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 Asia, Europe, and Latin America; military coups in Burma, Egypt, 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 live in a democracy, you live in a society that went 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.

Populism is just the old strategy of divide and conquer. It divides society into the noble folk—people abused by predators—and predatory elites. That story has gained a lot of followers and explains a lot of what happened.

Populism has been complemented by polarization. The globalization of polarization is a trend. Polarization is like cholesterol—there is good cholesterol and bad cholesterol. There is good polarization and bad polarization. Good polarization signifies a democracy: You have different groups that clash in ideology, interests, identity, and so on. That is democracy. That’s healthy, that’s desirable.

But another kind of polarization is paralyzing. That polarization doesn’t treat others as compatriots but as enemies who do not have the legitimacy to hold power. That toxic polarization has been amplified by the style and the likes of Donald Trump. Around the world, these leaders polarize by identifying wedge issues [controversial political issues politicians can use to divide and attract voters] or bringing new wedge issues and creating more divisions within society, as part of the strategy of acquiring power and retaining it.

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.

Bluhm: Some argue that the United States drives democratization not by actively promoting democracy, but simply by presenting an attractive example—whether politically, economically, or socially. In this view, the allure of that example has waned quite a bit during the past 20 years, whether because of the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Great Recession, or the deepening partisan polarization that you mention. Are the United States—and, by extension, democracy—just not the model they once were?

Naím: Democracy is driven by many forces, one of which, and not the most important one, is the United States—its behavior, its significance as a model, or its intervention. There’s no doubt that it plays a role, but you have to be very careful not to assume that the main force shaping the prospects for democracy is what the U.S. does or doesn’t do.

We have learned that the hard way, especially in Washington. People are learning that there is no exporting a political regime. We have seen that in Iraq. The United States was hoping to be treated as a liberator and was instead treated as an occupying force bent on imposing a political model. The extreme example is Afghanistan—all these years, trillions of dollars, casualties, and fatalities have left a destroyed country.

One has to be very careful not to ascribe to the United States an influence that it doesn’t have.

Shiv Naryan Das

Bluhm: The United States does spend millions of dollars every year to promote and foster democracy globally, whether through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) or other means. How would you explain this tension between U.S. efforts to promote democracy and the decline in democracy among America’s allies?

Naím: I am in favor of democracy promotion by the United States. I want the United States to be a force for democracy, helping activists and politicians who are liberal and democratic. I don’t want the bureaucracy that has been created around that.

Democracy promotion is now part of government bureaucracy. You mentioned USAID. In the European Union, in the United Kingdom, you have bureaucracies designed to help countries democratize but that end up benefiting a small coterie of businesses and consultants. There is an industry around this that is broken and needs to be redesigned.

Let’s be in favor of the United States promoting democracy, helping those who need support. But let’s revise the institutions, policies, and approaches.

Bluhm: After September 11, U.S. foreign policy was even more willing to accept wholly undemocratic practices by allies, especially in the Middle East, in return for support or at least acquiescence to the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. What’s the connection between U.S. foreign policy and democratic backsliding?

Naím: After September 11, the organizing principle of American foreign policy was the global war on terror. That became the lens through which policies were assessed and decided on. It was a strategy that permeated all other aspects of American foreign policy, diplomacy, and security policy.

One has to be very careful not to ascribe to the United States an influence that it doesn’t have.

Now, you can no longer say that the global war on terror is the central organizing theme. We have a new kind of cold war between the United States and China that includes but transcends the issue of democracy. I don’t think anybody in Washington is thinking that the United States is capable of imposing democracy on or exporting democracy to China.

Bluhm: The political, economic, and social conditions vary widely in countries allied with the U.S. Do the causes of democratic decay there vary too, or is there a commonality to them?

Naím: The backsliding is a consequence of a set of behaviors, decisions, and policies adopted by politicians. One of the most interesting surprises is how nations with different geographies, histories, cultures, and economics end up having extraordinarily similar politics and policies.

If you compare the things [former Prime Minister] Sebastian Kurz in Austria says and does to President Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil or President Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, you will be impressed by how similar they are. Some have opposite ideologies—some are right-of-center, some are left, but their narrative is similar.

There’s this significant pattern across countries that have very little in common other than a leader who was brought to power, and is retaining power, by using the same set of populist tools.

