Democracy's doldrums

The 2017 Freedom House report on the state of freedom and democracy in the world paints a grim picture. “A total of 67 countries suffered net declines in political rights and civil liberties in 2016, compared with 36 that registered gains ... the 11th consecutive year in which declines outnumbered improvements,” Freedom House reports.

Equally worrisome: “While in past years the declines in freedom were generally concentrated among autocracies and dictatorships that simply went from bad to worse, in 2016 it was established democracies – countries rated Free in the report’s ranking system – that dominated the list of countries suffering setbacks.”

Before discussing how to reverse this trend, let’s consider some possible reasons why it’s happening.

Expectations

Is representative democracy somehow less appealing today than in the past? That seems unlikely. Representative democracy may be imperfect, but when given a chance to choose how they will be governed, people choose some sort of representative-democratic system. As Churchill put it, "Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

That said, established democracies are today facing two internal challenges. First, by promising in the post-World War II era to do increasingly more for their citizens, established democracies have become responsible for more – and are held responsible for more. This creates a problem. After all, if government doesn’t try to do too much, how well or poorly it functions is of little consequence. But when government is the center of things, the engine of society, the deliverer of services and benefits – as it is today in many countries – then when it doesn’t deliver, people blame their government.

Second, today’s on-demand, narrowcast technologies streaming to us at light speed condition us for instant answers, instant gratification and instant solutions. But representative government is not designed to deliver instant solutions. Adlai Stevenson was right when he observed that representative democracy “depends upon giving ideas and principles and policies a chance to fight it out.”

Policies and politicians need time to succeed or fail. However, people today are less patient with everything – including government – than they used to be. The average person’s attention span has fallen in recent years from 12 minutes to five minutes. It seems new technologies are rewiring us to have shorter attention spans, to become less patient and to be more impulsive. As historian Neal Gabler argues, this technology-driven impatience “creates expectations that the political system cannot possibly meet.”

Strong Men

Do the trends described above put liberal democracies at a disadvantage vis-à-vis illiberal democracies and autocracies?

Liberal democracies are characterized by majority rule with minority rights, institutional limits on government power, the rule of law and individual rights. This helps ensure freedom, but it can be inefficient.

Illiberal democracies, on the other hand, are characterized by strongmen who win democratic elections but then use their power to eliminate checks on their authority. Unchecked by the rule of law, such regimes drift into what Tocqueville called “the despotism of the majority,” demagoguery and ultimately cult-of-personality rule.

Not only are these regimes consolidating power inside their borders; some, like Russia, are using sophisticated disinformation campaigns to undermine support for liberal democratic systems beyond their borders. Freedom House reports that Russia has “deepened its interference in elections in established democracies through ... theft and publication of the internal documents of mainstream parties and candidates, and the aggressive dissemination of fake news and propaganda.”

Russia’s goal is to undermine faith in liberal democratic systems, and it may be succeeding.

Uncertain Beacon

Has America’s recent phase of retrenchment played a role? It’s difficult not to connect the dots.

Just 22 percent of Americans say the United States should “promote democracy and freedom in other countries”cdown from 70 percent in 2005.

Reflecting the national mood, President Barack Obama focused on “nation-building here at home.” He mustered only muted reactions when Iran’s democracy movement came under assault; left proto-democracies in Iraq, Libya and Ukraine to fend for themselves; and, with the help of the bipartisan gamble known as sequestration, shrank the reach, role and resources of democracy’s greatest defender: the U.S. military.

President Donald Trump promises much of the same, albeit in a roundabout way. In a surprising echo of Obama, Trump argues, “We have to build our own nation.” He endorses an “America First” foreign policy that evokes pre-World War II isolationism, and he described “trying to topple various people” – we can infer he was talking about dictators in Iraq and Libya – as “a tremendous disservice to humanity.”

It stands to reason that when the main engine of democracy pulls back from the world, the momentum for democratic government would decrease accordingly. But don’t take my word for it. “After eight years as president,” Freedom House concludes, “Obama left office with America’s global presence reduced and its role as a beacon of world freedom less certain.” Trump, Freedom House worries, could prolong democracy’s doldrums by pursuing “a foreign policy divorced from America’s traditional strategic commitments to democracy, human rights and the rules-based international order that it helped to construct beginning in 1945.”

Obama and Trump may be in tune with a majority of the country, but it seems much of the country forgets that democracy-promotion has been a hallmark of U.S. foreign policy for many decades.

