unions (the great majority of whose members tended to belong to the dominant ethnic or racial group), leftist parties in the United States and other developed democracies now see themselves as representing the interests of various minorities. An upshot of this drift away from the old working class has been the movement of voters belonging to that class away from traditional left-wing parties and toward newer populist forces.
A similar transformation has been occurring on the right. Twentieth-century conservative parties defended free markets and individual rights, often with the backing of business interests that supported free trade and welcomed immigrants. That old right is now being displaced by one that emphasizes a traditional kind of ethnically based national identity and worries that “our country” is being taken over by a cabal of immigrants, foreign competitors, and elites who are complicit in the theft. Hence Prime Minister Viktor Orbán speaks explicitly about Hungarian national identity being based on Hungarian ethnicity, and endorses an “illiberal democracy” in which democratic majorities do not necessarily feel themselves bound to respect universal human rights.
This emerging new type of conservatism also includes an international dimension that Russia has played a role in shaping.4 It is based on a defense of traditional national values and culture, and on opposition to liberal values such as rights for sexual minorities and openness to immigration. There is a deep and growing connection between Russia and parts of the Christian right in the United States, based on common opposition to gay marriage and on Vladimir Putin’s promotion of Russia as a Christian country. Russia in recent years has lent moral and financial support to European populists as well, including Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (formerly the National Front) in France and Matteo Salvini’s Lega in Italy.
When Putin first came to power in 2000 and started drifting away from the United States and Europe, he seemed to be in search of an ideology that would justify his opposition to Western policies. He experimented with ideas such as Vladislav Surkov’s “sovereign democracy,” but these never really caught on, and Putin now seems to have found a role as the mentor of populist conservatives across the democratic world. It is unclear how seriously Putin himself takes any of these ideas, but they suit his foreign-policy purposes by helping to weaken the elites in countries that he regards as rivals.
The sociology of polarization has also been changing. Jonathan Rodden [End Page 13] has shown that the single most powerful correlate of populist voting both in the United States and in Europe is low population density.5 The global economy has been concentrating work and opportunity in ever-larger cities. These tend to produce more liberal voters, while populists are spread out in second- or third-tier towns and villages and in rural areas. Such voters tend to be older and less mobile, with fewer years of formal schooling. Population density has come to reflect not just economic opportunity, but cultural values as well.
Technology: From Friend to Foe?
The second major shift that has occurred in the thirty years of the Journal concerns the role of technology. This is a development not unrelated to the rise of identity as the major axis of world politics. The 1990s saw the birth of the global internet, which was almost universally touted at that time as offering help and support to aspiring democrats worldwide. The internet’s model for distributed computing and communications seemed bound to upend existing authoritarian hierarchies and to spread information—and thus power—to a much broader range of people. And so it did: The “color revolutions” in the postcommunist world and uprisings such as those of the Arab Spring all took advantage of the ability of activists to organize spontaneously using new horizontal forms of communication.
Unfortunately, technological development did not stop there, and the internet’s decentralization did not last. Network externalities and the rise of social media gave tremendous advantages to early movers such as Google and Facebook, which began to exercise monopolistic control over the internet. Authoritarian rulers in Beijing and Moscow understood the threat that a decentralized internet posed to them, and they learned how to reshape it for their own purposes. Today, the global internet has been bifurcated into a closed internet controlled by China and a more open internet operated by a handful of private companies in the United States. The Chinese internet is deliberately managed with the goal of supporting China’s authoritarian government, while the Western internet has been operated to serve the interests of the private companies that control it. The latter are not in principle opposed to democracy, but their self-interest has allowed them to be used by antidemocratic actors who have discovered that conspiracy stories and fabricated information often are rewarded with more clicks than the truth receives. Among the hierarchies disrupted by the internet was the one formed by the “legacy media” in democratic countries—media organizations working in print, radio, and television that had over time developed journalistic standards for vetting and verifying information. The rise of Google and Facebook undermined the old media’s business model, and today it is not clear what economic incentives there are to provide reliable news to broad democratic publics.
