Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN and The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author; view more opinion articles on CNN.
Consider our tumultuous times: The President of the United States predicting a popular revolt if he’s impeached; the United Kingdom and its government teetering on the edge of an uncertain future; the streets of Paris ablaze with the biggest demonstrations in decades; the mighty German Chancellor easing herself out of power after her party lost ground to an emerging far-right party; Eastern European leaders taking democracy apart brick by brick.
Is it a sheer coincidence that the turbulence buffeting strong democracies is occurring simultaneously? Clearly not.
It used to be an article of faith in democratic countries that “all politics are local,” as the legendary House Speaker Tip O’Neill explained, but the catchy proverb misses much of what is happening today. An old boss once told me never to believe in coincidences. Instead, he instructed me, look for cause and effect.
However unique each country’s circumstances, there is no escaping that democracies, particularly but not exclusively those in the West, are facing a historic crisis. The Brexit quagmire in the United Kingdom, the turmoil roiling France, and the political storm clouds gathering over the United States, along with political disruptions in numerous other countries are fueled by many of the same factors.
Importantly, their fates are deeply intertwined – how each plays out will affect the others. That is particularly true of what happens in the coming months in the United States, whose democracy attracts more attention than any other on Earth, and often sets the tone for other nations.
It may sound melodramatic, but the future of democracy hangs in the balance as these parallel dramas unfold.
Sure, every country has its own traits and its own circumstances. Only the United States has Trump, no matter how many other politicians around the world are branded as “The Trump of (fill in the blank).” There’s no other Merkel, no other Macron, no other Brexit. But many of the events and forces that brought each country to its current crossroads are common to all.
What we see today is partly the aftereffects of the global Great Recession, the economic unraveling that began a decade ago and left deep scars. The inability of traditional leaders to prevent economic calamity, and the impunity for those who caused it, created politically charged resentment, disenchantment, and a lack of trust in the system and its traditional leaders. That was one major event that opened people’s minds to theories and people they might have dismissed before. But that was just the start.
Even before the global economic disaster started to unwind, a war began in Syria. It might have seemed distant – one reason why Western leaders mishandled it. Obviously, the greatest suffering fell upon Syrians, but the consequences reverberate in today’s events in the West.
The Syrian war brought to Western homes emotionally incandescent images of two separate tragedies. Millions of civilians fled the carnage, making their way to the West over harsh seas and craggy land. And just as people watching the images pondered how to help, one of the most brutal terrorist organizations in recent memory started slaughtering people on camera, beheading journalists, and then taking its bloodcurdling show on the road to the streets of Paris, Barcelona, Brussels, London and elsewhere. That made it easy for opportunists with a political agenda to blur the distinction between innocent refugees and terrorists to exploit the situation.
It was an explosive combination. The public, already angry at traditional leaders after the economic crisis, was now frightened by outsiders. As each country decided how to respond to the massive humanitarian crisis building at its borders, internal divisions started growing.
For demagogues, there could be no more fertile ground. But ethno-nationalist politicians had even more help from Russian President Vladimir Putin and his army of paid cyberactivists.
Putin’s keyboard brigades jumped into the fray, doing all they could to inflame resentments and sow distrust not only in politicians but in the political system itself. They deliberately worked to trigger clashes among those with different political ideas.
In the United States, intelligence agencies concluded that Putin’s interference in the 2016 election aimed to “undermine public faith in the US democratic process,” and “help [Donald] Trump’s election chances.” By facilitating Trump’s election, Russia contributed to one of the most pernicious threats to liberal democracy today, a US President who continuously embraces dictators and undercuts its most fundamental principles: a free press, individual equality and the rule of law.
According to Bloomberg, AFP and others, the French government is investigating possible Russian efforts to stoke the “yellow vest” protests, which was sparked by increases in fuel prices and quickly snowballed into a widespread anti-government movement. And according to Western researchers and information from Twitter, which showed activities of Russian trolls, Russia secretly campaigned to persuade British voters to support Brexit, a vote to leave the European Union, which is proving enormously damaging, and which many now regret.
According to testimony before the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Russia supported Germany’s far-right Alternative for Germany, not only through logistical assistance, but more formidably through Kremlin-crafted “influence operations,” seeking to destabilize the Western alliance’s largest European member at a time when Trump was already casting doubt on America’s commitment to its allies. All these factors now fueling the crisis of democracy were supercharged by social media, an echo chamber that can magnify discontent so loudly that it can block out reasonable debate.
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In countries with shallower democratic roots, democracy is quickly giving ground. In Hungary and Poland, voters motivated by the same factors elected authoritarian leaders who are steadily crushing an independent judiciary, and far from US and European shores, authoritarian leaders are making strides.
In 2019, the struggle to save democracy will face its key tests. Much will depend on what happens in the United States, whose election of Trump deprived democratic forces around the world of their most reliable advocate. The campaign will be waged by citizens, journalists, prosecutors and politicians. I remain optimistic that democracy will survive, but as the turmoil continues in so many countries, in the heart of the democratic West, I have no illusions that that outcome is assured.