An Existential Moment for Democracy?

Illustration: Edel Rodriguez

‘Human nature being what it is, power that is not checked will sooner or later be misused.’
– Larry Diamond

If you were raised in the world’s oldest modern democracy, you might take some things for granted. Like your freedom to file a lawsuit, or join a union, or travel where you like, when you like. You might be so involved in criticizing your government that you forget to be relieved that you can do so without going to jail.

Don’t get too comfortable, warns Stanford political scientist Larry Diamond, ’73, MA ’78, PhD ’80. In his new book, Ill Winds: Saving Democracy from Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency, Diamond describes how liberty is under assault in the United States and abroad, following more than a decade in which democracies globally have weakened or failed. And he asserts that without dramatic and immediate efforts to arrest the trend, democracy as a system of government is in peril.

“Not all democracies do a good job of defending liberty, but all the political systems that protect liberty are democracies,” writes Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, who has studied and supported the world’s democracies for 45 years as a scholar and an adviser to civic leaders, dissidents, human rights advocates and transition teams in 70 countries. “What saves citizens from the knock on the door in the dead of night, from the risk of being silenced or removed, is a constitution, a robust body of laws, an independent judiciary to enforce them, and a culture that insists on free elections, human rights, and human dignity.” 

Glance around the world and you’ll see the danger signs: A prime minister in Great Britain trying to suspend Parliament. Political polarization sweeping South Korea and Israel. An anti-immigrant, pro-Russian presidential candidate gaining popularity in France, and ultranationalism reemerging in Germany. An American president getting cozy with dictators. And democratic norms crumbling from Zambia to the Philippines.

As recently as 2006, sixty-two percent of all nations were democracies—either in basic form, with functional, free elections, or the more complex variety (what Diamond refers to as liberal democracies), characterized by a broad commitment to individual rights, laws applied equally to all, protections for minority groups and vigorous checks on government power. By 2017, the proportion had dropped to 51 percent. 

“We are looking at a situation, at best, of tremendous danger and fragility,” Diamond says. He recalls the 1930s, when fascism took root across the world. “It’s not that yet, but if we allow complacency to prevail in our thinking and our political postures, that’s where we could wind up.”

In the past, America has played a critical role on the global stage as a model for developing democracies, a crusader for human rights and a bulwark against the spread of authoritarian regimes. Former secretary of state Madeleine Albright once called America “the indispensable nation” for its moral leadership. But unlike ever before, scholars say, America’s commitment to democracy is flagging. At the same time, China and Russia are stepping vigorously into the void to promote an entirely different approach—one featuring strong central leaders hostile to diversity and dissent. The risk, Diamond says, is a century defined by the rise of the autocrat. 

THE WINDS OF FREEDOM

When did American democracy begin? Some argue it was 1776, when the colonies declared independence from England. Others say 1789, the year the new government adopted its constitution. It could have been 1865, with the abolition of slavery, or 1920, with women’s suffrage. Diamond contends it was 1965, when Congress passed the Voting Rights Act and presidential elections could plausibly be considered “free and fair.”

The American experiment set off waves of democratic expansion and contraction. Western Europe rounded out the first wave during the 1800s, before Nazi Germany and imperial Japan brought about a nadir in the 1930s. Democracy expanded again in the mid-20th century, returning to Western Europe, growing in Latin America, and taking hold in Japan and Turkey. A sustained upswing came in the mid-1970s with the democratization of Portugal, Spain and Greece, and more growth in Latin America and East Asia in the 1980s. The third boom peaked in the mid-2000s, by which time democracy had become the dominant system in every part of the world except the Middle East. 

“We have experienced an absolute transformation of our world’s polities in the direction of more democratic processes over the last 50 to 75 years,” says Jeremy Weinstein, a political science professor and director of the Stanford global studies division. “And recessions always seem to follow these transformations. We’ve got to remember that people are better off and more free than they’ve ever been in human history.”

And yet, Weinstein says, Diamond is “right to raise the alarm” about democracy’s recent decline—it poses great risks to the world order. 

“We have had a system of international governance since World War II that reflects the ascendance of a set of commitments to individual rights and protections rooted in the U.N. system, emerging over time because the United States—full of its imperfections—has been a more benevolent power internationally than most empires historically,” says Weinstein, who served as deputy to the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from 2013 to 2015. 

