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Democracies in danger of extinction

The percentage of the world’s population living without democracy has grown from 49% to 70% in only a decade

Xi Jinping
A giant screen reproduces Xi Jinping's speech on the occasion of the centenary of the youth of the PCCh.MARK R. CRISTINO (EFE)
Moisés Naím

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This past decade has been rich in world-changing events. Some were impossible to ignore, but others were more gradual and went almost unnoticed. Among the most important of these is the global crisis of democracy.

On all continents, democracies are dwindling while undemocratic systems are on the rise, currently accounting for 70% of the world’s population, that is, affecting 5.4 billion people. According to studies by the V-Dem Institute at the University of Gothenburg, a decade earlier the percentage of people without democracy was 49%. Not since 1978 has there been such a low number of countries in the process of democratization.

There are two reasons why this democratic backsliding didn’t cause alarm or provoke a significant reaction. The first is that there were just too many other urgent problems that made it difficult for champions of democracy to successfully compete for the attention of leaders, the media, and public opinion. The pandemic and the global financial crisis are just two examples of a long list of events that left no room for less immediate concerns. The second reason is that most attacks on democracy were deliberately opaque and difficult to perceive, which, as a consequence, made it much more difficult for people to fight back.

Let’s consider the primary cause of this global neglect of democracy, a phenomenon that Larry Diamond, a respected professor at Stanford University, calls “the democratic recession”: how could you mobilize the population to defend democracy while the pandemic was causing millions of deaths around the world? According to the World Health Organization (WHO) between 2020 and 2021 alone, 15 million people died from Covid-19 and its variants.

In the past decade, the effects of global warming have also intensified. Wildfires, extreme heat, floods, hurricanes, typhoons, and melting ice caps became more frequent, deadly and costly.

There were also financial problems. Between 2007 and 2009, a deep financial crisis was unleashed in the United States, caused serious damage to that economy, then infected other countries and left enduring political repercussions. Perhaps the most important of these is growing economic inequality.

This problem has worsened in the past decade and continues to be a major source of political conflict and social instability. One of the countries where it has been most acute is China, which has emerged as one of the most lopsided societies in the world. But the world’s attention has not been focused on China’s inequality, but rather on its rapid economic growth. Between 2010 and 2020, the Asian giant’s economy more than doubled in size and—depending on how you calculate it—is now the first or second largest economy in the world. In that same period, the Chinese regime deepened its authoritarianism. In 2018, President Xi Jinping managed to remove the rule from the constitution that, since 1982, limited the presidency to two five-year terms. Thanks to this constitutional reform, Xi can be president until he dies.

The past decade also saw Brexit, the unexpected and traumatic withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union. It was also the period in which there was an explosive increase in the economic, political and social influence of social networks such as Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter and TikTok. And, of course, the decade of Putin’s many wars. The Russian military fought inGeorgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Ukraine’s Crimea and Dombas as well as in Syria. Those ten years we also saw the rise of Donald Trump, his conquest of the Republican Party and his rise to the Oval Office.

Many of these events were shaped and driven by the rapid rise of smartphones. Today more than six and a half billion people (84% of the world’s population) own one.

While all this—and much more—distracted our attention, a group of authoritarian leaders took over a large number of the world’s democracies.

The evidence of the deterioration of democracy in the world is surprising and worrying. But even more surprising is the shocking lack of a response in the face of these attacks by anti-democratic forces.

This is because many of the assaults on democracy are happening in such a stealthy way that they are practically invisible. And of course, a problem that is never detected will never be solved. The world’s democracies are facing a dangerous problem, but a problem we’ve not fully awakened to. We need to acknowledge it, publicize it and confront it.

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