Democracy is in retreat. It’s been one of the most persistent themes of the era—through a Donald Trump presidency defined by contempt for U.S. institutions; populist autocrats winning elections in Europe, Asia, and Latin America; military coups in Egypt, Myanmar, and Sudan; and an illiberal China’s apparently unstoppable rise. Now a research institute based in Sweden that measures democracy globally, V-Dem, has reached a striking conclusion: On average, democratic indicators dropped in the United States and allied countries at nearly twice the rate of non-allied countries during the past 10 years. Very few allies experienced any increases in democracy, which the institute calculates based on hundreds of indicators, including election fairness and judicial independence. In other words, most global democratic regression isn’t the result of China, Russia, or other authoritarians undermining countries that are struggling with transitions to democracy; it’s the result of weakening institutions in countries that are established democracies—such as Hungary, Turkey, the Philippines, and Israel. The study defines U.S. allies as the 41 cosuntries that Washington has mutual-defense agreements with. Of course, though the United States is the world’s oldest uninterrupted democracy, it has long kept defense pacts with dictators, and it hasn’t always demanded democratic behavior from its partners. Still, why the correlation between alliance with the U.S. and democratic decline?

Moisés Naím—formerly Venezuela’s minister of trade and industry, the director of Venezuela’s Central Bank, and an executive director of the World Bank—is a distinguished fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. In his view, the United States isn’t causing breakdowns for democratic allies; the U.S. usually has little to do with the vitality of democracy outside its borders. The global problem of democratic decline ultimately traces back to a series of profound economic and social shocks that most parts of the world have gone through during the past 20 years—and as Naím sees it, the social and political consequences of these shocks have been greater in liberal than in illiberal countries.

Michael Bluhm: Do you see any connection between the U.S. and democratic breakdowns among its allies?

Moisés Naím: If you’re in a democracy, you’ve gone through the 2008-2009 financial crisis, which has a long set of consequences. The political repercussions of the Great Recession are quite important, but they were not sufficiently noticed, and they created favorable conditions for demagogues and populists.

We were saved from another Great Depression, but the recession did have significant effects: growing inequality, unemployment, declining incomes, declining budgets for social policies. The mantra of 2008-2009 was fiscal austerity—cutting budgets and curbing social programs.

Around the world, we got a new lexicon, a new kind of politics that was not very democratic. It had a strong authoritarian propensity; it clashed with checks and balances, and limits to the power of the presidency. We saw it in Brazil, the Philippines, and Hungary.

While all that was unfolding, we got hit by the pandemic. How can a democracy survive all those knocks without more skepticism, more frustration with the government—and with the idea of democracy itself? In democratic societies, protests are more visible; the instruments that the state has to control critics, more limited.

It’s very important to note that even autocracies suffered the consequences of these situations. In Russia, Putin has tools, resources, and institutional settings that give him more power; he can be more repressive than a democracy. And he has been.

The world, and democracies in general, have experienced significant external shocks.

Envato / The Signal

Bluhm: You mention the rise of populists in democratic countries. The Signal recently published an interview with James A. Robinson, the co-author of Why Nations Fail, who said that political scientists don’t have a good explanation for the appeal of populism—for why populists have succeeded in countries as different as Brazil, the Philippines, and Hungary. What do you see as driving the surge in populism and populists?

Naím: A common mistake is to treat populism as an ideology. Populism is a strategy to obtain and retain power. It’s used by the left and the right. It’s used by politicians in wealthy countries and in the global South.

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