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Democracy, are you OK? What recent history tells us about the state of politics

There are any number of reports to suggest democracy is in trouble. So what can citizens do about it? [Win McNamee / Getty Images]
There are any number of reports to suggest democracy is in trouble. So what can citizens do about it?

When Liz Truss took power last week in London, she became the United Kingdom's fourth prime minister in six years. In Israel, voters are about to hold their fifth election in less than four years.

And in the U.S., many Americans still refuse to accept the results of the 2020 presidential election, prompting President Biden to recently warn that "equality and democracy are under assault."

All over the world, democracy seems to be experiencing indigestion.

What does the research tell us?

First, the bad news.

A raft of reports in recent years have documented democracy in decline around the world and the U.S. Here's just a small selection:

"Major democracies turned inward [in 2020], contributing to the 15th consecutive year of decline in global freedom, according to Freedom in the World 2021," Freedom House reported.
The figures from Our World in Data paint a graphic picture.

"The number of democracies in the world reached an all-time high in 2012, with 97 electoral democracies. A decade on, their number has fallen to 89 countries," it reported this month.

What is going on?

Democracies are embattled both by internal factors and external shocks, says Moisés Naím, a distinguished fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"Democracies are having a very hard time fulfilling the dreams, expectations and needs of the population," he said. "And then they have to cope with external shocks that change things dramatically. What we're seeing with inflation, for example, or of course, climate change, terrorism."

Naím adds Italy and Brazil alongside Israel, the U.S. and the U.K. as countries currently grappling with this situation.

"Italy is going to have an election very soon, and a candidate that has its origins in the fascist movement is likely to win," he said. "The president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, has said he's questioning the system, and he probably wouldn't leave the government if he loses the election."

The modern playbook

In many of these countries, we see larger-than-life figureheads at the center of the drama.

There's Boris Johnson in the U.K., Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, Donald Trump in the U.S. and Bolsonaro in Brazil.

Naím said there was a connection between that kind of reality TV style-leader and political instability in a democracy.

"They all are victims of the expectations they cannot fulfill by traditional methods," he said. "They have become populists in terms of stoking divisions that the country has."

"Trying to divide and conquer becomes a requirement to survive in politics. Then fueling polarization and the wedges and amplifying and multiplying the wedges that fragment society."

This view is echoed by Shawn Rosenberg — a professor of political science and psychology at UC Irvine — who warns that opportunistic leaders can strike because liberal democratic politics is complicated.

"Populist alternatives offer a vision that is much simpler," he told Salon. "All that populism demands is a simple story of cause and effect. All one needs to do is act: Authoritarian power is the solution."

What needs to change

In his widely covered speech in Philadelphia at the beginning of the month, Biden warned that democracy was under assault, and he took particular aim at Donald Trump and election deniers.

"Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic," Biden said.

"But while the threat to American democracy is real, I want to say as clearly as we can: We are not powerless in the face of these threats. We are not bystanders in this ongoing attack on democracy."

On this last point, Naím agrees. And if people really want to protect democracy, then they need to take ownership, he said.

"Citizens need to start thinking that democracy is not cheap in terms of real time and commitment and engagement," he said. "Voting every four years may not be enough. They need to strengthen their ability to detect charlatans and lies and populist behaviors. Citizens need to be more citizens and just less of the dwellers of a country."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.