With the one year anniversary of the war in Ukraine passing, the media will doubtlessly be filled with analysis of the military and geopolitical lessons (so far) from the invasion. One aspect that is perhaps underestimated but nonetheless vitally important in the context of growing strategic competition between the West and East is the bottoming out of the democratic recession.
This phrase was coined by Prof Larry Diamond to describe the end of the wave of democracy that begun with the fall of communism and likely peaked before the global financial crisis, and that has now left the world at a multi decade low in terms of the number of ‘full’ democracies and the greatly diminished quality of democracy. Starkly, the last EIU Democracy Index Report notes that only 8% of the world’s population lives in a ‘full democracy’ and 37% live in autocratic regimes.
The quality of democracy is intrinsically linked to the debate over the end of globalization, and the three factors that have marked its demise – high inflation, rising rates and war in Europe – will further stress test democracies and their leaders. Notably, they might also catalyse responses from governments that could help repair democracies, whilst also making for further misery for autocrats.
This possibility, taken together with the fact that the ‘centre’ is generally speaking holding across European governments (note the relative calm of Italian politics), and growing marginalization of the clowns and the corrupt of the populist right (Trump, Bolsonaro and Boris) suggests that democracy is steadying whilst autocracy is crumbling.
In economic recessions, when negative growth looks like it is bottoming out, there would usually be a call for a stimulus. Democracy, at this critical point, should be no exception, and the time has come for a dose of ‘democratic Keynesianism’, where states will invest in the quality of their democracies, public goods like education and act to limit ‘subprime’ elements like rogue funding of political candidates, corruption and the use of social media and cyber to meddle in elections.
This can take several forms. For instance, the EU has launched a Democracy Action Plan but this will have little credibility if its Parliament is structurally prone to corruption, nor if individual states do not implement telling policies on campaign finance, freedom of the press and better civic education.
On a more positive note, there is a renaissance in the use of deliberative democracy – at a local level in many countries, and significantly at a national, constitutional level in the case of Ireland’s Citizen’s Assembly whose work has led to a number of changes to its constitution. The challenge of deliberative democracy for many incumbent governments is to cede power to the people, and to trust their judgment. This has proven problematic in France, where there is a gulf in trust between the state and its citizens.
Then, there are areas for policy coordination between the US and the EU, notably in marshalling the role of global social media companies in politics, in using multi-lateral institutions (i.e. World Bank) to support democracy, and in working aggressively to limit outright attacks on democratic systems (e.g. cyber security and money flows).
At a country level there are several questions to be answered before a democratic recovery is truly underway. One relates to the political identity of the Republican Party and whether it as an entity is ready to come in from the hard right and actively support the rule of law, or whether it may split. The isolation of Liz Cheney in this respect is not encouraging here.
The other is the UK, where there has been a measurable decline in the rule of law, respect for institutions and a rise in corruption since the early 2010’s. The worry is that this has not triggered a broad realization of the damage that these trends are doing to the UK’s democracy, economy and place in the world, nor has it led to the arrival of a ‘democratic white knight’ figure in British politics (though Sir John Major’s speech ‘In Democracy We Trust? is well worth a look).
Then finally, the interesting long-term question is how governments and electorates in large populous emerging nations will regard democracy. Any causal link from autocracy to higher growth – visible for some time in China and Turkey – is broken, whilst the trend relationship between economic stability, the rule of law and human development and investment remains in place. While Iran is an extreme example of a population ambitious for a more open society, there are other countries where the pressure on leaders to provide greater prosperity and representation will grow and optimistically, may spur a new wave of democracy.