The tendency of the new identity politics in both its leftist and rightist [End Page 14] varieties has been to fragment societies into ever smaller identity groups. In many ways, social media are perfectly suited to facilitate this decomposition of society. They permit like-minded individuals to find one another, not just in their own nations but around the world, while simultaneously shutting out criticism and disagreement. On the left, sexual politics and “intersectionality” have led to the proliferation of distinct and sometimes mutually hostile identities, while on the right we have discovered the existence of communities such as “incels” (involuntarily celibate males) and of new vocabularies and symbols by which white nationalists can identify one another. Promoting all this have been external actors such as Russia, which seems less interested in recommending its own political model than in heightening distrust and division within Western societies.
It would be wrong, however, to attribute growing social fragmentation simply to the rise of the internet, or to Russian policy. The decline in the authority of traditional social institutions began before the year 1990 and has been growing ever since. These institutions consist not just of governments, but the full range of mediating social structures, including political parties, business corporations, labor unions, churches, families, media outlets, voluntary organizations, and the like. This phenomenon was first noted in the Journal of Democracy by Robert D. Putnam, who published his widely read “Bowling Alone” essay in these pages in 1995.6 Survey data capture the decline as well, showing how trust in these institutions has fallen over time. While the declines vary by institution and by country, the overall shrinkage in trust is strikingly cross-national—it appears in place after place throughout the democratic world.7
This weakening of trust in mediating institutions is in part a byproduct of many of the good things that are happening around the world. Populations are better educated than they were a few decades ago, which inclines people to think for themselves and not simply to defer to traditional sources of authority. There is much more transparency in the operations of our social institutions than there used to be, not just because of the internet, but because modern publics demand it. For example, it is very unlikely that sexual predation by Catholic priests is a new phenomenon; nor is sexual assault by powerful men in large organizations something that arose only in the twenty-first century. These have become major issues because transparency norms have changed. More information is available today, and people are less willing to excuse abuses or to cover up damaging material for the sake of the greater good.
When Putnam noted that there had been a long-term decline in voluntary associations in the United States, critics pointed out that U.S. society had also become much more diverse since the 1950s. Women and racial minorities had been entering workplaces and organizations from which they had previously been excluded. The “old-boy networks” that had been highly homogenous in racial, gender, and religious terms engendered high levels of trust, but at the expense of excluding important parts of the population. [End Page 15] The decline of trust in institutions is thus in part a result of modern democratic societies having grown more inclusive and socially just.
The early apostles of the information revolution believed that it would act as a force for democracy partly because they understood that the new technologies would have a direct impact at the level of the individual. In the 1980s, the advent of the desktop personal computer vastly multiplied the number of people who could have computing power at their fingertips. The 1990s saw the rise of universal internet connections, while the 2000s put all this together in the portable and ubiquitous form of the smartphone.
More recent technological developments, however, have shifted power back in a more centralized direction. While artificial intelligence and machine learning can be embedded in personal devices—and in fact depend on the vast troves of information captured by such devices—individuals cannot easily master these technologies, as they did the personal computer. Indeed, the datasets that allow machines to learn are so big that only large companies, or in some cases large countries, can make full use of them. The kind of surveillance system being created today in China—which will link hundreds of millions of sensors to large-scale machine learning—is feasible primarily in authoritarian political systems.
Even in the most democratic societies, moreover, the emerging “internet of things” is gathering mind-boggling mountains of information whose uses will be even more opaque to individual users than is the case with today’s internet. Large and technically adept organizations, whether governments or private companies, can exploit “big data,” however—and are already beginning to do so. None of this is likely to bode well for democratic empowerment, though we are way too early in these developments to predict their political consequences.
It would be wrong to focus solely on threats to democracy posed by the internet and social media. There has been a big shift in legacy media as well. Their increasing ownership by oligarchs has supported the rise of populist nationalism: In a pattern pioneered by Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, oligarchs have purchased legacy-media outlets and then used their ownership to promote their political careers. Once in office, such oligarchs can use political influence to protect their personal business interests. In Ukraine, every major television channel is connected to one of the half-dozen oligarchs who dominate the economy; in Hungary, the mainstream media are now controlled by wealthy businessmen tied to Orbán’s ruling Fidesz party.