“A world without U.S. leadership and without an international architecture that’s rooted in things like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a very different universe, and not one I’m sure most people would want to live in.”

WHY POPULISTS ARE SO POPULAR

Everywhere Diamond looks, momentum seems to be gathering around authoritarian populists: charismatic leaders who capitalize on discontent, sow distrust in the system and then consolidate power. Even though most people living in a democratic system claim to prefer it, many believe their governments are not working for them, which opens the door for populists to emerge.

Globalization may be partly to blame:In an increasingly interconnected world, governing has gotten trickier. “If you have a constant flow of capital, people and trade goods, it’s harder to figure out what to do in your own country,” says political science professor Anna Grzymala-Busse, who directs the Global Populisms Project at the Freeman Spogli Institute. The increasing interdependence of the world’s economies also limits the impact of any one nation’s policies. As mainstream politicians struggle to solve “national” problems that are, in actuality, intertwined with the actions and economies of other countries, voters can start to view them as inept. 

Even though most people living in a democratic system claim to prefer it, many believe their governments are not working for them, which opens the door for populists to emerge.

Globalization has stoked nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiment among citizens who fear not only the economic but also the cultural changes that can accompany such shifts. There again, Grzymala-Busse says, populists have stepped in, defining “the people” of a country narrowly and subjugating minority interests. “Populist movements have this very corrosive impact on democracy,” she says.

Former Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez was a case in point. He first campaigned on the idea of bringing power to the people and, in his early years, enabled by $100-per-barrel oil prices that filled the Venezuelan treasury, he introduced reforms that improved living conditions for much of the country’s populace. Those programs led to political successes that allowed him to extend his power. During his 14 years as president, from 1999 to 2013, Chavez rewrote the constitution, ended presidential term limits, fired the judiciary, and usurped power over every branch of government and the military. Once considered a stable democracy, Venezuela has been reclassified as an authori-tarian regime, a condition that remains in effect under President Nicolás Maduro. Meanwhile, populist movements have advanced in Turkey, Bolivia, Hungary and Poland. 

“When you look at all this stuff, on balance,” Diamond says, “it’s not a period of good, uplifting, edifying news about democracy in the world.”

AMERICAN DEMOCRACY: DEATH BY 1,000 CUTS?

In the United States, political rights and civil liberties have declined gradually over the past eight years, according to Freedom House, a U.S.-based watchdog organization that monitors the practice of democracy globally. 

“The great challenges facing U.S. democracy did not commence with the inauguration of President Donald Trump,” the organization’s president, Mike Abramowitz, observes in the 2019 Freedom in the World report. “Intensifying political polarization, declining economic mobility, the outside influence of special interests, and the diminished influence of fact-based reporting in favor of bellicose partisan media were all problems afflicting the health of American democracy well before 2017.” He notes that the George W. Bush administration infringed on individual rights with its surveillance programs that collected people’s personal data in bulk, and he characterized the Obama administration’s crackdown on press leaks
as “overzealous.”

But, Abramowitz says, “there remains little question that President Trump exerts an influence on American politics that is straining our core values and testing the stability of our constitutional system. No president in living memory has shown less respect for its tenets, norms and principles.” Albright has called Trump “the first anti-democratic president in modern U.S. history.”

Some 86 percent of American voters think democracy is a good or very good system, and 78 percent say democracy is always “preferable to any other kind of government,” according to a 2017 survey by the nonpartisan Democracy Fund Voter Study Group. But according to a 2019 poll co-led by Diamond, only 30 percent believe American democracy works well. And when Democracy Fund researchers probed further, they found that 24 percent of Americans feel positively about the idea of “a strong leader who does not have to bother with Congress and elections.” Eighteen percent support the idea of military rule. 

Those attitudes pair badly with America’s political polarization and a hollowing out of the civic sector. “Basically, a lot of the former associations or civic networks that maintained ties between citizens and elected officials have eroded,” says Didi Kuo, associate director for research at Stanford’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law. She points to shrinking participation in volunteer organizations and churches, the disintegration of labor unions, the decline of local and state media, and the weakening of local and state party organizations.

