The real threat from autocracy is how we deal with democracy

The real threat from autocracy is how we deal with democracy
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In 2017, autocracy — that is, government in which one person wields unlimited authority — seemed to have the upper hand against the troubled democracies of the West.  

Among the democracies, President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpStephen Miller: Trump to further crackdown on illegal immigration if he wins US records 97,000 new COVID-19 cases, shattering daily record Biden leads Trump by 8 points nationally: poll MORE polarized a divided American electorate, and European elections in Germany, France and elsewhere evidenced equally deep enmity between the political right and left. Brexit all but paralyzed Britain.

In fact, the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index concludes that 2017 produced “the worst decline in global democracy in years,” highlighting, in particular, decline in freedom of expression, including media freedom.


None of the four democracies above even made the top 10 in the EIU’s ranking of 167 countries.  Germany is 13, the United Kingdom is 14, the United States is 21 and France is 29. Of the Asian democracies, Indonesia fell from 48 to 68 in the rankings, the worst country decline globally, and the world’s most populous democracy, India, fell steeply in the rankings from 32 to 42.

In addition to highlighting freedom of expression and media freedom, the EIU pointed to a widening gap between political elites and electorates; declining popular participation in elections and politics; declining trust in institutions; and erosion of civil liberties.

Meanwhile, autocrats had a field day. The absence of a strong U.S. voice at Davos in January 2017 enabled Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to champion free trade, backed up by Chinese investment in a new silk road spanning Asia, Central Asia, Africa and Europe. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin — would-be impresario of a new world order — was credited with orchestrating much of the election and social chaos in the United States and Europe in 2016 and 2017, as well as tilting Britain’s Brexit vote in favor of leaving the European Union.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan crushed opposition to his increasingly autocratic rule and cozied up to Putin, distancing himself from Europe and the United States. North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un defied U.S. pressure to end his nuclear weapons program by launching one test missile after another. Wanna-be autocrats Prime Ministers Mateusz Morawiecki of Poland and Viktor Orbán of Hungary defied EU democratic norms from within the union with nationalist agendas. Even President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela held on, despite one of the most mismanaged economies in history, with an inflation rate of 4,000 percent.

However, by year’s end autocracy appeared no less troubled than democracy.

Putin’s interference in the U.S. election processes provoked a significant expansion of U.S. sanctions against Russia. Russian corruption also resulted in the passage of “Magnitsky” legislation in a number of countries, including Canada and the United Kingdom, targeting individuals responsible for serious civil rights violations, as well as government officials complicit in “acts of significant corruption.”

Although Putin is expected to be reelected in March, social discontent has risen with rising poverty. Putin’s reported desire to achieve 70 percent voter turnout with a 70 percent pro-Putin vote to legitimate his next term may be out of reach because of, on the one hand, voter apathy and, on the other hand, growing opposition activism. Russia ranks 135 in the EIU’s Democracy Index.

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s vaunted Silk Road looked less compelling as it ran into political and economic resistance from other countries concerned with rising Chinese influence, including the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom, which criticized China’s indifference to global standards and norms. Although China’s economy still manages growth of almost 7 percent, high and rising debt levels threaten economic stability. Xi may look firmly in place, but so did Putin in 2008 before the Russian economy turned against him. When it did turn, it was not the reformist Putin of 2000-2004 but the autocratic Putin of 2014-2018 who, to maintain his authority, resorted to increasing oppression (despite the claim of popular support).

Xi is headed down the same path in his attempt to control threats to his authority by tightening control of the military, police and social media.  China ranks a low 139 in the Democracy Index.  

It was, however, the sudden, dramatic fall in December 2017 of President Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe (136 in the index), after 30 years ruling over a wrecked Zimbabwean economy and society, that illustrated the risk faced by all autocrats. Instability can appear suddenly when the autocrat fails to anticipate a palace coup or a social upheaval due to social and economic tensions because there is no stabilizing mechanism other than oppression. Anti-government protests in Iran (150 in the index) at the end of 2017 against the economic plight and social oppression of ordinary Iranians came out of nowhere, as well, and threatened Iran’s political and economic stability.

Rather than being islands of stability governed by firm leadership, autocracies are inherently unstable because of limited political participation, social oppression and economic inequality that diminish the welfare of the citizens of those states and threaten world peace.

Democracies are more stable because, due to broader citizen participation, they are better at balancing differing societal interests and adapting to change. History is full of failed autocratic states, but few failed democracies. A functioning democracy can heal itself, unless a democracy has become neither free nor equitable. There are palpable fears that the United States is slipping into autocracy. Political discourse is fractured, and the EIU writes, “Income inequality is higher in the U.S. than in other rich countries and has worsened since the global economic and financial crisis of 2007-09. Studies show that higher income inequality reduces trust in others and undermines social capital.”  

The resilience of democracy in America is being tested by an autocratic president who de-legitimizes ordinary civil discourse through misrepresentation and distortion, aided by complicit actors, such as Chairman Devin NunesDevin Gerald NunesTrump pushing to declassify document disputing intel findings on Russia: report Sunday shows preview: Coronavirus cases surge in the Midwest; Trump hits campaign trail after COVID-19 Democrat Arballo gains on Nunes: internal poll MORE (R-Calif.) of the House House Intelligence Committee and his famously flawed memo on FBI surveillance.

While the world’s autocracies loom as a threat, the real threat to our welfare and to world peace is how we deal in the democracies with the erosion of basic civil liberties and the rise of domestic social and economic inequality.

Dirk Mattheisen is a writer/blogger on political economy and former assistant secretary of the World Bank Group in Washington and alternate secretary of the World Bank board Ethics Committee (2008-2012). He advises international economic and financial institutions on corporate governance.