In 1993, as the Western world basked in the flaming wreckage of the recently-collapsed Soviet Union, one book summed up the international mood.
The End of History was Francis Fukuyama’s reaction to America’s Cold War victory. A tome in which he argued we had reached:
“the end-point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
For 1990s folk, this seemed eminently plausible. Authoritarian regimes were collapsing, and democratic nations reigned supreme.
Little could Fukuyama’s readers have guessed where things would stand just 3 decades later.
That, by the early 2020s, humanity would be living not in a democratic utopia…
…but a world in which the death of democracy is now a frightening possibility.
Winston Churchill once famously claimed that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” But you wouldn’t know it looking at politics today.
In early 2021, the Economist Intelligence Unit released its annual report on the state of global democracy.
The results were discouraging, to say the least.
According to the EIU, just 8.4% of all mankind currently lives in a full democracy.
But it was the direction of travel – rather than the numbers themselves – that caused the biggest worry.
With a global score of just 5.37 out of ten – where ten is “whoo! Full emancipation!” and zero is “argh! Please stop torturing me, your majesty!” – 2021 was the worst year for democracy since the survey began.
As NGO Freedom House commented, it seems we’re currently living through a “democractic recession.”
From a casual perspective, though, you might not realize it.
With a few major exceptions (ahem, China), most modern nations hold regular elections and have some form of representative body.
And while you might get the odd renegade like Myanmar, military coups are mostly as out of fashion as steampunk and pineapple on pizza.
Yet this sunny view hides how the nature of democratic collapse has changed.
In the third decade of the 21st Century, authoritarian regimes don’t come goosestepping in, sporting combat fatigues and calling themselves El Jefe.
Instead, they come in through the ballot box, telling you they’ll fight your corner, that they’ll sort out those smug elites, that they won’t play by the rules.
It’s only once elected that they start transforming your nation into a one party state.
For Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, authors of How Democracies Die, this new breed of leaders are “elected autocrats” – politicians who’ve climbed the democractic ladder to power, only to then not just pull that ladder up behind them, but set fire to it as well.
Sure, they still hold regular elections. Sure, their countries still have a constitution, a supreme court, and opposition parties.
But in all these things, the elected autocrat’s thumb is pressed so firmly on the scales that everything tilts towards his party.
To illustrate, let’s take a quick trip to the fictional state of East Europia.
Like a whole bunch of its neighbors, East Europia went through a rollercoaster ride at the end of the Cold War, kicking out its Communist government, holding elections, and eventually joining the EU.
For a while, it was even a regional poster boy. More-established democracies were all like “see? That Fukuyama book was right, just look at East Europia!”
But then things started to slide. Voters elected a party – let’s call them The Populists – who thought democracy was great, so long as it only applied to them.
As soon as they were elected, The Populists started clearing out institutions of their opponents.
They packed the courts with loyalists. Took over the public broadcaster and turned it into a propaganda outlet.
They enacted media laws to silence opposition journalists. Used their governing majority to rewrite the constitution in their favor; brought in laws against insulting their president.
Flash forward to today, and East Europia still looks like a democracy. Citizens vote every four years, and a change of government is a real, legal possibility. The Populists are proud of this.
But the scales are no longer balanced.
Whereas opposition parties used to win elections with a simple majority of the public on their side, now they might need more like 54 or 55% to overcome The Populists’ inbuilt advantage.
If that doesn’t sound so bad, just know this.
The last time any presidential candidate cleared 54% in the US was Ronald Reagan in 1984.
Imagine if, ever since then, the party you like the least had been constantly in power. Even when your guys were preferred by over half the country.
This is what the death of democracy looks like in 2021. Not something achieved with bullets, but with the slow hollowing out of institutions.
And the longer it goes on, the harder it is to reverse.
Right now, East Europia’s government would likely step down if it spectacularly lost an election. But that might not be the case in ten or twenty years.
