Opinion: Reports of democracy death greatly exaggerated

At this month’s G7 summit of the world’s wealthiest democracies, the leaders promised more of the same:

More democracy. More prosperity. More generosity in mid-pandemic.

This time, though, their fervent declarations of democratization sound ever more fevered. It felt like a reflexive response to the growing rhetoric about the decline of democracy and the rise of autocracy.

Battered by COVID-19, bullied by China, beset by internal conflicts, is the free world failing a critical test? Our political panel grappled with that question this week, but the question itself seems questionable.

To hear the democracy doomsayers describe it, the tide is irreversible: Dictators are on the march and elections are in retreat; the West is being outspent, out-lent, outhustled, out-hacked and out-vaccinated by its rivals.

Topping the list of anti-democratic adversaries is the seemingly unstoppable Chinese juggernaut – menacing Hong Kong and Taiwan, manhandling the West, and outmaneuvering the rest. By delivering its homegrown COVID-19 immunizations to client countries, China’s so-called “vaccine diplomacy” has forced the G7 to play catch-up.

Beyond the external threats are the internal setbacks that are no less insidious – electoral convulsions in the U.S., erosions in Eastern Europe, tensions in the subcontinent and Southeast Asia.

Behold the beginning of the end. Again.

Three decades ago, U.S. academic Francis Fukuyama penned a boastful tome about “The End of History,” asserting that the end of Communism set the stage for the triumph of democracy by default. Now that his thesis has been disproven by the passage of time, it has given rise to the antithesis.

We could call it “the end of democracy.” But that would be a misreading of how democracy works and doesn’t work.

For all the uprooting of democracy today, it has indisputably taken root in the postwar years and also post-Soviet years. From Germany to Japan, from South Korea to Taiwan, entrenched dictatorships have grown into enduring democracies. If Poland and Hungary are backsliding today, let us remember how far they have come since all of Eastern Europe broke free of the Soviet yoke.

There is a temptation to define our terms too narrowly, disdaining populism or demanding only pluralism (laudable as it is, tolerance takes time in embryonic democracies). More often than not, people get the governments they deserve and the politicians they want in elections.

Democratic norms are in decline in the Philippines, but it is simply wrong to decry the iron-fisted rule of its populist president, Rodrigo Duterte, as evidence of elections gone wrong. As destructive as his misrule has been – enabling death squads, intimidating dissidents and imprisoning journalists – he is nothing if not popular today, much as he was on election day.

I covered the “People Power II” protests by Filipinos on the streets of Manila that triggered the ouster of a previous populist president, Joseph Estrada. It would be difficult to rally similar-sized crowds against Duterte today because he remains enduringly popular.

That’s democracy, for better or for worse – it takes time to inoculate people against anti-democratic impulses. Popular votes cannot insulate us from populism, nor do they safeguard vulnerable minorities against majoritarian rule.

A recent military coup in Myanmar toppled the democratic rule of Aung San Suu Kyi, but she had long since lost her iconic status abroad for defending the army’s genocidal attacks against the Rohingya minority. Yet popular support for free elections and widespread resistance to military rule are far more entrenched than when I first interviewed Suu Kyi in opposition years ago, and will not easily fade away.

The point is that for every example of democratic decline, there is another case of popular resistance and reawakening. The answer isn’t to bemoan the bad guys, but to hope they get voted out by public awakenings.

For all the concern about Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian and Islamist president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, I watched a resurgence of democracy in late-1990s Indonesia, home to the world’s biggest population of Muslims. Its success story belies the bad omens.

We also have unrealistic expectations of what democracy does and doesn’t do. There is much hand-wringing and finger-pointing about China’s so-called vaccine diplomacy, but let us not shield our eyes from Beijing’s sleight-of-hand here.

Dictatorships are awfully good at confiscating essentials from people in need at home – whether wheat in Soviet-controlled Ukraine, or vaccines in today’s China – and shipping them abroad in the name of foreign friendship. That’s not generosity, that’s verbosity – misappropriating vaccines from the home front to score diplomatic talking points in a war of words abroad.

Dictators aren’t accountable to their citizens – it’s the other way around. China’s vaccine diplomacy is a close cousin of its aggressive “wolf warrior diplomacy,” and its new-found debtor diplomacy.

Democracies are disinclined to siphon off essential vaccines for virtue signalling abroad. Elected politicians know that their primary duty, when facing voters and a virus, is to provide them with the safety and security of vaccines first.

That’s not hoarding or selfishness, that’s accountability to voters. It’s not a bug but a feature of transparency.

No, we are not witnessing the end of democracy. We are watching the continuation of a competition – measured not merely by the virtuous dance of vaccine diplomacy, but by more insidious attempts to inoculate the world against the spread of elections.

Martin Regg Cohn is a National Affairs writer.