Opinion piece

Democracy often takes two steps forward, one back

The bad news from the Economist’s annual Democracy Index is that things have never been so bad – not since the survey began 15 years ago.

Paragons of democracy have fallen victim to pandemic politics that impinge on civil liberties, or populist politics that infringe on basic freedoms.

Not just the United States but France – two countries that made history by resisting monarchical rule in the 1700s – have slipped into the realm of “flawed democracies,” according to the magazine’s metrics (Canada – that monarchical mainstay – is ranked fifth in the exclusive club of “full” democracies).

Many of the usual suspects tumbled further into the abyss of authoritarian regimes. Eastern European countries that showed early promise have lapsed into authoritarianism or secessionism, from Ukraine to Poland and Hungary. Asian countries that we counted on for steady progress, from the Philippines to Thailand, are in tumult.

It is the worst of democratic times. Except when it isn’t.

The good news, is that democracy has never had it so good, all things considered. Democratic freedoms are under assault in some of these countries, but the mere fact that these norms are even in play – that elections are now being contested and injustices protested – is a mark of undeniable if not irreversible progress.

If we are today experiencing a “democratic recession,” the better analogy is to the business cycle that goes up and down. And back up again.

Put another way, the election cycle has always been cyclical – or more precisely, a prisoner of the pendulum. Voters lurch one way and then another, seduced by the promise of populism or enchanted by the allure of progressive social programs, guided by prudent politicians and misled by misguided leaders.

Democracy is never linear, for it is a learning curve and a growth curve – and the arc of history is increasingly electoral. Even the category of “flawed democracies” used by the Economist is a stretch, for no democracy is flawless or peerless.

Hence the aphorism from Winston Churchill, an inspirational if imperfect leader in his own right, endlessly quoted at our Ryerson Democracy Forums: “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Democracy, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. It all depends on how you define it and perceive it.

The Economist treats the pandemic as a proxy for personal freedoms that underpin liberal democracies. Like many libertarians, the magazine frets about infringements on civil liberties as a slippery slope – as if, without absolute freedoms, we will fall into absolutism.

But COVID-19 is surely a grave public health emergency that demands decisive and sometimes drastic measures. Americans who couldn’t countenance mandatory masks are paying a high price in the aftermath; Swedes who were spared physical distancing are today distrustful of their government.

The Economist begrudges France for imposing nightly curfews that confine people to their homes, but Parisians were ready for drastic measures to fight the virus. Quebecers, incidentally, have gone along with nightly curfews as helpful “shock therapy” (which didn’t stop the magazine’s editors from still giving Canada high marks).

The erosion of abortion rights in Poland is a setback for those of us who are pro-choice, but we see similar arbitrariness on abortion in countries ranging from the United States to Ireland without seriously doubting their democratic credentials. The mere fact that we are even assessing fidelity to democracy in Poland is a testament to how far we have come since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

That we are lamenting this month’s military coup in Myanmar is a reminder that, for a few fitful years, it was undergoing an experiment in democratization since the military first took power in the 1960s. Hopes that opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi would respect human rights after winning the 2015 election proved illusory, but protestors are now fearlessly demanding a restoration of democracy – a hopeful sign again.

The Arab Spring of a decade ago brought forth the chill wind of military repression and the whirlwind of civil war. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood overstepped, and the army overreacted; Libya, Syria and Yemen turned into failed states, with Lebanon on the brink; Palestinians haven’t been able to vote on their leaders since 2005, while feuding Israeli politicians fight elections every year or so; Iraq, for all its upheaval since the fall of Saddam Hussein, at least has an elected parliament.

Democracy will not easily blossom when grafted onto untilled terrain, and every body politic marches to the beat of its own ballots. Countries that lack stability or security (not to mention prosperity) tend to falter, for people are unlikely to coexist and coalesce amid personal peril and economic uncertainty.

Democracy is dynamic. By definition it is forever a work in progress – a perennial process, in fact, of endlessly cobbling together fleeting alliances and imperfect compromises among competing interests and rival factions and opposing views.

Democracy is not so much a means to an end as it is merely a means – full stop – for better or for worse. More than a steady march, it is typically two steps forward and one step back.

No index can capture that ebb and flow. Not in a good year, not even in a bad pandemic.

Martin Regg Cohn is a National Affairs writer.

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