The principles of liberal democracy -- rule of law, separation of powers, individual rights and fair elections -- exploded across the globe after communism lost its grip. In Eastern Europe, Latin America, Asia and Africa, democratic principles were increasingly recognized as universal -- everybody's right. Even dictators found it necessary to conduct phony elections to cover their rule with a cloak of legitimacy.
Then, in about 2005, democracy's march stopped in its tracks -- and began to retreat.
When voters in the United States elected Donald Trump as the country's next president, they joined a trend that has been taking shape across the globe for several years but has intensified in recent months. While many of Trump's supporters may oppose the forces of globalization, they helped make America the latest example of a powerful global development: the rise of autocratic "strongmen."
Clearly, it's too early to know exactly how Trump will govern. But the President-elect's professed admiration for autocratic rulers
, his pronouncements on the campaign trail and his attacks on the media
and freedom of expression
since the election all echo the trends we have witnessed in other countries where democracy has come under attack, including in places where that assault has managed to dismantle functioning democracies.
The nonpartisan Freedom House has tracked the phenomenon, concluding that democracy is, indeed, undergoing a sharp decline. This year, according to Freedom House
, freedom lost ground in 72 nations, the highest number since the 10-year slide began.
The loss of freedom is gradual, like the proverbial frog, unaware that it is being boiled until it's too late to jump out of the pot.
History is of course littered with examples of democracy coming undone, as charismatic, democratically elected strongmen have attacked the media and the opposition, gradually taking control of practically all facets of power.
By the time these elected strongmen consolidated their position, the free media were discredited and diminished, the opposition was left shouting into the void, and both were smeared and weakened, with key members in prison, exile or worse. Separation of powers becomes a thing of the past as loyalists take over every branch. Even the rule of law becomes a tool in their hands, with laws made at will by pliant legislatures, coopted and intimidated, to suit the purposes of the authoritarian leader.
Of course, the United States is not Russia, Turkey or Venezuela. Its democracy has much deeper, stronger roots and its people -- let's hope -- have a passionate commitment to freedom. But it raises red flags when the man who is about to become the most powerful person on Earth openly attacks professional, nonpartisan journalists by name, or suggests stripping US citizenship from people for using a means of protest that the Supreme Court says is protected by the Constitution
This is all particularly distressing news to activists across the globe, who have viewed the United States as the world's best defended bulwark of democracy. But what about here? How is it that so many appear so apathetic?
One reason is that many likely see it as almost inconceivable that they might lose what has seemed as natural as air. Democracy, freedom -- they seem like the very definitions of inalienable rights to Americans. How could they be taken away?
That's why President Barack Obama's recent words in Berlin, shortly after the election, were both startling and sobering. Obama, who likes to paraphrase the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in claiming that the arc of history bends toward justice, warned the free world about the rising threat: Do not "take for granted our systems of government and our way of life," he said
, noting that just because we have lived in largely stable, peaceful times, that it will always be that way. "Democracy," he concluded, "is hard work."
In other words, while the arc of history is bendable, not everyone is bending it in the same direction. Today, the autocrats have their hands on it, and they are pulling hard in their direction.
The reality is that democracy advocates have suffered terrible defeats in recent years. The euphoria of the Arab Spring gave way in most cases to equally or even more repressive dictatorships and civil wars. And in countries where democracy was growing roots, such as Eastern Europe, citizens have now started to feel threatened by waves of migration, the threat of terrorism, economic crises, growing inequality and technological changes that have destroyed job opportunities. All this has made them more receptive to xenophobic politicians, and skeptical of the principles of liberal democracy, which they are now less willing to fight to defend.
The clarion call of freedom, which was once heard around the world, has apparently lost some of its appeal. Shockingly, that's also the case in the United States, at least according to a study
in the Journal of Democracy, which examines an apparently growing openness to living under military rule among Americans and Europeans
Included in the study is a graph tracking the percentage of people who believe it "essential" to live in a democracy. The younger the respondent the less likely they are to see democracy as essential, in both Europe and the United States. Older people, those who have seen or even lived the alternative, overwhelmingly reject military rule. An update of the study
, about to be published, suggests the vast majority of young people across the Western world would not be particularly troubled by a military takeover.
Some might argue that it should be reassuring, since the election, to see more people talking about, even preparing in case the worst comes to pass and democracy is gradually chipped away. But it's deeply disturbing in America in 2016 to see people discussing how to defend against tyranny, or how to survive autocracy, to see people openly pondering the moral dilemma between compromise and resistance using language similar to that in World War II.
Are they alarmists, exaggerating the threat? Let's hope so. Because it is still possible that American democracy will emerge relatively unscathed from the current age of doubt. But even if it does, there is no question that liberal democracy itself -- individual freedom and rule of law -- is under attack on multiple fronts.