“The way that affects people’s perceptions is that [they believe] there’s not much they can do about political outcomes around them,” Kuo says. The result can be paralysis, or at least complacency.

What if the slide away from democracy continues? What if America weren’t a democracy? 

The World Justice Project, a nongovernmental organization that assesses the rule of law in 126 countries, is technically agnostic about the political system a country uses. Instead, it studies whether a government is accountable, just and transparent, and whether it offers its citizens effective, accessible dispute resolution. William Neukom, LLB ’67, WJP’s founder and CEO, observes that after having collected 10 years of data, researchers can say that liberal constitutional democracies are the most likely to have a robust rule of law.

“Liberal democracy is great—and it’s complicated,” Neukom says. When the organization’s researchers dive into their country-by-country analyses, each of which includes a thousand extended in-home interviews, they’re better able to understand why Denmark has the best rule of law in the world, Venezuela is at the bottom, and the United States ranks 20th. In the interviews, citizens describe experiences they’ve had with police officers, government officials and the courts, and the impact of those experiences on their lives. WJP’s 2019 Rule of Law Index shows middling to low scores for the United States on legislative corruption, labor rights, regulatory delays and discrimination (broadly speaking and in the courts).

What worries many scholars is that America’s commitment to its ideals seems to be weakening just as the democratic order is being threatened by an assertive and influential global superpower—China. “We’re no longer in this unipolar moment where the U.S. is ascendant, its norms and values are being broadcast, and it has this attractive, influential role,” Weinstein says. “There’s competition for that mantle. That’s really new.”

The turning point was China’s 2013 presidential election. 

What worries many scholars is that America’s commitment to its ideals seems to be weakening just as the democratic order is being threatened by an assertive and influential global superpower—China.

“Xi Jinping’s presidency represents a break with previous Chinese leaders toward the overpromotion of the China model of authoritarian state capitalism, with a heavy emphasis on authoritarian as a better model,” Diamond says. It also signals a break from the peaceful transfer of power—the Chinese legislature amended its constitution last year to eliminate term limits for the presidency. 

China’s menace comes in part from its economic strength. Authoritarian leaders in, say, Uganda or Cambodia, can point to the success of China’s model for economic development as an excuse to sacrifice civil liberties in their quest to build a strong state. 

“Of course, there’s no evidence that that kind of repression”—of Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang or protesters in Hong Kong—“was necessary for China’s economic growth,” Diamond says. “There’s lots of evidence that the democracies of Africa are growing more rapidly than the dictatorships of Africa, but none of that matters. The leaders are looking for something to legitimize their concentration of power and their crackdown on opposition and dissent.”

Russian mischief is also chipping away at the strength of Western democracies. The German Marshall Fund, a U.S. think tank, has tracked 420 instances of Russian interference—through disinformation campaigns, cyberattacks, political subversion, economic coercion and malign finance (such as money laundering)—in 43 countries since 2000. More than 50 of those campaigns targeted the United States, among them the effort to undermine the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Meanwhile, Diamond notes, Russian trolls and bots were tweeting pro-Brexit messages from thousands of fake accounts. 

But Diamond’s gaze is primarily trained on China. “There is no problem in international affairs—other than climate change, and this is not irrelevant to climate change—that I worry about more than the U.S.-China relationship,” he says. He recommends a U.S. posture of “constructive vigilance” that includes cooperation on climate change and humanitarian crises, respect for the Chinese people, assertive defense against intellectual property theft and “careful restraint so we don’t stumble into a military conflict.”

GETTING PEOPLE TALKING

"Living through the Vietnam and Watergate era taught me two lifelong lessons,” Diamond writes. “That political polarization and intolerance could prove poisonous to democracy, and that the instruments of democracy—elections, the media, the congress, the courts—could restore its health.” 

One way to improve democracy anywhere would be to engage citizens in deliberating with one another more extensively before elections. James Fishkin, a professor of communication and director of the Center for Deliberative Democracy, has used a process called deliberative polling 108 times in 28 countries since 1994 as a way to help governments find democratic solutions to controversial issues. The method convenes a representative, randomly selected group of constituents who prepare discussions using the same set of facts reviewed by a range of policy experts. In the end, a confidential questionnaire gathers their opinions.

