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Assessing the depressing state of democracy around the globe

David Rieff, Ruth Ben-Ghiat, Barbara F. Walter and Michael Tomasky sounded off. 

Customers shopping in the vegetable section of a supermarket in the Chaoyang district of Beijing, China.
Customers shopping in the vegetable section of a supermarket in the Chaoyang district of Beijing, China.
REUTERS/Martin Pollard

In the immediate post-Trump moment and in the middle of the Russian war to extinguish democracy in Ukraine, The New Republic hosted an online forum with three authors, all of whom write about the state of democracy in the world. 

It was a fairly depressing show, although full of smart insights. Moderator (and New Republic Editor) Michael Tomasky and three author-guests are all worried about the health and future of democracy in both the world (with autocratic Russia’s invasion of democratic Ukraine in mind) and the United States (having just survived, at least for the moment, a democracy disrespecting president who worked to steal a second term, and didn’t miss it by all that much).

Journalist and author David Rieff, who wrote a great book about the civil war in Bosnia in the 1990s, took the present moment to signal that the immediate post-Cold War period, sometimes referred to as the dawning of an age of “the long peace,” is over, if it ever really occurred.

But the attempted Russian overthrow of democracy in Ukraine is not the resumption of the old Cold War. The new superpower rivalry is between the United States and China, and the panelists noted that the global alternative to the U.S. model is now China, which practices a combination of authoritarianism and capitalism and now represents the key rivalry that defines the current moment and the foreseeable future, Rieff said.

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China has brought hundreds of millions of its people out of poverty, without giving them democracy. If you’re poor and hungry, Rieff asked, what means more to you: food or freedom? 

He answered his own question thus: “First grub, then ethics,” he said. And he tossed in a reference to the rise of Donald Trump, who seemed, at least to his supporters, to be offering likewise a choice between democracy and prosperity.

In the panel discussion, Rieff asserted that the portion of earthlings living under full democracy is down from its peak by something approaching a third. That’s creepy, if true, although I suppose data is hard to come by.

Rieff also tossed in a reference to the question of whether the United States really represents full democracy as much as we are raised to  believe, considering the famous undemocratic features of the U.S. system like the U.S. Senate (where California and Wyoming have equal power), and the electoral college system, in which the popular-vote loser can defeat the popular-vote winner, and the role that money plays in allowing some citizens to matter more than others in our politics.

Panelist Barbara F. Walter, a University of California at San Diego professor who writes about something called “anocracy,” brought that concept into the discussion to complicate the question of whether nations really face a choice between tyranny and democracy.

(An anocracy is a form of government that is neither a full democracy nor a full dictatorship, but has elements of both. I wrote a separate piece on Walter’s work, when I first heard of anocracy. She believes that full democracies rarely have civil wars. And full autocracies rarely have civil wars. It’s the anocracies in between that are particularly at risk.)

Walter asserts that the United States is best understood as an anocracy, with state-by-state differences in who gets to vote and how easy it is to vote (among other factors), complicating the straightforward choice between democracy and totalitarian regimes.

Recent presidential elections have been full of examples of states that make it easier or harder to vote, and, of course, Republicans and Donald Trump have been in full rebellion against ways, generally favored by Democrats, to make it easier to vote.

Partial democracies (such as ours, under this telling) can provide opportunities for political parties to take advantage of racial and religious differences, Walter said. And that decreases the likelihood that the losing side in an election will peacefully abide by the result. Walter has argued that full democracies rarely have civil wars. And full autocracies rarely have civil wars. It’s the ones that are in between that are particularly at risk.

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The third panelist was Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a historian at University of California San Diego, whose most recent book, “Strongmen: From Mussolini to the Present,” included Trump as one of the strongmen rulers in the Mussolini mold.

She said that Trump had autocratic aims to run the country as a cult of Trump, in which the personal needs and wants of the leader can be achieved by decree; a system in which, she said, “loyalty to the leader, rather than competence, become the key reason for holding office.” 

She was struck by the cultish decision of the Republican Party heading into the 2020 campaign to forego adopting a party platform (as major parties have adopted for centuries).

She talked about Trump’s Jan. 6 scheme to steal a second term (she called it a “self-coup”), which she said comes from the playbook of autocrats. She also referred to it as a “leader-cult rescue operation.” The last point is that if you want to have “a leadership culture that supports autocracy.”

She added: “As a first generation American, I will never get over the fact that someone as criminal as Trump was able to be in the White House, and he was criminal in so many ways.”

Tomasky, who moderated this event is, by the way, editor of not only the long-time liberal New Republic  but he also edits also a quarterly journal on democracy (named, aptly, “Democracy.”)

I’d like to provide a link to the whole online discussion, but TNR hasn’t posted the video yet. I will include a link here once it is.