A century ago, President Woodrow Wilson said America would “fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts – for democracy…the rights and liberties of small nations.” Wilson believed that a world teetering between dictatorships and democracies was inherently dangerous for America. Thus, when he talked about making the world “safe for democracy,” he was talking about building a safer world for the United States.

President Franklin Roosevelt argued, “Freedom of person and security of property anywhere in the world depend upon the security of the rights and obligations of liberty and justice everywhere in the world.”

President Harry Truman vowed “to help free peoples maintain their free institutions.”

President Dwight Eisenhower rallied Americans to “help our world neighbors protect their freedom and advance their social and economic progress.”

President John Kennedy famously promised America would “bear any burden ... to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

President Ronald Reagan declared, “It is time that we committed ourselves ... to assisting democratic development.”

President Bill Clinton argued, “Enhancing our security, bolstering our economic prosperity and promoting democracy are mutually supportive.”

Echoing Wilson, President George W. Bush concluded, “America has always been less secure when freedom is in retreat” and “more secure when freedom is on the march.”

Solutions

A 2016 Legion resolution expresses “support for democracy and human rights in other countries when such is consistent with U.S. national interests and national power” and calls for “preserving and promoting democracy.”

That phrase “consistent with U.S. national interests and national power” is a prudent one. Perhaps America currently lacks the power – or the will – to promote democracy the way it did in decades past. If so, it should at least preserve democracy by returning to what FDR called “armed defense of democratic existence.”

Today, that means maintaining the military strength to deter rising autocracies (China), revisionist governments (Russia) and rogue regimes (Iran and North Korea). In a time of war, defense spending has fallen from 4.6 percent of GDP in 2009 to 3.1 percent. Our democratic allies need to help the cause. Twenty-three of NATO’s 28 members spend less than 2 percent of GDP on defense.

“Defense of democratic existence” means reassuring fellow democracies, in FDR’s words, that “Americans are vitally concerned in your defense of freedom. We are putting forth our energies, our resources and our organizing powers to give you the strength to regain and maintain a free world.” Today, that translates into arms (rather than MREs) for democratic Ukraine, direct military aid for the democratic Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq, and defensive weapons delivered on time and as promised to democratic Taiwan.

“Defense of democratic existence” means we must re-join the battle of ideas. The U.S. Information Agency (USIA), which countered Moscow’s propaganda during the Cold War, was shut down in 1999. The Obama administration announced plans in 2011 to end Voice of America broadcasts in Mandarin and Cantonese, even as China was pouring billions into overseas propaganda and launching 60 U.S. affiliates of its state-run TV network. Recent reports suggest Washington is “planning to cut funding for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.”

Faced with a similar time of testing for democracy, Reagan didn’t cut funding for agencies committed to promoting free government. Instead, he helped create the National Endowment for Democracy “to foster the infrastructure of democracy.” In a similar way, perhaps it’s time for the world’s foremost groupings of democratic nations – the G-7, European Union, NATO and its partners in Israel, Japan, South Korea and Australia – to create a pool of resources to reinforce the infrastructure of democracy, expose Moscow’s meddling, and help democracies under assault preserve the integrity of their political institutions.

Toward that end, Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, commander of U.S. European Command and NATO, urges Washington to “bring the information aspects of our national power more fully to bear on Russia, both to amplify our narrative and to draw attention to Russia’s manipulative, coercive and malign activities.” He recommends strengthening and unleashing the Russian Information Group (a joint effort of EUCOM and the State Department) and the Global Engagement Center (a State Department body charged with countering foreign disinformation campaigns). Similarly, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper wants Congress to create “a USIA on steroids.”

Finally, America should support democratic reformers. “A little less détente,” Reagan argued, “and more encouragement to the dissenters might be worth a lot of armored divisions.” Washington should offer a platform to human-rights activists, journalists, judges and political dissidents from Russia, Venezuela and even erstwhile ally Turkey; draw attention to China’s laogai prisons, underground churches and Charter08 signatories; and challenge the legitimacy of rogues in Iran and North Korea by cataloguing their crimes in high-profile settings such as the president’s State of the Union and annual UN address.

“Circumstances during the first half of the 20th century had provided physical strength and political authority to dictatorships,” historian John Lewis Gaddis notes. “Why should the second half have been different?” The answer: “a striking shift in the attitude of the United States toward the international system” from focusing inward to “planning a postwar world in which democracy and capitalism would be secure.” That’s what made the second half of the 20th century more conducive to democracy – and less hospitable for dictatorships. The same formula will work in the 21st century.