Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

The Anti-Democratic Tempest

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, July 27, 2021 --  

Rising populism and China's malevolent influence have created headwinds threatening democracy around the world.

When Tunisian President Kais Saied’s seized full control of his government on Sunday it was nothing short of a coup.1  This return to repression just nine years after the North African country led the Arab Spring is a tragic symptom of the anti-democratic trends that have spread around the world.

Tunisia is not alone in its abandonment of democracy.  Freedom House has measured declines in its global freedom index every year since 2005.  As of last year, just 82 free countries exist in the world compared to 89 in 2005.  Meanwhile, the rank of countries that are not free rose from 45 to 54 over the same period.2

Recent notable losses to freedom and democracy include Hong Kong, which has been subjugated by China’s communist dictatorship, Myanmar, whose civilian government was ousted by the military February, Turkey, which has fallen under authoritarian rule of President Erdogan,  and more subtly India whose nationalist leaders have assaulted democratic institutions enough to push the country out of Freedom House's Free category and into the Partly Free category.3

These losses are a symptom of two global headwinds pushing against freedom and democracy.  One is the rise of China, a communist dictatorship whose economic might and aggressive foreign policy under Xi Jinping has been a malevolent influence around the world.  China's newfound wealth offers a counter narrative to the idea that liberal democracy is an attribute of prosperity and modernization. China has also served to finance corruption and dictatorship around the world with loans for dubious projects that serve to prop up its own construction industry while allowing despots to line their pockets.

The other headwind undermining democracy is the rise populism.  Social media have allowed politicians and a nationalist leaders to bypass educated journalists to send a dark message directly to simple-minded followers.  This dangerously effective strategy harnesses pre-existing feelings of victimhood amongst the masses and bolsters anti-democratic forces promising to protect "us" against “them.”

These two headwinds have combined to form a tempest threatening democracy around the world. And while not all democratic losses are attributable to these influences, each country lost to democracy emboldens those who might overthrow others. Past losses most certainly influenced the military in Myanmar and the President in Tunisia.

Before today's conditions developed, freedom's prospects looked quite different.  Throughout the 1990s, liberal democracy was on the rise, and was so universally accepted that it seemed inevitable that it would spread to every corner of the world.  Former communist states were holding real competitive elections.  Post-Soviet despots who bucked this trend began falling to pro-Western “color” revolutions.  The conventional wisdom was that China would be unable to sustain its post-Tiananmen repression while building a  free-market economy.  Liberal economics begets liberal democracy was.the dogma of the day.

A quarter century on, those simplistic ideals seem hopelessly naive.  But while the positive trends of the 1990s did not continue forever, nor will the negative trends of today.  In China, the period of rapid catch up growth is at an end.   Elsewhere, Populist -Nationalist leaders are no longer the insurgents — they have ruled (often poorly) and now have imperfect records to defend.

Those who care about freedom and democracy must not despair. The last century also saw two significant anti-democratic trends: the Great Depression and the final decades of the Cold War. Both of these periods ended abruptly (the latter peacefully, and the former very much not) and enabled democracy to rise once again. Until that day comes, we must bolster the democracies that remain so as best to ride out the current storm.


1. The Economist, Tunisia’s democracy Totters as the President Suspends Parliament, July 16, 2021

2. Freedom House, Democracy Under Siege, March 2021

3. Ibid.