When Hugo Chavez first came to power in Venezuela, he was just like The Populists. He pressed his thumb down on the scales – hard – but he never outright stole an election.
It was only in the mid-2010s that his party, now under Nicholas Maduro, seemed to go, “ah, screw it,” and openly embraced authoritarianism.
In a way, this was a dumb move.
One of the key tools for elected autocrats is the outward appearance of legitimacy.
While the world is happy to sanction obvious dictators like Maduro, the idea of attacking semi-democratic East Europia would seem crazy.
And, hey, even if The Populists lose power, their influence might be here to stay.
In modern Hungary – one of many real-life inspirations for East Europia – the ruling Fidesz party has a decent chance of losing the next election.
But since they’ve already placed loyalists in the Supreme Court, packed the Constitutional Court, taken over most of the media, and rewritten the constitution so even things like taxation can only be amended with a supermajority, their program will survive even without them.
You might now be thinking: gee, this is all pretty worrying, but what can I do to stop it happening in my home?
Unfortunately, there seems to be only one real weapon against elected autocrats: unity.
For elites and voters, that means working together to lock a common threat out of power.
In 2002, the French presidential election saw mainstream Conservative Jacques Chirac pitched against far-right Jean-Marie Le Pen.
Under the slogan “vote for the crook, not the fascist,” voters from across the spectrum rallied around Chirac, keeping Le Pen from the levers of power.
But electoral autocracy is only one form of democractic collapse. One caused by a rogue party or charismatic leader not willing to play by the rules.
What happens when the rot is more widespread?
One of the big surprises of the 2021 state of democracy surveys was how far the US had fallen in the rankings.
The EIU rates it today as a “flawed democracy”, while Freedom House says it’s had one of the biggest drops on record.
If you’re a card-carrying Democrat, you might be like “well, duh, we’ve just had four years of Donald Trump. No wonder things look bad!”
But while Trump certainly had some characteristics of an elected autocrat, America’s democratic backsliding began before he appeared on the scene.
And it’s rooted not in one dude, but in a total breakdown of social trust.
Right now, over 40% of voters in both of the two main US parties consider those in the other camp to be not just political opponents, but amoral enemies.
This partisanship is so strong, that hatred between the parties has – by some measures – eclipsed old fault lines of race and religion.
In short, politics has become a “mega-identity”, one that directs not just your opinions on government spending, but where you live, how you dress, who you associate with, how religious you are, and infinite other things.
And this is all sorts of troubling.
When voters start to see the other party as alien, then losing an election is no longer merely annoying.
It becomes an existential threat. One akin to being ruled by an enemy nation.
This justifies all sorts of anti-democratic actions in the name of self-preservation.
To take a current example, it can justify states restricting voting rights and allowing partisan control of certification boards.
To take another example, it can justify expanding the Supreme Court and packing it with judges friendly to you.
Since these are two live issues, you may already be heading to the comments to call me a dunce and explain why the example your team supports really is justified.
But it doesn’t really matter if it is.
What matter is that, in a healthy democracy, neither of these things would be on the table.
This is another form of democractic death, distinct from the hollowing out done by elected authoritarians. One where partisans distrust the system so much that politics turns into a gigantic version of the Joker’s game.
In The Dark Knight, there are two boats, each with a bomb onboard. Each boat has a detonator that will destroy the other. Seemingly the only way to win is to blow up the other boat before they can destroy you.
Pulling that trigger may be painful. You may not want to do it. But hesitate, and the others may do it first.
It’s a grim metaphor for where America is today. Two parties, each able to pull a legislative trigger that will annihilate their opponents… but at the cost of democracy itself.
And it’s not just the US and Europe that need to worry.
Across the world, the democratic foundations of countries as large as India or as small as Guatemala are crumbling, broken by societal division and opportunistic leaders.
If we humans don’t act now to find common ground, to unify, then it could be that – in the not too-distant future – there’s no democracy left for us to defend at all.