Neoliberalism and Its Discontents
A number of other slow-moving changes have shifted the environment in which democracy exists. The first has to do with economics. The early 1990s marked the apogee of the free-market revolution that had been unleashed a decade before by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.8 In reaction to the stagflation of the 1970s, the intellectual framework within [End Page 16] which elites thought about economic policy was revised by scholars such as Milton Friedman, Gary Becker, George Stigler, Robert Lucas, Jr., and others. These thinkers provided a high-brow intellectual framework that essentially endorsed Ronald Reagan’s quip, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.'” The once-dominant Keynesian economics had seen a helpful role for governments in countering business cycles. Keynesianism was replaced by strict monetarism and an effort to reduce government intervention across the board through tax cuts, deregulation, privatization, tariff reduction, and a relaxed attitude toward corporate scale—the famous “Washington Consensus.”
This shift toward what today is derided as “neoliberalism” permitted the emergence of new global powers such as China and India, lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, and unleashed powerful entrepreneurial forces in the United States and other countries. But it had several baleful consequences in the years after 1990. The first was exacerbating the income inequality that had been growing since the 1960s, with enormous wealth becoming concentrated in the hands of a very small elite across the world. The second was the financialization of wealth, and the destabilization of the financial sector as a consequence of its deregulation, leading to major financial crises in Latin America, East Asia, the United States, and the Eurozone. The subprime-lending crisis of 2008 and the euro crisis of 2010 did much to discredit the elites who had promoted the liberal international order, thereby setting the stage for populism’s rise in the succeeding decade.
The 1991 collapse of the former Soviet Union had seemed to validate the views of the extreme free-market advocates. “Dizzy with success” (as Stalin would say), they forgot that in a well-functioning market economy the state continues to play vital roles by enforcing the rule of law, maintaining political stability, and regulating economic activity. The advice coming out of Western capitals in the early 1990s was to deregulate and privatize as rapidly as possible, even where state weakness was extreme. The results in such cases were economic chaos, deepening poverty, and the rise of a class of oligarchs who had figured out how to game the rapidly evolving situation. These outcomes became associated in the minds of many in the region with democracy itself, paving the way for the rise of Putin and other strongmen in the following decade.
Every generation’s mental framework is shaped by the collective experiences that mark its members’ formative years. For people who lived through the Cold War and its finale, the word “socialism” had very negative connotations. For people born after 1990, it is neoliberalism and its associated policies of fiscal austerity, privatization, and free trade that have taken on a negative valence. The popularity of socialism among progressive members of the “millennial” generation in the United States and the hostility to the EU professed by young Central and East Europeans are byproducts of this kind of generational forgetting. [End Page 17]
Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes have suggested that there was an even deeper issue here. The communist regimes of Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union pretended that they had solved the problem of nationalism, but in fact they had simply swept it under the rug. After 1945, none of these regimes had made investments in trying to persuade the postwar generation of the evils of nationalism, as the West Germans had done with their own young people. Indeed, for many in the region nationalism and national identity came to have positive meanings, since communist regimes had denied and tried to suppress them. As a result, after 1989-91, the former “captive nations” embraced the democratic part of liberal democracy, but not necessarily the liberal part—that is, the idea that diverse peoples can live peacefully together under “equal laws, equally applied.” The result was the emergence of illiberal democracy in places such as Hungary and Poland.9
In the former Soviet Union, meanwhile, U.S. economic policy had a negative effect on democratic prospects that has not been fully acknowledged to this day. But U.S. policy mistakes harmed democracy’s outlook in other respects as well. The years from 1991 to 2008 were an extraordinary period of U.S. political and military hegemony, when Washington’s military budget outpaced the total defense spending of the rest of the world combined, and the United States faced no “peer competitor” that could counterbalance U.S. power. The relatively easy victory won by the U.S.-led coalition in the 1991 Gulf War convinced U.S. policy makers that they had a unique instrument for reshaping global politics. This led to a second enormous policy blunder, which was the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Fearing what turned out to be nonexistent Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, the George W. Bush administration toppled Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship and pursued a broader “Freedom Agenda” that sought to remake the politics of the entire Middle East. This move had a number of unanticipated long-term consequences: The invasion shifted the power balance in the region in favor of the Islamic Republic of Iran and its Shia allies; this led to continuing instability in Iraq and the rise of a new terrorist group, the Islamic State; and it put severe strains on the Western alliance while also discrediting the British government, which had chosen to stand with Washington. Finally, in the minds of many around the world, the invasion and occupation of Iraq created an association between democracy promotion and the unilateral use of U.S. military power.
