Democracy is in retreat almost everywhere. This year is certain to become the 16th consecutive year when the U.S.-based nonprofit Freedom House will record an overall decline in its measures of democracy in countries around the globe. In the United States, the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol revealed the disregard some Republican partisans have for election results and democratic rules, and the party has taken even more anti-democratic steps since then, passing state-level laws to suppress voting and install partisan election officials. Meanwhile, China is cracking down on civil liberties in Hong Kong and supporting the rise of authoritarianism globally. Both China and Russia are hacking into critical infrastructure in Western countriess, for espionage and for ransom. In Russia, President Vladimir Putin’s party brazenly falsified the results of recent national elections. Even in democratic countries, leaders have eroded democratic institutions and enacted authoritarian laws in India, Brazil, Turkey, and Tunisia. Is democracy losing to authoritarianism?

Fredo Arias-King leads the board of directors of the Casla Institute, a Prague-based nonprofit that shares the lessons of post-communist transformation with reformers in Latin America, and a speaker at this week’s Oslo Freedom Forum in Miami. Raised in Mexico, he’s written extensively on democratic transitions in Latin America and Europe. Despite all the turmoil around the world today, Arias-King is confident in the long-term prospects for democracy. In his view, the democratic backsliding we see in many countries, such as Poland and Hungary, is only a temporary setback. From a broader perspective, he says, many of these places were totalitarian or authoritarian states not long ago, so their troubles today shouldn’t call into question the longer arc toward greater democratization. As Arias-King sees it, today’s problems are often rooted in economic insecurity or migration caused by rapid globalization, as extremists on the left and right exploit nationalist feelings or other emotions for political gain.


Michael Bluhm: How worried are you by the erosion of democracy globally?

Fredo Arias-King: I have a lot of confidence in democracy. I take a longer view—the big tides of history. Alexis de Tocqueville said democracy is the tide that oftentimes recedes but comes back much stronger. So even when it seems that everything is lost—and in many periods in history, in many geographies, everything seemed lost—then suddenly one of the waves comes.

In the interwar period, between World War I and World War II, this hodgepodge of small- and medium-sized nations appeared on the map of Europe after the collapse of the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and German empires. There was only one democracy east of Switzerland: the Czechoslovakia of President Tomas Masaryk. Today, or even 20 years ago, there were 14 or 15 democracies east of Switzerland, according to even those slightly pessimistic reviews by Freedom House. I call that progress.

Whether you like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban or not, Hungary is still a democracy. Could be “free,” could be “semi-free,” but just very recently—historically, in the blink of an eye—it was absolutely not free. So I see Tocqueville’s words as wise: Democracy always comes back stronger. I’m a lot more optimistic than others are.

Jezael Melgoza

Bluhm: Are there common factors in the erosion of democracy in different parts of the world? Or a common path for building a successful democracy out of an undemocratic state? Or does it depend on context?

Arias-King: It’s context-dependent. Is there a universal theory of everything for democracy, whether it goes forward or backward around the world? I sincerely doubt it. The closest thing to anything that’s universal is the classic [Seymour Martin] Lipset hypothesis that when a country under a regime of any kind—dictatorial, authoritarian, feudal—reaches a certain level of income, then there is a transition to democracy, for reasons yet to be understood very well.

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