This article is from a special report on the Athens Democracy Forum in association with The New York Times.
For several years now, Western liberals have been lamenting the global retreat of democracy in the face of rising authoritarian populism — a trend that has been confirmed by various institutions that track democratic rule and its components.
The V-Dem Democracy Report for 2022 reported that “more than 35 years of global advances have been wiped out in the last decade.”
The Economist Intelligence Unit, which had anticipated a rebound once Covid-related restrictions were lifted, instead found no change in the bleak democracy landscape.
Transparency International also registered no progress in the global fight against corruption, while Reporters Without Borders tracked “increased aggressiveness” on the part of authoritarians and “growing animosity towards journalists on social media and in the physical world.”
Yet in his address in March to the second U.S.-convened Summit for Democracy, President Biden declared that democracies are “getting stronger, not weaker,” and it is autocracies that are in retreat. The world’s democracies, he said, are “turning the tide” against backsliding. This might be what he had to say at a meeting he called to rally democratic forces around the world. But in doing so, he underscored that judging progress in something as broad, varied and ever-shifting as the quality of governance can never be totally objective.
“Do we dare hope?” That is the theme the Athens Democracy Forum has chosen for this year, its 11th annual gathering. The question is not meant to raise unreasonable expectations, but to declare that the ideals of democracy have often been under attack.
However concerted the onslaught might be, it has almost always been met with resistance from the supporters of democratic ideals — whether in the battle for Ukraine, in the Arab Spring, the protests in Iran, the demonstrations in Israel, the prosecution of Jan. 6 rioters in the United States, or the bravery of journalists who continue to expose lies even under threat of prison and death. Democracy, as a participant in an Athens forum once said, should be a verb: It is forever adapting, forever responding.
Much of the bad news about democracy in recent years has focused on Russia and the United States. The cases are radically different, but in both, the contest is far from finished.
Russia is critical in the struggle for democracy, for several reasons. First, as the Economist Intelligence Unit states in its report, is that the war in Ukraine matters: President Vladimir V. Putin has defined the war not only as an imperial conquest but as a struggle against Western democracy. He overtly rejects Ukraine’s sovereign right to build an independent and democratic state, and in the process, he has trampled on freedoms in Russia.
Not surprisingly, Russia has dropped precipitously in state-of-democracy rankings — to 146 out of 165 in the Economist Intelligence Unit index, which measures such things as electoral process, political participation and civil liberties. Western powers have been united in supporting Ukraine and condemning Russia, but they have not been successful in dissuading many developing countries from taking sides with Russia. According to the E.I.U., two-thirds of the world’s population live in countries that are either neutral or Russia-leaning in regard to the war.
Yet it is encouraging, even inspiring, to supporters of democratic governments that Ukraine has resisted so valiantly, and that Western democracies have maintained a high level of support. And if democracy is suffering in Russia, authoritarianism may be faring even worse. Russia’s military machine appears more adept at pleasing the boss than waging war. Corruption is rampant. The country is facing daunting sanctions and a brain drain as men flee conscription. Should Ukraine prevail, it will emerge stronger and freer, while the notion of Mr. Putin as a competent and effective autocrat has been debunked.
The United States is hardly a Russia. But the bitter polarization of American politics is eroding the nation’s role as the standard-bearer of freedom, democracy and human rights. The 2024 presidential race is bolstering perceptions on both sides of the American divide that the other represents a fundamental threat to democracy, and the outcome will have a powerful impact on world affairs, including the war in Ukraine, the future of Taiwan and more broadly on the ability of the United States to counter the autocrats of the world.
The struggle between liberal democracy and autocracyis far from decided. In the United States, far-right candidates fared worse than expected in the 2022 midterm elections, and the courts have not flinched from sending the perpetrators of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol to prison, or from bringing criminal cases against Mr. Trump and his allies.
There are many other signs in other parts of the world, as well, that democratic inclinations are holding their own, and not only in politics. Polls have shown a growing concern over climate change among the young, and the yearning for fundamental freedoms and rights continues to bring people into the streets even when the risk is high, as it was during the Iranian protests in 2022.
In Israel, an assault on the independence of the judiciary by a government dominated by the right has met with massive popular resistance. There have been a few other “democratic bright spots” — Mr. Biden’s term — around the world, often lost in the flow of events: the defeat of the right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and promising elections in Thailand, Moldova, Honduras, Slovenia and Zambia.
On balance, that may not amount to a win for democracy. The major currents flowing away from it are still strong. According to V-Dem, not only are autocracies spreading, but their economic power is growing, making them less dependent on democracies for imports and exports. The institute’s 2022 report found that 72 percent of the world’s population now live in autocracies and that they, led by China, now account for almost half of the world’s G.D.P.
But there is always room for hope because neither autocracy nor democracy is a simple force, nor are they locked in a zero-sum struggle. The rise of autocrats since the fall of Communism has not been a unitary narrative; it has been a broad and varied collection of stories about frustrated expectations, growth of inequality, fear of new waves of immigrants, the eruption of disinformation, the rise of China, a sense of alienation, social confusion and much more.
“At the core of democratic theory and practice is respect for the dignity of the individual,” wrote Samantha Power, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, in an article in the journal Foreign Affairs titled “How Democracy Can Win.” “But among the biggest errors many democracies have made since the Cold War is to view individual dignity primarily through the prism of political freedom without being sufficiently attentive to the indignity of corruption, inequality, and a lack of economic opportunity.”
The grievances that lead people to flock behind a populist leader differ broadly in their roots and passions. Countries emerging from Communist regimes in the 1990s, often lacking rudimentary democratic institutions, frequently ran into problems that left them vulnerable to ruthless political opportunists. In established democracies, like the United States, political malaise arose in large portions of the population from a sense of being left behind, or of being displaced by immigrants, as well as negative reactions to rapid social change in diversity, L.G.B.T.Q. rights and technology.
In many states of sub-Saharan Africa, politicians took to hounding L.G.B.T.Q. people, cynically fanning misguided fears in societies unprepared for the social progress of the Western world. And at every juncture and every level, China and Russia, sometimes acting in concert, fanned the flames in their determination to challenge American power.
None of this is reason for panic — nor for complacency. Democracy is going through a tough patch, and it could get worse. But the problems that drive people to elect populist strongmen are usually best fixed through the give and take of democracy. People who are driven to flee from poverty or repression yearn to reach a country where they can be free, and it’s never an autocratic state. Upholding the rule of law, speaking out without fear of reprisals and participating in selection of leaders and their policies is still the best way people have devised to organize their societies and their lives. So yes, dare to hope.