The Iraq invasion together with the prolonged war in Afghanistan had a major impact on how the people of the United States view their relationship with the outside world. Despite their many differences, Barack Obama and Donald Trump share a belief that the United States should reduce its presence in the Middle East and avoid intervention (particularly for humanitarian purposes) when U.S. interests are not heavily engaged. All this has led to increased levels of cynicism on the part of younger Americans concerning prospects for successful democracy promotion. [End Page 18]
Another long-term shift has lowered expectations regarding democratic transitions. The combined experiences of the former communist world and the Middle East have fortunately induced a greater degree of realism in U.S. views of democracy promotion (Europeans generally were much more skeptical to begin with). The seemingly rapid transition to liberal democracy of countries such as Hungary and Poland after the sudden collapse of communism was in retrospect a highly contingent event from which many in the United States drew the wrong lesson. In 2005, George W. Bush’s second inaugural address asserted the universality of democratic rights and aspirations, and dedicated the United States to the task of ending tyranny around the world—a task, Bush said, whose accomplishment would also ensure U.S. national security. Overlooked amid the focus on ending tyranny was the sheer difficulty of building a sustainable liberal democracy amid the wreckage that tyranny leaves behind.
Democracy and State Capacity
The difficulty of building democracy was driven home in the most painful possible way by Iraq. Saddam Hussein’s removal did not lead to joyous crowds celebrating their liberation (as in Central and Eastern Europe), but rather to years of violence and chaos as the U.S. occupation sought to rebuild an Iraqi state. The huge literature on democratic transitions, much of it published in the Journal of Democracy, focused on democratic institutions such as elections, electoral rules, parties, legislatures, and the like, or to a lesser extent on key building blocks of liberalism such as constitutions and legal codes.
These institutions are designed to constrain power even as they legitimize it—but they are predicated on the raw fact that power exists in the first place, in the form of a state deploying a monopoly of legitimate coercion throughout a given territory. In Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. foreign policy confronted the need to build such states before it could even begin the task of building democracy. When it comes to the problem of state-building, however, contemporary political science has little to say that is useful. The irony is that even in Hungary and Poland, what had seemed in the early 2000s to be successful transitions to consolidated liberal democracy have turned out to be much less than that.
As a result, U.S. policy has become far more cautious—and rightly so—about the ability of outside powers to control what happens the day after the dictator departs. The last instance of this type of intervention was NATO’s action in Libya in 2011; Obama drew from this experience the lesson that he should avoid significant military action in Syria.
The transitions literature, following a shifting policy agenda, has moved from a heavy focus on democratic institutions to the question of state capacity, and, as part of that, to reflections on the problem of corruption and what to do about it. Afghanistan and Iraq are extreme [End Page 19] examples of state weakness, but there was a growing recognition that many developing countries with stable governments nonetheless suffered from weak state capacity and high levels of corruption. In some cases, as in Russia, the corruption was organized from the top and became the basis of state power. In other cases, such as in Brazil and Mexico, corruption has coexisted with functioning democratic institutions, but has delegitimized elected leaders. As a consequence, each of these two Latin American countries is now led by a populist president (a rightist one in Brazil and a leftist one in Mexico).
