Overcoming The Democratic Recession

Our guest authors today are Arch Puddington, (director of research) and David J. Kramer (executive director) of Freedom House, a bipartisan organization founded in 1941 by Wendell Willkie, Eleanor Roosevelt, and others.  It has worked tirelessly over the intervening decades to promote democratic values both at home and abroad. It is best known for its annual Freedom in the World survey, which analyzes the state of political freedom and civil liberties. In 2010, it published The Global State of Workers’ Rights: Free Labor in a Hostile World, a survey of union and workers rights, and a global map of labor rights, with support from the Albert Shanker Institute. Along with the Shanker Institute, Freedom House is also a cosponsor of DemocracyWeb, a resource for history, civics and comparative government education.  Antonia Cortese, secretary treasurer of the Shanker Institute, also serves on the Freedom House Board of Trustees.

As we enter a new decade, the evidence is fast mounting that global freedom is under the most intense pressure it has faced in many years. According to the most recent report issued by Freedom House, 2010 marked the fifth consecutive year of a worldwide democracy recession. During that period, democracy has suffered setbacks in every region of the world.  All of the political institutions that are crucial to democratic governance—including elections, press freedom, rule of law, minority rights—have suffered setbacks.

The palpable lack of confidence among democracies in their own system of government, driven in part by the global economic crisis that has affected market economies more severely than authoritarian ones, partly explains these trends.  Recently, for the first time since the end of the Cold War, western pundits are raising questions about the efficacy of democratic systems.

Equally disturbing, authoritarian regimes led by China and Russia, having weathered the economic storm much better, at least in the short term, seemingly sense a shift and are exhibiting an increasing self-assurance, and even arrogance.  In addition, whereas authoritarian regimes often unite and support each other, democracies frequently fail to speak with one voice.  Take, for example, the weak and tentative response of democratic states to China’s bullying campaign against the Nobel committee and Norway after the Peace Prize was awarded to a jailed Chinese dissident.  Few heads of state joined President Obama in congratulating Liu Xiaobo on his Nobel award, and none saw fit to call Beijing to account for its malign campaign against the prize or its host Norway.  No government—not even the Soviets or the Nazis—has ever treated the Nobel Peace Prize with anything comparable to the disdain exhibited by Beijing.

Egypt, a country favored by the United States, responded to gentle encouragement toward democratic change by orchestrating election results comparable to those in obvious dictatorships like Syria and Tunisia.  Belarus, recently courted by Europe, blithely ignored its own promises to hold clean elections; in the wake of brutal police violence against protesters, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka sneered that “there will be no more mindless democracy in this country." In Russia, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin publicly snapped that Khodorkovsky belonged in jail even as the court was nearing a verdict. Venezuela’s Chavez has jeered at “imperialists” and the Organization of American States when his antidemocratic project has come under scrutiny. 

To be sure, the events cited here did not lead to major reversals for democracy. Egypt, Belarus, Russia, Iran, and Venezuela were not democracies before these developments unfolded.  It is less these acts themselves than their authors’ obliviousness to outside opinion that makes them noteworthy – and the lack of strong response from the democratic world. 

The past year did bring a bit of good news, however. Years of repression have failed to break the spirit of resistance in many authoritarian settings. In Belarus, tens of thousands of demonstrators flooded the streets to express their fury at yet another bogus election despite thuggish police tactics.  In Venezuela, the erosion of democratic space did not discourage the opposition, who exhibited sufficient tenacity and unity to win a majority of votes in parliamentary elections.  Independent-minded journalists and intellectuals refused to be silenced in China, Iran, and Egypt.

And democracy today still boasts its most potent weapon: the example of free institutions and law-based societies. Despite talk about the China model, no society has indicated a desire to emulate the political system that rules over the Chinese people. Only despots seeking more efficient methods of control see in China—or Russia—a template worth copying. 

Moreover, the evidence remains overwhelming that societies built on free institutions—including an independent media, non-political judiciary, and democratic trade unions--and free markets prove far superior to systems based on political authoritarianism and state intrusion in the economy.  Aside from China, the authoritarian powers provide neither bread nor roses for their people.   

Nevertheless, a weak response from the democratic world to the erosion of democratic institutions globally accompanied by the attack on the idea of freedom is disturbing.  During President Obama’s holiday vacation, the White House issued a statement in the President’s name congratulating Ukrainian President Yanukovych on the transfer of nuclear material to Russia; statements condemning the violence and rigged election in Belarus or the Khodorkovsky verdict in Russia, by contrast, were done by White House spokesmen, not the president.  Repressive regimes notice such things.

The failure of the major democracies of the developing world to speak out against repression is another source of disappointment; whether it be South Africa’s position on Zimbabwe or Brazil’s former President Lula’s embrace of Iran’s Ahmadinejad (especially unsettling given that Lula himself was once the political prisoner of a military dictatorship).    

Authoritarian regimes will continue to gather strength if there is no pushback.  Overcoming the lack of self-assurance among democratic states is critical in meeting the authoritarian challenge. Indeed, if democracies fail to unite and speak with one voice in defense of their own values, the current trend of receding freedom could become a destructive rout, setting back the global expansion of democracy for many years to come.


David J. Kramer is Executive Director at Freedom House and former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. He is also an Adjunct Professor at the Elliott School for International Affairs at The George Washington University.

Arch Puddington is Director of Research at Freedom House and is responsible for the publication of Freedom in the World and other research publications, and for the development of new research and advocacy programs.