Is Global Democracy in Crisis?
The AHA’s History Behind the Headlines Webinar
On August 2, an AHA webinar, History Behind the Headlines: Is Global Democracy in Crisis? brought together historians of different parts of the world to discuss democracy around the globe and place the growing popularity of authoritarian regimes in historical context. Moderated by Kenneth Pomeranz (Univ. of Chicago), the conversation began with each panelist addressing what the crisis of democracy looks like in the parts of the world that they know best, leading into a lively discussion. The webinar concluded with a lightning round on how to include the media environment and technology of the modern world in discussions of democracy.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat (New York Univ.), who writes on authoritarianism, the protection of democracy, and propaganda, began by noting the importance of this discussion as historians: “History isn’t just in the headlines—history becomes the headlines, because it becomes an asset to be captured by authoritarian forces.” As a historian of Italian fascism, Ben-Ghiat interprets today’s global challenges through Mussolini’s playbook of gradually chipping away at democracy. The system of electoral autocracy, where governments keep the illusion of democratic elections while gaming the system, is much harder to recognize than strategies such as Hitler’s rise in Nazi Germany. Though there is a backsliding of democracy globally, the panelists also noted there is a reaction around the world against authoritarian methods as well. As Ben-Ghiat stated, “We’re living through a global renaissance of nonviolent protest.” She continued, “authoritarianism is being revealed as an unsustainable and incompetent system, and people are fighting back.”
Rafael Ioris (Univ. of Denver) shared his perspective as a scholar of Latin America and the Cold War. He offered historical context on the challenges Latin American nations have experienced in democratic implementation, where ruling elites would not share democratic spaces with the masses after independence, among other problems. Yet this did not stop people’s pursuit of democracy. There was a wave of democratic institution building after World War II, though it has been continuously difficult to maintain these institutions with the many military coups during the Cold War and current lawfare initiatives undermining democracy. Supporting Ben-Ghiat’s point on governments gaming the electoral system, Ioris pointed to Guatemala, Brazil, Peru, and El Salvador using elections as an antidemocratic instrument and preventing candidates from running or impeaching them after their election. Though a concerning trend, Ioris also identified signs of hope. Colombia has transferred power to an elected president and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has been re-elected president in Brazil. “Societies have mobilized against the deepening of authoritarianism in the region,” Ioris said, but we must continue to monitor threats to democracy in Latin America.
Pomeranz spoke next about democracy in East and Southeast Asia. He remarked that though democracy traditionally has had a harder time there, “the crisis of democracy may be an overstatement for the region.” He noted many similarities with the socioeconomic issues of the West. Yet democracy in countries such as Taiwan, which has been democratic for around 40 years, is robust, and democracies in countries such as Japan and South Korea remain functional. In contrast, “only the Philippines and perhaps Thailand fit the model of a functioning democracy that has been disrupted by state machinery preventing political competition.” Other nations, like China and Vietnam, have never been democratic and instead trended toward authoritarianism. What is the difference between this region and others around the world? One explanation, according to Pomeranz, could be the unifying threat of nearby autocratic states like China and North Korea. Other explanations could include the comparatively low profile of immigration and an absence of recent failed wars and traumatized veterans. These factors do not explain everything, but Pomeranz suggested that “the pain of economic restructuring and even stagnation need not be a mortal threat to democracy.” Again, the strength of democracy among young people and the risks people are willing to take for democracy brings Pomeranz hope.
“History . . . becomes an asset to be captured by authoritarian forces.”
Paul Zeleza (Case Western Reserve Univ.) wrapped up the opening remarks by turning the conversation to Africa. To look at the trajectory of democracy in Africa, he explained, you have to begin with the struggles for independence from colonial authoritarian regimes. “The democratic project really starts with the struggles for independence," he argued, and it continues with attempts to achieve a second independence. This movement emerged in the 1980s and escalated and spread across the continent over the next three decades, notably with the 2011 Arab Spring. But with 55 countries, it is difficult to generalize about democracy across Africa. As Zeleza explained, “The word ‘crisis’ might be overdrawn for the entire continent, but there are pockets where there is a crisis.” There are different visions of what democracy entails, depending on whether you follow the nativist, conservative, liberal, transnational, or another kind of model. As other speakers noted in their regions, there have been erosions of civil liberties, restrictions of media freedoms, manipulations of constitutions, and rollbacks of minority rights in some African nations, but there is a “continued series of struggles for democracy” led by all sorts of activists that Zeleza finds encouraging, particularly seeing the many different groups involved in grassroots mobilization.
As these scholars showed, understanding the specifics of a region’s history is helpful in understanding the global context. But each region also has a particular response to their political setting that could help people elsewhere in the world defend their own democracy. Pomeranz asked each speaker to think of what these lessons might be.
Ben-Ghiat often thinks about the Mussolini model and how it has developed around the world into politicians running for office in times of legal trouble for themselves, so that they can shut down courts and journalists. This can be seen with Putin in Russia, Trump in the United States, Berlusconi in Italy, and Netanyahu in Israel. It can be helpful to look back on history in these cases, she explained, as “history doesn’t only create patterns that we can use to understand historical change in itself and understand the present. . . . Knowing these patterns actually has allowed me to anticipate what’s going to happen in the future and recognize certain playbooks.” Ioris noted that people need to pay attention to democracy in every sense—not just voting every election year. “People need inclusion in the destiny of the collective,” he said. Pomeranz noted that though centrists have argued that you have to go slow to enact democracy, Taiwan shows that you can move incredibly fast and democracy can still thrive.
Each region has a particular response to their political setting that could help people elsewhere in the world defend their own democracy.
Zeleza shared that in Africa there is an expansive view of what democracy is, as reformers look beyond historical ideas about liberal democracy to overcome the limitations of postcolonial governance. Lastly, Zeleza shared his resentment of the idea of “mature democracies.” We see globally that democracies are “always a project you have to fight for.”
Pomeranz followed up by reminding us of the opposite: democracy is not a done deal, but neither is authoritarianism. He explained that China was long a decentralized power with a few unified policies, but there was local variation because of its sheer size. Technology has allowed China to tighten the reins on its localities, but he suspects that democratic possibilities can also come out of technology. Ben-Ghiat agreed, pointing out how authoritarians use whatever “tools of rule” they have at the time. Digital tools are currently changing the way governments control and monitor the people, but they also help activists create communities of support for their cause. This is true of the Arab Spring, as Zeleza noted, and Latin America, as Ioris also noted. There are young people and activists on the ground who are always a step ahead of older rulers and policymakers.
Lizzy Meggyesy is research and publications assistant at the AHA.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.
Please read our commenting and letters policy before submitting.