What needs further investigation is the relationship between democracy, on the one hand, and the problem of corruption and state capacity on the other: There is a widespread but seldom stated assumption that the solution to systemic corruption is more democracy, but the empirical relationship between the two is far more complicated.10
The recent rise of populism has led to a questioning of parts of the consensus that existed a generation ago about democratic transitions. Back then, political scientists talked about “consolidated democracy,” usually measured by Huntington’s classic “two-turnover” test: If elections had led to power peacefully changing hands once, and then again, democracy could be said to have achieved consolidation. With the backsliding that has lately occurred in the most consolidated democracies (including the United States and Britain), the notion that democracy can never go backwards once it reaches a certain point looks quaint. Journal of Democracy authors such as Steven Levitsky have argued that the lethal threat to modern democracies is not the military coup, but rather a steady, gradual erosion of norms and institutions of the sort that has been going on in Hungary since 2011. Many people see this process unfolding in the United States itself.11
It would be wrong to end this overview on a purely pessimistic note. Over the past century, democracy has gone through many ups and downs. The current crisis is not nearly as severe as the one that struck in the 1930s, when fascism took hold in the heart of Europe. And that crisis arguably was rivaled by the loss of confidence in democracy that beset the West during the manifold troubles of the 1970s. The spark that animated the transitions of 1989–91 is still alive in many parts of the world. In just the past few years, Ukraine, Algeria, Sudan, Nicaragua, Armenia, and Hong Kong have all seen the emergence of mass protests against authoritarian government, even if these did not always lead to successful democratic transitions. The Czech Republic, Georgia, Romania, Slovakia, and even Russia have seen popular pushback against corruption and oligarchic control of the democratic process.
Brexit has fractured the British political system in a way that guarantees no other EU country will soon follow the British path. It is not clear that British voters themselves, if they had a chance to redo their decision, would now make the same choice that they did back in June [End Page 20] 2016. While Donald Trump has challenged many of America’s check-and-balance institutions, they have largely held; the most important check, an electoral one, may be forthcoming in 2020. Over the long run, demographics do not seem to favor populism; young people continue to move out of rural areas and into big cities.
In order to get to the long run, however, we must first survive the short run. Today, there are two opposite trends in the world: The first is social fragmentation and its concomitant, the decline of the authority of mediating institutions, primarily in established democracies. The second is the rise of new centralized hierarchies in authoritarian states. Surviving the present means rebuilding the legitimate authority of the institutions of liberal democracy, while resisting those powers that aspire to make nondemocratic institutions central. The Journal of Democracy has done a superb job of analyzing all these phenomena over the past thirty years. Let us hope that it will continue to do so as the decades roll on, for its insights will surely be needed. [End Page 21]
1. Larry Diamond, Ill Winds: Saving Democracy from Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency (New York: Penguin, 2019).
2. Christopher Walker, “What Is ‘Sharp Power’?” Journal of Democracy 29 (July 2018): 9–23.
3. This issue is explored at greater length in my book Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018).
4. Marc F. Plattner, “Illiberal Democracy and the Struggle on the Right,” Journal of Democracy 30 (January 2019): 5–19.
5. Jonathan A. Rodden, Why Cities Lose: The Deep Roots of the Urban-Rural Political Divide (New York: Basic Books, 2019).
6. Robert D. Putnam, “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital,” Journal of Democracy 6 (January 1995): 65–78.
7. See, for example, Moisés Naím, The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being in Charge Isn’t What It Used to Be (New York: Basic Books, 2013); and Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000).
8. For an account of this shift, see Binyamin Appelbaum, The Economists’ Hour: False Prophets, Free Markets, and the Fracture of Society (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2019).
9. Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes, “Explaining Eastern Europe: Imitation and Its Discontents,” Journal of Democracy 29 (July 2018): 117–28.
10. Roberto Stefan Foa, “Modernization and Authoritarianism,” Journal of Democracy 29 (July 2018): 129–40.
11. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die (New York: Crown, 2018).
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