In Need of Vigilant Defense

Last week, CFFAD reported that many leaders around the world are using the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse – or an opportunity – to toss aside the constraints and accountability required by liberal, republican democracy – to become autocrats or dictators.  In Azerbaijan, the dictator cracked down on opposition groups and the media; the Cambodian leader used the virus as an excuse to arrest 17 political opponents; Israel’s leader shut down the court system; Jordan’s leaders have cracked down on the press; the Thai government can now close down the media if they choose; Turkish authorities have jailed people for criticizing the virus response; and in Hungary, the parliament gave the prime minister dictatorial power to rule by decree – indefinitely. 

These developments are part of an ongoing global trend: According to Freedom House, countries with net declines in their aggregate Freedom in the World score have outnumbered those with gains for the last fourteen years.  The United States has been among these since 2011. 

Yet, a new report from the Varieties of Democracy Project finds some hope in the form of growing support for liberal, republican democracy despite the many setbacks around the world.  As their team put it, “V-Dem’s latest data show a growing popular demand for democracy. We have observed rising numbers of pro-democracy protests demonstrating that those living in autocratizing and autocratic regimes are continuing to fight for rights and freedoms. … Liberal democracy is not dead and will not be as long as people crave freedom and equality.”  The share of countries with mass pro-democracy demonstrations increased to 44 percent in 2019 from 27 percent in 2009.  Such demonstrations can bring success: mass pro-democracy protests in twenty-two countries have been followed by substantial democratization during the last ten years.

Liberal, republican democracy in the United States needs defending. According to data from Freedom House, in 2011, there were only 29 countries with better scores than the United States. Today, there are 51 countries with better scores than ours, due to almost continuous slippage since 2011, combined with progress in several other countries.  The Varieties of Democracy Project has a stricter set of criteria for liberal republican democracy.  According to their data, the U.S. position in 2019 – before the virus hit – had slipped back to where we had been in 1973 – compared to a peak value in 2008.  According to their data, only four countries had better scores than ours in 2008 compared to 35 now.

Civic education can play a role in defense of democracy.  Please encourage your friends, your book clubs, your discussion groups, and anyone you can reach to make use of our educational materials – and those from the other quality providers highlighted on our website.

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