Joseph Chan

Bluhm: What else do they have in common? Where does this populist narrative come from?

Naím: There’s a decline of trust—that’s been with us for a while, and that has to do with expectations growing at a faster pace than the capacity of the state to respond to them.

An anecdote was told to me by former President Ricardo Lagos of Chile. When he was a candidate, he went to a very poor place. People wanted housing, and they wanted the public sector to build it. These are very poor people. He became president, he did help them with housing, and they were living in better houses. Then he went there, and he found a foul political mood against him. He said, What’s happening? They said, Well, you didn’t build our houses with enough garages. We don’t have a place to park our cars.

That shows infinite demand. No government can satisfy it. A level of frustration is always there.

The other thing is social media. It’s helped change the way in which politics are conducted, and that is a global phenomenon. Social media have been tools for polarization.

Peaceful coexistence with inequality is over. Inequality was tolerated, in a lot of developing countries and in the United States. In some developing countries, inequality is just the way it has always been. In the United States, inequality is treated as needed, because that’s the way we compensate innovators and investors here; you need some inequality to have innovation and investment.

I am in favor of democracy promotion by the United States. I want the United States to be a force for democracy, helping activists and politicians who are liberal and democratic. I don’t want the bureaucracy that has been created around that.

But all the rhetoric that justifies, legitimizes, and accepts inequality is gone now. Inequality has become a central theme around the world, because it has become a very important issue in the United States, and the United States is very effective at exporting its anxieties. When the United States has an anxiety that becomes a national debate, other countries follow—for example, the Me Too movement.

Bluhm: Polarization and inequality are only getting worse. How do you view the prospects for democracy?

Naím: In the short term, I am pessimistic. In the long term, I’m hopeful.

The pandemic has surprised us. Institutions that we believed were permanent have become debated and maybe transient. Models of thinking and practices that we thought were transitional have become permanent. Think about remote work.

Things that we thought were untouchable and permanent, like democracy, are being debated. That debate is very painful to watch and very dangerous, It’s the kind of debate that led to the January 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol. It is the kind of violence that we see in the streets. It’s the polarization that permeates everything. Wearing or not wearing a mask has become a political statement—which is kind of crazy—but it’s normal now.

Daniel Olah

I often use a quote by Jose Ortega y Gasset, a political theorist in Spain in the 1930s. He wrote, We don’t know what is happening to us, and this is precisely what is happening to us. That’s uncertainty. Everyone knows that we’re going through tectonic changes driven by politics, the pandemic, great-power rivalries, and technology. We know that a lot of things are happening that are large-scale and uncontainable, and will affect me, my family, my company, my country, and my neighborhood. I don’t know how my family and I are going to end up. And this creates a foul mood that’s being exploited by politicians who discovered this demand for protection, for a promise to fortify and defend people from the consequences of these huge changes.

Hopefully, we will better learn to understand what is happening to us—and therefore be less anxious about uncertainty.

Bluhm: In looking at the study that found the correlation between alliance with the United States and democratic decline, there’s a question about the math. U.S. allies are generally more liberal, meaning they generally started with higher levels of democracy. I wonder if they didn’t simply have more room for substantial democratic declines, whereas any declines in illiberal countries would have yielded a smaller numerical drop. In other words, is the correlation just a statistical quirk?

Naím: That is a very intelligent observation. This is not just a mathematical sum. There is something I call the great asymmetry—an asymmetry between democracies and illiberal countries or dictatorships. Democracy is at a competitive disadvantage in dealing with what I think of as monoliths.

For example, in the United States, the Republican Party is in many ways a monolith. The Democratic Party is in many ways a fragmented coalition—a huge tent, very difficult to organize, to synchronize, to align. And it’s facing a monolith. Trump is the owner of that organization. No one disputes that the Republican Party is controlled by Donald Trump, and there is a centralized way of dealing with things that goes through him and Mar-a-Lago.

That is the great asymmetry, and it’s not just happening in domestic politics; it’s happening internationally. Take cyberattacks and hacking. Oddly, the United States is at a competitive disadvantage against hackers. Even if they use American-made technologies, they are sponsored by countries that can do things that democracies cannot do. And that great asymmetry is shaping a lot of the dynamics we’re talking about.