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Democracy Under Pressure

Democracy Under Pressure

This article originally appeared in Turning Points, a New York Times magazine that explores what critical moments from this year might mean for the year ahead.

Whatever their level of faith in the process, voters go to the polls next year in Chile, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Iran, Kenya, the Netherlands, Rwanda, South Korea and Thailand, among other countries. The hope is that democracy will fare better than in 2016. The very essence of this ancient system of governance is being tested. Freedom has declined worldwide for the 11th straight year, according to Freedom House, a nongovernmental organization.

Why have these challenges emerged now, and with such a vengeance? One common thread is globalization, an unelected, supranational force. Once hailed as a boon, it’s increasingly regarded as a threat — to security, to cultural identity, to the economy.

Globalization has helped hundreds of millions to escape poverty, lowered the costs of manufactured goods for consumers around the world and afforded unprecedented mobility. But it has also increased inequalities within countries and reduced the power of governments to control their borders and their economies.

Globalization makes the world more interdependent, while political systems remain national. Candidates for high office usually campaign on domestic issues, but after they win, they find themselves grappling with complex international issues over which they exercise limited control, making their election promises difficult to fulfill.

These failures to deliver have created the impression of loss of sovereignty. Take the case of Europe. The European Union, the world’s most ambitious attempt to adapt democracy to the growing global interconnectedness, is fraying. Many Europeans, faced with the flood of migrants and shaken by terror attacks, want to close their borders. But a fortress mentality is likely to limit their capacity to influence what’s outside the walls. A country in the European Union that’s acting alone isn’t as powerful as one that’s part of the group.

The union was never about ceding sovereignty, as Brexiters in Britain argued, but about pooling it. However, many observers question the union’s future, given its perceived failures in the face of the Great Recession of 2008, the European debt crisis and the desperate migrants at its borders.

Globalization also tends to divide societies into winners and losers. While a few individuals and organizations — including organized crime — have amassed unprecedented wealth (and managed to minimize taxes thanks to global markets and capital mobility), countless more people in the West have seen their incomes stagnate. Globalization doesn’t seem to be raising all boats. Populists like Donald J. Trump in America, Marine Le Pen in France and Nigel Farage in the United Kingdom have exploited this situation for partisan purposes.

Though authoritarian leaders, democracy’s eternal critics, also use the language of muscular nationalism as they grapple with globalization, they too are dependent on the global economy, which limits their room to maneuver. Such leaders may be less vulnerable to the vagaries of public opinion, but they are usually beholden to powerful and opaque groups, such as army generals, party apparatchiks and oligarchs.

In periods of upheaval, authoritarian systems may look attractive because of the quick decision-making they allow. However, the ability of such systems to make snap decisions on the whims of just one man has historically led to catastrophes that wouldn’t be possible in democracies, which are burdened but also protected by checks and balances.

Our appreciation of democracies can be warped by uneven information. Authoritarian regimes tend to look better than they are because information is controlled, criticism is suppressed and a steady stream of propaganda creates a false sense of popularity; democracies tend to look worse because their media, civil societies and politicians all magnify their problems. In reality, authoritarian systems are brittle in the face of change, and democracies more resilient thanks to their fundamental legitimacy, accountable governance and the safety valves afforded by freedom of expression.

The World Values Survey has repeatedly shown that the desire for free choice and autonomy is a universal preference, tempered only by an overriding concern about security. Politicians with authoritarian tendencies exploit that concern by playing the politics of fear. Adversaries, real or imagined, are their best defense against their people’s natural aspiration for greater freedom.

To harness this aspiration, just about every country around the world stages elections, but even where the result is predetermined, leaders claim to be ruling on their people’s behalf. Elections aren’t truly democratic if they’re not inclusive, transparent and accountable. They don’t confer genuine legitimacy, as was seen last year in Burundi, where the violence-marred re-election of President Pierre Nkurunziza hasn’t resolved the country’s political crisis.

When political rivals and their supporters don’t believe that the electoral process is free and fair, they seek less peaceful methods to change political direction and leadership. If the street isn’t to take the place of the ballot box, credible elections are essential.

We should promote legitimate elections around the world — not only because we think that democracy is ethically superior to other forms of government, but also because it delivers better results. It holds the best promise for peace, development and respect for human rights and the rule of law.

So how do we help democracies to flourish as globalization progresses? The best way is not to “export democracy,” as George W. Bush’s administration, for example, directed American troops to do in Iraq and elsewhere, but rather to inspire people to import it by demonstrating that democracy works.

Democracy-building begins at home. Democratic leaders must be honest with their electorates about a globalized world’s rewards and constraints. They must also make sure that those rewards are widely shared, which requires that the wealthy be effectively taxed so that everybody benefits from those rewards. Finally, democratic leaders should be responsive to the priorities of the many, not just the few who contribute to campaigns or hire lobbyists.

But those citizens fortunate enough to live in democracies also have responsibilities: They must channel their political aspirations and grievances in constructive ways rather than merely indulge in destructive protest or electoral apathy. Democracy is only as strong as its citizens make it. We can’t have healthy, responsive democracies where large swaths of the population don’t vote. Tweeting isn’t enough.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union 25 years ago, it seemed inevitable that democracy would prevail — the market democracies that had triumphed over communism were also the world’s most prosperous and free societies. Democracy can seem less appealing in a time of stagnating incomes, social inequality and terror, especially in situations where money is having a disproportionate influence on politics. And yet citizens’ movements in societies as disparate as Burkina Faso, Hong Kong and Venezuela show that democratic aspirations around the world remain vital.

I sometimes hear that democracies have lost their sense of purpose. This isn’t so. Democracy’s purpose is to create conditions in which free citizens can lead the most fulfilling lives possible that they themselves choose. Human beings need not only livelihoods and security but also freedom, dignity and justice.

Democracy, whatever its flaws, is the political system that can best respond to those needs. May next year’s elections bring positive news for democracy, with all the gifts it can provide.