Disclaimer: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect views of the Journal, the William H. Bowen School of Law, or UA Little Rock.
When the Soviet Union collapsed three decades ago, some academics argued that without a major communist power exerting its influence internationally, liberal democracy (in a classical, not a partisan sense) would spread around the world. For a time, that proved to be true. In the 1990s, democracy advanced at a prodigious rate. However, the spread began to slow in the early
2000s. Fast forward to 2021, and the trend has totally reversed: liberal democracy is declining internationally, and in many countries, populism is replacing it.
Last year was particularly brutal for democracy. According to Freedom House, a pro-democracy watchdog and think tank established in the 1940s, 2020 marked the most significant decline in democratic government around the world in the last 15 years. Per its annual study, 73 countries—making up nearly 75 percent of the global population—experienced varying degrees
of democratic backsliding. Conversely, only 28 countries—many of them small and sparsely populated—strengthened their existing democracies. The disparity between democratic erosion and improvement was the largest since the beginning of the democratic recession in the early 2000s.
While the statistics are alarming, it’s important to clarify that only a very small number of countries saw their democracy collapse. Rather, “democratic backsliding,” or “democratic erosion,” is the process of the state debilitating or eliminating institutions that enhance the strength of democratic governance. As Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orbàn, explained, the states experiencing erosion are often building “illiberal democracies”— regimes with elections with largely pre-determined outcomes, politicized courts, diminished protection for opposition parties, and heavy restrictions on the press.
So why is liberal democracy in decline? While there are a number of contributing factors, arguably the most important are high levels of income inequality and extreme ideological/cultural polarization. When those issues coexist, the political landscape often
becomes ripe for populist and authoritarian-leaning parties to take root, because the demand for a charismatic leader to clean up “politics as usual” significantly increases.
Since the early 2000s, the number of populist leaders has more than doubled. Populist parties have become increasingly mainstream with recent political developments like Brexit, India’s reelection of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Brazil’s election of President Jair Bolsonaro. No matter if the populist leader or party is on the left, like Chavez in Venezuela, or
on the right, like Erdoğan in Turkey, they frame political issues through the same lens of competing interests: “the people”—which often excludes religious, ethnic, or other minority groups—versus “the corrupt elite.”
While populism is not the root cause of liberal democracy’s decline, it is availing itself as its biggest competition, and if not checked, will continue to accelerate its decline. This is not because populism is inherently undemocratic, but because it is anti-institutionalist. When placed in power, populists tend to subvert fundamental democratic institutions—e.g., courts,
legislatures, elections, and the free press—by characterizing them as illegitimate or abusing them for partisan gain.
This is precisely what happened during the 2020 presidential election, when former President Trump crusaded against alleged voter fraud for months. While America’s democratic institutions—particularly state and federal courts—withstood political pressure after the election, the more serious problem going forward is the likely emergence of millions of Americans who
view the legitimacy of elections through a partisan lens.
Although America’s institutions are resilient, any democracy, no matter how strong its constitutional architecture, is in trouble if its processes are distrusted and viewed as illegitimate. However, the United States has an opportunity to begin rebuilding public trust in our institutions. If we reform our election system and restore our recently abandoned democratic norms, we can
begin to push back against democracy’s global recession. It might take years to reverse the damage of the last 15 years, but democracy has recovered from greater threats before. It can be done again.