“Right now, democracy is under threat because it’s not plausibly connected to the will of the people,” Fishkin says. Deliberative polling seeks to “create good conditions for the people to decide what they really want in an evidence-based and reason-based way that is weighing competing alternatives.” Key to the method is breaking out into small “deliberating microcosms,” he adds. “Once people feel their voice matters, they’ll do all the hard work to think through the complexities of the issues.”

Most recently, Fishkin and Diamond paired up on America in One Room, a deliberative poll hosted in Dallas in September. The event gathered 526 registered U.S. voters to consider together five topics at issue in the 2020 presidential election: health care, immigration, the environment, the economy and foreign policy. After spending four days together in small-group discussions, participants didn’t report changing their minds all that much, but they said they had a better understanding of why others felt the way they did.

And yet, before-and-after surveys showed the conversations had a moderating influence on voters on certain issues. “Democratic support receded for a $15 federal minimum wage and for ‘Medicare for all,’ ” the New York Times reported in its coverage of the event. “Republican support grew for rejoining the Paris climate agreement and for protecting from deportation immigrants brought to the United States as children.” Plus the gathering appeared to improve enthusiasm for democracy—at the end of the four days, the proportion of participants who said they believe American democracy works well doubled, to 60 percent. 

Another way to improve the character of America’s democracy, says Diamond, is ranked-choice voting, an approach being explored by several states that encourages moderation, coalition building and civility in politics. Instead of choosing one candidate, voters rank contenders in order of preference. If no one wins a majority, the candidate with the fewest first-place votes is cut, and those votes are redistributed among the remaining contenders. Eventually, a majority winner emerges. The process creates incentives for politicians to appeal to broader constituencies, lessens the power of extremists, and opens up the field for third-party candidates. “I think if you change the incentive structure,” Diamond says, “you will gradually change the politics.”

His other recommendations run the gamut, from rooting out gerrymandering and expand-ing voting rights to retiring the Electoral College. He also suggests reforming campaign finance and lobbying, and fixing congressional rules that gum up representatives’ ability to work together.

A CLOUDY FUTURE AND AN OPPORTUNITY

Ian Morris, a Stanford classics professor, a historian and an archaeologist, says one of the most basic assumptions underlying how people organize themselves is whether we believe that people are all more or less the same or fundamentally different. The first assumption favors democracy; the second, hierarchy. The notion that some people are inherently superior, more godlike and, thus, rightly more powerful allowed monarchs, despots and craven emperors to subjugate people for most of the past 10,000 years, save for a limited democratic experiment in Greece 2,500 years ago and modern democracies of the past 200 years.

In other words, as systems of government go, democracy is an outlier. In fact, Morris predicts the end of democracy—perhaps in this century. He envisions its replacement by a ruling class of financially savvy, meritocratic technocrats. “Is it reasonable to think that the 19th- and 20th-century model of democracy is still going to be the most efficient and effective way of running a community 100 years from now?”

Down the line, relatively soon, Morris expects we’ll think it’s “crazy” to assume we might know better than our phones do. The machines will be the “godlike kings” we submit to. “Democracy and decision-making are going to look wildly different even within my lifetime,” Morris says.

Still, the sun hasn’t set on the era of free will. And if Diamond tilts his head at the right angle, he can imagine a silver lining among the gathering storm clouds: We have a chance to see what the world is like without U.S. leadership, and that may inspire a call to action.

“Democracies are not gifts or miracles,” he writes. “They are painstakingly built forms of government, and none of them are invincible if citizens succumb to cynicism and complacency in perilous times.” 


Jill Patton, ’03, MA ’04, is the senior editor of Stanford. Email her at jillpatton@stanford.edu.

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The Autocrats’ 12-Step Program

By Larry Diamond

1. Begin to demonize the opposition as illegitimate and unpatriotic.

2. Undermine the independence of the courts.

3. Attack the independence of the media.

4. Gain control of any public broadcasting.

5. Impose stricter control of the internet.

6. Subdue other elements of civil society—civic associations, universities, and especially anticorruption and human rights groups.

7. Intimidate and threaten the business community.

8. Enrich a new class of loyal crony capitalists.

9. Assert political control over the civil service and the security apparatus.

10. Gerrymander districts and rig the electoral rules.

11. Gain control over the body that runs the elections.

12. Repeat steps 1 to 11.

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