Writing on democracy, I’m reminded of a great old Stevie Wonder song, “Love’s in Need of Love Today.” Democracy is in need of love today: It is taking a beating nearly everywhere, including right here. Remember the optimism that accompanied the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union two years later? Democracy was going to sweep across Eastern Europe, the new Russia was going to undergo dramatic changes under glasnost and perestroika. There was great hope for democratic change in Africa and Latin America. And then the backlash came, and we see what has happened in all those countries, starting with Putin’s Russia.
But then came the Arab Spring in 2011, and suddenly optimism was back in vogue. From the Persian Gulf to Tunisia, and from Syria to Egypt, it seemed that momentous change was about to unfold. Not so fast. The Syrian civil war turned ugly, Egypt gave way to the military, the ultra-conservative monarchies survived in the Gulf states, and Libya imploded following the overthrow of Gaddafi. Terrorism, real and imagined, became the new basis for concentration of power and the derailing of reform efforts.
Now the locus of de-democratization is Eastern Europe, principally Hungary and Poland. Constitutional rule is eroding in both countries, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are on the rise, political leadership is increasingly authoritarian, liberal voices are being squelched, and the European Union’s democratic norms are being disregarded with impunity. Putin is suddenly in favor in those countries and elsewhere in Europe, including the French and Italian right wing. So is Trump: He and Putin represent the ascendance of white Christian nationalism, as well as point men in the erosion of the EU.
Trump has made perfectly clear that democracy, including respect for human rights and accountable, transparent government, is irrelevant to friendship with America.
Trump’s foreign and domestic actions surely contribute to the worldwide assault on democracy. For one thing, he has been fulsome in praise of despots, legitimizing their rule by embracing them as Nicholas Kristof and others have observed. The list is long, and includes Russia’s Putin, China’s Xi, the Philippines’ Duterte, Egypt’s al-Sisi, Turkey’s Erdogan (until just recently), Myanmar’s military, Cambodia’s Hun Sen, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, and (most extraordinarily) North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. Trump has made perfectly clear that democracy, including respect for human rights and accountable, transparent government, is irrelevant to friendship with America. Only the deal, usually meaning money, counts. That standard has led Trump to allow relations with democratic governments in Europe, East Asia, and elsewhere to deteriorate. Who needs NATO, the EU, security alliances, or the World Trade Organization if America can’t get its money’s worth? Traditional US allies must now put up with Trump tactics such as trade wars, demands for more military spending, direct criticism of their leaders, and efforts by Trump minions such as Stephen Bannon, Nigel Farage, and their so-called Movement to elect more anti-EU “populists” to the European Parliament next spring.
Meantime here at home, it goes without saying that Trump is defying democratic norms on numerous fronts. Collusion with the Russians and obliviousness to their hacking is the hallmark of the Trump era, for however long it lasts. The rule of law is under assault as Trump disparages every adverse decision, and every judge who rejects his executive orders. The independent media is the “enemy of the people.” Undisguised racism and misogyny play to his white nationalist supporters. The Supreme Court is becoming a tool of executive authority. The right to vote is being sliced away by pro-Trump governors and state legislatures. And in-your-face corruption is rampant at every level of government, with the Trump family taking the lead and literally looting the public treasury every chance it gets.
Perhaps most troubling in these times is the absence of a well-organized opposition to the destruction of democracy here or abroad. The Democrats rant and rave but have no powerful center or decisive leader. The Republicans who might be sympathetic to democracy’s decline cave in to the administration whenever it needs their vote to push through its agenda of greed and self-interest. The mainstream media, the intelligence community, and the FBI are subject to relentless attack from Trump and the far right, gradually chipping away at both their authority and their credibility. And abroad, the EU seems unwilling to risk its cohesion by standing up to those members that reject its fundamental values.
The fight to stem and reverse the tide of authoritarianism posing as populism begins at home. We need an abundance of progressive victories at the polls, and there’s every indication we’re going to get them. The impact of defeats of pro-Trump candidates and office holders will resonate worldwide, because they will make clear to democratic publics everywhere that Trump’s agenda can be stymied and his presidency brought to a brief and inglorious end.
Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University.